Pubdate: Mon, 02 Jul 2001
Source: Newsweek (US)
Section: My Turn
Copyright: 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
Author: Charles Van Deventer


My Experience May Be The Most Typical One, But This Is Probably The Only 
Place You'll Ever Read About It

In the ongoing debate about the effectiveness of the war on drugs, I've 
never heard a politician, scientist, filmmaker or journalist tell my story. 
That's odd, because I believe my experience with illegal drugs is by far 
the most common. I'm a former casual drug user who thinks illegal drugs 
should remain illegal.

I'm not exactly anybody's poster boy for the war on drugs. I've experienced 
very little hardship because of drugs. I've never been to prison or a 
12-step program. None of my friends died using drugs. I used illicit 
hard-core drugs during half of my 20s and then quit before I hit rock 
bottom. Why? The same reason most people do: because the stigma of 
illegal-drug use is too great.

At the height of my drug use I was a 24-year-old advertising copywriter 
living in Manhattan. I had friends who were artists, grad students, lawyers 
and waitresses. If we didn't think we were too cool to do so, I'm sure we 
would have compared ourselves to "Friends."

Together we'd spend what little disposable income we had to buy ecstasy and 
coke and Special K and more. Sometimes it was fun. Sometimes it wasn't. 
More than anything, we felt the invincibility you feel only when you're 
young and looking forward to your future.

I can remember giggling for hours and dancing until dawn. I can remember 
the rush of adrenaline when guys in down jackets would make eye contact and 
say, "Hey, homeboy, what you need?" I can also remember a particular Monday 
morning after a weekend of taking ecstasy and acid together. I was reading 
a newspaper article about Rebecca Lobo's last game at U Conn. I started 
crying. Crying! At the sports page! I knew the drugs were hurting me 
mentally. I had to be more careful.

There is some logic to the argument that since drugs are easy to obtain, 
making them legal will enable the government to focus on treating addicts. 
But drugs aren't nearly as easy to buy as the media and lawmakers want you 
to believe. Drugs are easy to get only if you're willing to do just about 
anything to get them. If you're just doing it for fun, it's harder to 
score. No one I knew was really willing to get arrested.

Sometimes my friends and I would sit for hours nursing drinks at a bar 
while we got the courage to make a deal in some other bar or on the street. 
Most nights we'd just go home a little drunk, our window of opportunity 
closed for that evening. The next morning we'd wake up with a hangover and 
still have money left for brunch and laundry.

There were a lot of nights when we actually did it. We'd buy from the first 
dealer we saw. I'd say about a third of the time the drugs wouldn't work. 
We didn't have the guts to ask for our money back. We certainly didn't have 
another $30 each to try again. This was fun for us. It was part of the game.

The drug culture crept into my life in predictable ways. My ads started to 
look a lot like the fliers I saw for raves. My circle of friends got 
tighter and tighter until we excluded anyone who wasn't cool enough to 
understand the thrill of losing one's mind. Instead of expanding my 
horizons, drugs made them narrower and narrower. If I'd had a reliable 
source, I'd have done drugs all the time. I considered them a lifestyle 
choice, like identifying with a political party or driving a particular 
brand of car. I wasn't an addict yet-but I was close.

And that's the thing: while addictive tendencies may very well be genetic, 
becoming an actual drug addict happens over time. Quickly for some, slower 
for others. The more barriers there are-be they the cops or the hassle or 
the fear of dying-the less likely you are to get addicted.

A couple of times I almost got arrested trying to buy drugs on the street. 
Or maybe I didn't. Was that bicycle cop really following me? Was the rumor 
about undercover cops patrolling the East Village true? Drugs can make you 
paranoid, so I suppose I'll never know. But I felt I was in danger of 
getting arrested, and that was enough. I wouldn't make eye contact when I 
walked by the drug dealers on my block. By the age of 27, I wasn't feeling 
invincible anymore.

Around this time the whole drug thing had begun to wear off anyway. I 
started dating a woman who didn't like drugs. One of my friends lost his 
job; another got married. According to the anti-drug pamphlets I've read, I 
went from being a "recreational" drug user to an "occasional" one. I 
haven't had the occasion in years.

My experience lacks the drama of addiction. No one will ever win an Academy 
Award telling it, or get elected trying to stop it, or make money treating 
it. But it is much more common than you may like to believe. The road to 
addiction was just bumpy enough that I chose not to go down it. In this 
sense, we are winning the war on drugs just by fighting them.
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