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  

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.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 1932

Drugs, like chewing gum, TV, oversize cars, and crime, are part of the American way of life. No one receives an exemption.

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 is—it 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.

There 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 carry—just 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 Book—the Physicians’ Desk Reference, which lists the composition and effects of almost all commercial pharmaceuticals produced in this country—passes 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.

“For good?”

I nodded.

“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 arrive—a journalist and his wife—settled 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.”

Next to the candy dish filled with Dexedrine, Dexamyl, Eskatrol, Desbutal, and a few other products I hadn’t yet learned to identify, near the five-pound box of Dexedrine tablets someone had brought, were two bottles. One was filled with Dexedrine Elixir, the other with Dexamyl Elixir. Someone took a long swallow from the latter, and I thought him to be an extremely heavy user, but when the man left the room, a lawyer told me he’d bet the man was new at it. “He has to be. A mouthful is like two pills, and if he was a real head, he’d have a far greater tolerance to the Dexedrine than the amobarbital, and the stuff would make him sleepy. Anyhow, I don’t like to mess with barbiturates much anymore. Dorothy Kilgallen died from that.“ He took a drink from the Dexedrine bottle and said, “And this tastes better. Very tasty stuff, like cherry syrup. Make a nice cherry Coke with it. The Dexamyl Elixir is bitter.”

Someone emptied the tobacco from a Salem and filled the tube with grass; he tamped it down with a Tinkertoy stick, crimped the tip, then lighted it and inhaled noisily. He immediately passed the joint to the person on his left. Since one must hold the smoke in one’s lungs for several seconds to get the full effect, it is more economical for several people to turn on at once. The grass was very good and seemed to produce a quiet but substantial high. One doesn’t notice it coming on, but there is a realization that for a while now the room has been a decidedly pleasant one, and some noises are particularly interesting for their own sake.

I leaned back and closed my eyes for a moment. It was almost 5 A.M., and in three hours I had to catch a plane at O’Hare. “You’re not going to sleep are you?“ The tone implied that this group considered few human frailties truly gauche, but going to sleep was surely one of them. I shook my head no and looked to see who had spoken. It was Ed’s wife; she looked concerned. “Do you want a pill?” I shook my head no again. Then, just then, I realized that Ed—who knew I was not a pill-user—had not once in the evening offered me one of the many samples that had been passed around, nor had anyone else. Just the grass, but not the pills. His wife suggested a pill not so that I might get high, but merely so that I could stay awake without difficulty.

“I’m not tired,“ I said, “just relaxing.” I assured her I wouldn’t doze off. She was still concerned, however, and got me a cup of coffee from the kitchen and offered some Murine from her purse.

The front door opened, and there was a vicious blast of winter off Lake Michigan. Ed kicked the door closed behind him and dumped an armful of logs by the fireplace, then went back into the kitchen. A moment later he returned and passed around a small dish of capsules. And this time it was handed to me. They looked familiar. “One a Days,” he said. I had learned enough from the Book to see the need for them: the amphetamine user often does not eat for long periods of time (some days his only nourishment is the sugar in the bottles of soda which he drinks to wash down the pills and counter their side effect of dehydration of the mouth), and he not only tends to lose weight but also risks vitamin deficiencies. After a while, the heavy user learns to force-feed himself or go off-pills every once in a while in order to eat without difficulty and to keep his tolerance level down.

Later, getting settled in the plane, I thought, What a wild party that was. I’d never been to anything quite like it, and I began making notes about what had gone on. Not long before we came into Logan, it suddenly struck me that there had been nothing wild about the party at all, nothing. There had been women there, some of them unaccompanied and some with husbands or dates, but there had been none of the playing around and sexual hustling that several years of academic and business world parties had led me to consider a correlative of almost any evening gathering of more than ten men and women: no meaningful looks, no wisecracks, no “accidental” rubbing. No one had spoken loudly, no one had become giggly or silly, no one had lost control or seemed anywhere near it. Viewed with some perspective, the evening seemed nothing more than comfortable.

There are various ways to acquire the pills, but the most common is also the most legal: prescriptions. Even though there is now a federal law requiring physicians and pharmacists to maintain careful records regarding prescriptions for drugs like Dexamyl, many physicians are careless about prescribing them, and few seem to realize that the kind of personality that needs them is often the kind of personality that can easily acquire an overwhelming dependency on them. Often a patient will be issued a refillable prescription; if the patient is a heavy user, all he needs to do is visit several physicians and get refillable prescriptions from each. If he is worried that a cross-check of druggists’ lists might turn up his name, he can easily give some of his doctors false names.

There are dealers, generically called the Source, who specialize in selling these drugs; some give them away. They do not seem to be underworld types but professional people in various capacities who, for one reason or another, have access to large quantities of them. If one is completely without connections, the drugs can made be at home. One young man I know made mescaline, amphetamine, methamphetamine, LSD and DET and DMT (diethyl- and dimethyl- tryptamine, hallucinogens of shorter duration and greater punch than LSD) in his kitchen. In small lots, dextroamphetamine sulfate costs him about 50 cents a gram; a pound costs him about $30 (the same amounts of Dexedrine at your friendly corner druggist’s would cost, respectively, about $10 and $4200).

In some areas, primarily those fairly distant from major centers of drug distribution, the new law has begun to have some significant effect. In one medium-sized city, for example, the price of black-market Dexamyl and Eskatrol Spansules has risen from 15 cents to 50 cents a capsule, when one can connect for them at all.

In the major cities one can still connect, but it is becoming more difficult. The new law will inhibit, but there may be complications. It would be unfortunate if the price should be driven up so high that it would become profitable for criminal organizations to involve themselves with the traffic, as was the case with opiates in the 1940s and 1950s and alcohol in the 1920s.

There was talk in Manhattan last winter, just before the new law took effect, that some LSD factories were closing down, and I know that some Sources stopped supplying. For a short time the price of LSD went up; then things stabilized, competition increased, a new packaging method developed popularity (instead of the familiar sugar cubes, one now takes one’s dose on a tiny slip of paper; like a spitball, only you don’t spit it out), and now the price for a dose of LSD is about 20 percent less than it was a year ago.

Since most of the pillheads I’m talking about are middle-class and either professional or semi-professional, they will still be able to obtain their drugs. Their drugs of choice have a legitimate use, and it is unlikely that the government’s attempt to prevent diversion will be more than partially successful. If our narcotics agents have been unable to keep off the open market drugs which have no legitimate use at all—heroin and marijuana—it hardly seems likely that they will be able to control chemicals legitimately in the possession of millions of citizens. I asked one amphetamine head in the Southwest how local supplies had been affected by the new law. “I heard about that law,“ he said, “but I haven’t seen anybody getting panicked.” Another user tells me prices have risen slightly, but not enough yet to present difficulties.

There are marked differences between these drug-users and the ones who make the newspapers. They’re well educated (largely college graduates), are older (25 to 40), and middle-class (with a range of occupations: writers, artists, lawyers, TV executives, journalists, political aides, housewives). They’re not like the high school kids who are after a kick in any form (some of them rather illusory, as one psychosomatic gem reported to me by a New Jersey teen-ager: “What some of the kids do is take a cigarette and saturate it with perfume or hairspray. When this is completely soaked in and dry, they cup the cigarettes and inhale every drag. Somehow this gives them a good high”), or college students experimenting with drugs as part of a romantic program of self-location. The kids take drugs “because it’s cool” and to get high, but when you talk to them you find that most ascribe the same general high to a wide range of drugs having quite diverse effects; they’re promiscuous and insensitive. There is considerable evidence to suggest that almost none of the college drug-users take anything illegal after graduation, for most of them lose their connections and their curiosity.

It is not likely that many of the thousands of solitary amphetamine abusers would join these groups. They take drugs to avoid deviance—so they can be fashionably slim, or bright and alert and functional, or so they can muster the quoi que with which to face the tedium of housework or some other dull job—and the last thing they want is membership in a group defined solely by one clear form of rulebreaking behavior. Several of the group members were first turned on by physicians, but a larger number were turned on by friends. Most were after a particular therapeutic effect, but after a while interest developed in the drug for its own sake and the effect became a cause, and after that the pattern of drug-taking overcame the pattern of taking a specific drug.

Some of the socialized amphetamine-users specialize. One takes Dexedrine and Dexamyl almost exclusively; he takes other combinations only when he is trying to reduce his tolerance to Dexamyl. Though he is partly addicted to the barbiturates, they do not seem to trouble him very much, and on the few occasions when he has had to go off drugs (as when he was in California for a few months and found getting legal prescriptions too difficult and for some reason didn’t connect with a local Source), he has had no physiological trouble giving them up. He did, of course, suffer from the overwhelming depression and enervation that characterize amphetamine withdrawal. Most heads will use other drugs along with amphetamine—especially marijuana—in order to appreciate the heightened alertness they’ve acquired; some alternate with hallucinogens.

To the heroin addict, the square is anyone who does not use heroin. For the dedicated pillhead there is a slightly narrower definition: the square is someone who has an alcohol dependency; those who use nothing at all aren’t even classified. The boozers do bad things, they get drunk and lose control and hurt themselves and other people. They contaminate their tubes, and whenever they get really far out, they don’t even remember it the next day. The pillhead’s disdain is sometimes rather excessive. One girl, for example, was living with a fellow who, like her, was taking over 500 milligrams of amphetamine a day. They were getting on well. One night the two were at a party, and instead of chewing pills, her man had a few beers; the girl was furious, betrayed, outraged. Another time, at a large party that sprawled through a sprawling apartment, a girl had been on scotch and grass and she went to sleep. There were three men in the room, none of them interested in her sexually, yet they jeered and wisecracked as she nodded off. It was 4 or 5 A.M. of a Sunday, not too unreasonable a time to be drowsy. When they saw she was really asleep—breaking the double taboo by having drunk too much scotch and been put to sleep by it—they muttered a goddamn and went into another room; she was too depressing to have around.

There is an important difference in the drug-use patterns of the pillhead and opiate dependent: the latter is interested only in getting his drug and avoiding withdrawal; the former is also interested in perceiving his drugs’ effects. I remember one occasion attended by someone who had obtained a fairly large mixed bag. In such a situation a junkie would have shot himself insensible; this fellow gave most of his away to his friends. With each gift he said something about a particular aspect of the drug which he found interesting. The heroin-user is far less social. His stuff is too hard to get, too expensive, his withdrawal too agonizing. But the pillhead is an experimenter. Often he seems to be interested as much in observing himself experiencing reactions as he is in having the reactions.

A large part of the attractiveness may be the ritual associated with this kind of group drug abuse: the PDR (a holy book), the Source (the medicine man whose preparations promise a polychromatic world of sensory and mystical experiences), the sharing of proscribed materials in a closed community, the sawing and grinding, the being privy to the Pythian secrets of colors and milligrams and trade names and contraindications and optimum dosages. And, of course, using drugs is something of a fad.

But there are costs. Kicks are rarely free in this world, and drugs are no exception. One risks dysfunction; one can go out of one’s head; one may get into trouble with the police. Though the users are from a socioeconomic class that can most likely beat a first offense at almost anything, there is the problem that legal involvement of any kind, whether successfully prosecuted or not, can cause considerable embarrassment; an arrest for taking drugs may be negligible to a slum dweller in New York, but it is quite something else for a lawyer or reporter. And there is always the most tempting danger of all: getting habituated to drugs to such a degree that the drugs are no longer something extra in life but are instead a major goal.

One user wrote me, “Lately I find myself wishing not that I might kick the lunatic habit—but simply that our drug firms would soon develop something NEW which might refresh the memory of the flash and glow of that first voom-voom pill.“ I had asked him why take them at all, and he wrote, “I don’t know. Really. Why smoke, drink, drive recklessly, sunbathe, fornicate, shoot tigers, climb mountains, gamble, lie, steal, cheat, kill, make war and blame it all largely on our parents. Possibly to make oneself more acceptable to oneself.”

Many of the pillheads are taking drugs not only to escape but also to have an experience that is entirely one’s own. There is no one else to be propitiated, there are no explanations or excuses needed for what happens inside one’s own head when one is turned on; words won’t do, and that is as much a benefit as a disadvantage, because if you cannot describe, then neither can you discuss or question or submit to evaluation. The benefit and the risk are entirely one’s own. Indiana University sociologist John Gagnon pointed out at a drug symposium held at Antioch College last year, “I’d like to argue that possibly in our attempt to protect people, we have underrepresented the real payoff for drug-taking as an experiencc, as a risk people want to run.”

You select your own risks—that’s what living is all about. For some of these drug-users, the risks currently being marketed do not have very much sales appeal: going South for the summer with SNCC is out because they feel that they are too old and that ofays aren’t much wanted anyhow; going to Vietnam for Lyndon is absurd. So they go inside. A scarier place, but no one else can muddle around with it.

There is nothing wrong with using chemicals to help cope with life. That is one of the things science is supposed to do, help us cope, and the business of living can be rough at times. And we have the requisite faith: I am sure that far more Americans believe in the efficacy of a pill than believe in God. The problem arises when one’s concern shifts so that life becomes an exercise in coping with the chemicals.

I think there has been an unfortunate imbalance in the negative publicity. For years the press has printed marvelous tales about all the robberies and rapes performed by evil beings whose brain tissue had been jellied by heroin. But it has rarely printed stories that point out that opiates make even the randiest impotent, or that alcohol, which has five hundred times as many addicts, is an important factor in sex offenses and murders.

Lately, attention has been focused on drug abuse and experimentation among college students. Yet all the college students and all the junkies account for only a small portion of American drug abuse. The adults, the respectable grown-ups, the nice people who cannot or will not make it without depending on a variety of drugs, present a far more serious problem. For them the drug experience threatens to disrupt or even destroy life patterns and human relationships that required many years to establish.

And the problem is not a minor one. Worse, it seems to be accelerating. As Ed advised one night, “You better research the hell out of it because I’m convinced that the next ruling generation is going to be all pillheads. I’m convinced of it. If they haven’t dysfunctioned completely to the point where they can’t stand for office. It’s getting to be unbelievable. I’ve never seen such a transformation in just four or five years. … ”