The War on Drugs is working. There are fewer and fewer drug addicts every year — just 4 million "chronic" cocaine and methamphetamine users in the entire country, according to a RAND Corporationestimate published last month — but those who do use are in no less trouble.
They are lost. Crack or smack or crystal, it doesn't matter. Once hooked, they're fallen, reduced to stumbling mindlessly about the streets, stopping only to swipe up recycling or shit between parked cars.
That's how addiction works, right? Listen to the alcoholics, listen to the redeemed in recovery. Addiction is a disease. Some of us are born with it, others aren't — but for the unlucky, the first sip, the first shot or sniff, is the first step down a deep, dark hole.
This, we hear, is the power of crack cocaine and methamphetamine, the two most-loathed drugs of our lifetimes. Look at Turk Street, look at the Faces of Meth website. There's no dabbling — try meth, and there's a 90 percent chance you'll be hooked and your teeth will fall out in a year, the hysteria goes.
Certainly the drugs have nasty effects on society. We cast tweakers and crackheads out of mind and neighborhood, except to trot them out as needed for a punchline or parable, for a cheap laugh or a way to scare the relatives. I thought about this on a recent sunny afternoon, as I walked past the granite benches that face the Pioneer Monument in front of the Main Library's Fulton Street entrance. Junkie heaven. The land of no self-control.
I watched an ancient, toothless bearded man sitting on the bench, about to fire up a crack pipe. A pack of schoolchildren walked by, oblivious to the human wrecks only a few arm lengths away.
"Put that shit away!" said another man, cleaner in appearance but a Tenderloin lifer judging by his bearing, waving his cane as he talked. "There are kids here, man." Chastened, the old dope fiend mumbled as he pocketed the bit of broken glass. His fix could wait.
Here was your classic hopeless case — with his bare, blackened feet as hard as a Hobbit's, he may have been outdoors longer than I'd been alive — yet a stranger got through to him. Maybe he's not lost. Maybe we've just given up.
That's the conclusion scientists are coming up with. The crack rocks stuffed into babbling wretches' pockets are made of nearly the exact same stuff as the cocaine powder white folks "party" with. The effects are more intense only because cocaine base, aka crack, is smoked.
Meth, the new scary menace, is neither new nor actually scientifically scary. It, too, is nearly identical to the speed that's been with us since Neal Cassady, according to research led by Columbia University's Carl Hart — and is identical to a drug doled out to schoolchildren daily. Adderall is meth.
America's schools should be awash with tweakers. They're not. Between 80 and 90 percent of the people who try dope don't turn into dope fiends, notes Hart, who published a book, High Price, on his findings.
So if it's not the drugs, what makes an addict?
Hart did more research. Avowed crack users were given a choice: Every day, they were given a hit of crack. They were then given a choice: another hit, or $5 to use once the experiment was over. Given the choice, about half took the cash over the drugs. Nearly everyone took the cash when the reward was upped to $20.
Conservatives may chuckle and scoff, but the science points to opportunity and surroundings as the key factors in determining who ends up "addicted." Provided choice, people will opt not to start on the road to being a fiend. Given nothing else to do, they may try drugs.
Abuse of meth is incredibly harmful. It can lead to psychosis. Meanwhile, society is doling out more damage than drugs do. "The emotional hysteria that stems from misinformation related to certain illegal drugs," Hart writes, "often leads to more harm than the drugs themselves."
Most commonly held fears about meth are unfounded, just as they were with crack, just as they were with marijuana. It's the Reefer Madness script all over again.
So what really makes a crackhead, what turns a citizen into a fiend?