More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"Listening to St. John's Wort" (May 1998)
Medical science meets the "natural Prozac." By Edison Miyawaki
"More Reefer Madness" (April 1997)
"A nation that sentences the possessor of a single joint to life imprisonment without parole but sets a murderer free after perhaps six years is, the author writes, "in the grip of a deep psychosis." By Eric Schlosser
"Reefer Madness" (August 1994)
"There may be more people in federal and state prisons for marijuana offenses than at any other time in U.S. history." By Eric Schlosser
"LSD and the Third Eye" (September 1966)
"Now at last, with the molecule of this strange acid, [man] has found an instrument which opens the inner eye of the mind and which may hopefully allow him to explore the vast interior spaces where the history of millions of years of memories lie entangled among the roots of the primordial self." By John N. Bleibtreu
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "Getting Normal" (August 13, 2003)
Articles from The Atlantic's archive on tobacco, amphetamines, Ritalin, and other drugs demonstrate that our dependence on psychotropic substances for self-improvement is not new.
The Atlantic Monthly | August 1966
White-Collar Pill Party
A good eye, a sharp ear, and quiet personal research characterize Bruce Jackson's examination of American manners and morals. This report on a spreading social habit is a long step ahead of journalism's routine portrayal of what has come to be called the drug scene
by Bruce Jackson
There was a thing called Heaven; but all the same they used to drink enormous quantities of alcohol. There was a thing called the soul and a thing called immortality. But they used to take morphia and cocaine ... Two thousand pharmacologists and bio-chemists were subsidized in A.F. 178. ... Six years later it was being produced commercially. The perfect drug ... Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant ... All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.... Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache or a mythology.
rugs, like chewing gum, TV, oversize cars, and crime, are part of the American way of life. No one receives an exemption.
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 1932
This was made particularly clear to me recently by my four-year-old son, Michael, who came into the kitchen one evening and asked me to go out and buy a certain brand of vitamin pills for him. Since he is quite healthy and not observably hypochondriac, I asked why he wanted them. "So I can be as strong as Jimmy down the block."
"There isn't any Jimmy down the block," I said, whereupon he patiently explained that the clown on the 5 P.M. TV program he watches every day had told him the pills would make him stronger than Jimmy, and his tone gave me to understand that the existence of a corporeal Jimmy was irrelevant: the truehearted clown, the child's friend, had advised the pills, and any four-year-old knows a clown wouldn't steer you wrong.
For adults the process is modified slightly. An afternoon TV commercial urges women to purchase a new drug for their "everyday headache" (without
warning them that anyone who has a headache every day should certainly be consulting a GP or a psychiatrist); a Former Personality with suggestive regularity tells you to keep your bloodstream pure by consuming buffered aspirin for the headache you are supposed to have, and another recommends regular doses of iron for your "tired blood." (It won't be long before another screen has-been mounts the TV commercial podium with a pill that doesn't do anything at all; it just keeps your corpuscles company on the days you ate liver and forgot to have a headache.)
One result of all the drug propaganda and the appalling faith in the efficacy of drugs is that a lot of people take a lot more pills than they have any reason to. They think in terms of pills. And so do their physicians: you fix a fat man by giving him a diet pill, you fix a chronic insomniac by giving him a sleeping pill. But these conditions are frequently merely symptoms of far more complicated disorders. The convenient prescription blank solves the problem of finding out what the trouble really isit makes the symptom seem to go away.
Think for a moment: how many people do you know who cannot stop stuffing themselves without an amphetamine and who cannot go to sleep without a barbiturate (over nine billion of those produced last year) or make it through a workday without a sequence of tranquilizers? And what about those six million alcoholics, who daily ingest quantities of what is, by sheer force of numbers, the most addicting drug in America?
The publicity goes to the junkies, lately to the college kids, but these account for only a small portion of the American drug problem. Far more worrisome are the millions of people who have become dependent on commercial drugs. The junkie knows he is hooked; the housewife on amphetamine and the businessman on meprobamate hardly ever realize what has gone wrong.
Sometimes the pill-takers meet other pill-takers, and an odd thing happens: instead of using the drug to cope with the world, they begin to use their time to take drugs. Taking drugs becomes something to do. When this stage is reached, the drug-taking pattern broadens: the user takes a wider variety of drugs with increasing frequency. For want of a better term, one might call it the white collar drug scene.
I first learned about it during a party in Chicago last winter, and the best way to introduce you will be to tell you something about that evening, the people I met, what I think was happening.
here were about a dozen people in the room, and over the noise from the record player scraps of conversation came through:
"Now the Desbutal, if you take it with this stuff, has a peculiar effect, contraindication, at least it did for me. You let me know if you ... "
"I don't have one legitimate prescription, Harry, not one! Can you imagine that?" "I'll get you some tomorrow, dear."
" ... and this pharmacist on Fifth will sell you all the leapers [amphetamines] you can carryjust like that. Right off the street. I don't think he'd know a prescription if it bit him." "As long as he can read the labels, what the hell."
"You know, a funny thing happened to me. I got this green and yellow capsule, and I looked it up in the Book, and it wasn't anything I'd been using, and I thought, great! It's not something I've built a tolerance to. And I took it. A couple of them. And you know what happened? Nothing! That's what happened, not a goddamned thing."
The Bookthe Physicians' Desk Reference, which lists the composition and effects of almost all commercial pharmaceuticals produced in this countrypasses back and forth, and two or three people at a time look up the contents and possible values of a drug one of them has just discovered or heard about or acquired or taken. The Book is the pillhead's Yellow Pages: you look up the effect you want ("Sympathomimetics" or "Cerebral Stimulants," for example), and it tells you the magic columns. The pillheads swap stories of kicks and sound like professional chemists discussing recent developments; others listen, then examine the PDR to see if the drug discussed really could do that.
Eddie, the host, a painter who has received some recognition, had been awake three or four days, he was not exactly sure. He consumes between 150 and 200 milligrams of amphetamine a day, needs a large part of that to stay awake, even when he has slipped a night's sleep in somewhere. The dose would cause most people some difficulty; the familiar diet pill, a capsule of Dexamyl or Eskatrol, which makes the new user edgy and overenergetic and slightly insomniac the first few days, contains only 10 or 15 milligrams of amphetamine. But amphetamine is one of the few central nervous system stimulants to which one can develop a tolerance, and over the months and years Ed and his friends have built up massive tolerances and dependencies. "Leapers aren't so hard to give up," he told me. "I mean, I sleep almost constantly when I'm off, but you get over that. But everything is so damned boring without the pills."
I asked him if he knew many amphetamine users who have given up the pills.
"I haven't known anybody that's given it up for good." He reached out and took a few pills from the candy dish in the middle of the coffee table, then washed them down with some Coke.
The last couple to arrivea journalist and his wifesettled into positions. The wife was next to me on the oversize sofa, and she skimmed through the "Product Identification Section" of the PDR, dozens of pages of pretty color photos of tablets and capsules. "Hey!" she said to no one in particular. Then, to her husband, "Look at the pretty hexagonal. George, get the Source to get some of them for me." George, across the table, near the fire, nodded.
I had been advised to watch him as he turned on. As the pills took effect something happened to the muscles of his face, and the whole assembly seemed to go rubbery. His features settled lower and more loosely on the bones of his head. He began to talk with considerably more verve.
A distractingly pretty girl with dark brown eyes sat at the edge of our group and ignored both the joint making its rounds and the record player belching away just behind her. Between the thumb and middle finger of her left hand she held a pill that was blue on one side and yellow on the other; steadily, with the double-edged razor blade she held in her right hand, she sawed on the seam between the two halves of the pill. Every once in a while she rotated it a few degrees with her index finger. Her skin was smooth, and the light from the fireplace played tricks with it, all of them charming. The right hand sawed on.
I got the Book from the coffee table and looked for the pill in the pages of color pictures, but before I found it, Ed leaned over and said, "They're Desbutal Gradumets. Abbott Labs."
I turned to the "Professional Products Information" section and learned that Desbutal is a combination of Desoxyn (methamphetamine hydrochloride, also marketed as Methedrine) and Nembutal, that the pill the girl sawed contained
15 milligrams of the Desoxyn, that the combination of drugs served "to both stimulate and calm the patient so that feelings of depression are overcome and a sense of well-being and increased energy is produced. Inner tension and anxiety are relieved so that a sense of serenity and ease of mind prevails." Gradumets, the Book explained, "are indicated in the management of obesity, the management of depressed states, certain behavioral syndromes, and a number of typical geriatric conditions," as well as "helpful in managing psychosomatic complaints and neuroses," Parkinson's disease, and a hangover.
The girl, obviously, was not interested in all of the pill's splendid therapeutic promises; were she, she would not have been so diligently sawing along that seam. She was after the methamphetamine, which like other amphetamines "depresses appetite, elevates the mood, increases the urge to work, imparts a sense of increased efficiency, and counteracts sleepiness and the feeling of fatigue in most persons."
After what seemed a long while the pill split into two round sections. A few scraps of the yellow Nembutal adhered to the Desoxyn side, and she carefully scraped them away. "Wilkinson's the best blade for this sort of thing," she said. I asked if she didn't cut herself on occasion, and she showed me a few nicks in her left thumb. "But a single edge isn't thin enough to do it neatly."
She put the blue disk in one small container, the yellow in another, then from a third took a fresh Desbutal and began sawing. I asked why she kept the Nembutal, since it was the Desoxyn she was after.
"Sometimes I might want to sleep, you know. I might have to sleep because something is coming up the next day. It's not easy for us to sleep, and sometimes we just don't for a couple or three days. But if we have to, we can just take a few of these." She smiled at me tolerantly, then returned to her blade and tablet.
When I saw Ed in New York several weeks later, I asked about her. "Some are like that," he said; "they like to carve on their pills. She'll sit and carve for thirty or forty minutes."
"Is that sort of ritual an important part of it all?"
"I think it is. She seems to have gotten hung up on it. I told her that she shouldn't take that Nembutal, that I have been cutting the Nembutal off my pills. It only takes about thirty seconds. And she can spend a good half hour at it if she has a mind to. I told her once about the effect of taking a Spansule; you know, one of those big things with sustained release [like Dexamyl, a mixture of dextroamphetamine sulfate and amobarbital designed to be effective over a twelve-hour period]. What you do is open the capsule and put it in a little bowl and grind up the little pellets until it's powder, then stuff all the powder back in the pill and take it, and it all goes off at once. I'll be damned if I haven't seen her grinding away like she was making matzo meal. That's a sign of a fairly confirmed head when they reach that ritual stage."
Copyright © 1988 by George A. Carver, Jr. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1988; The Fifth Man - 88.09; Volume 262, No. 3; page 26-29.