You are here

Taking Drugs, or Shopping at the Black Market

There are two basic kinds of stories you hear about drugs: how it feels to take various drugs, and getting busted.
Annalee Newitz

Issue #21, September 1995

Trade or Other Names: Pot, Acapulco Gold, Grass, Reefer, Sinsemilla, Thai Sticks
Medical Uses: None
Dependence: Physical: Unknown, Psychological: Moderate
Tolerance: Yes
Duration (hours): 2-4
Usual Methods
of Administration: Smoked, oral
Possible Effects: Euphoria, relaxed inhibitions, increased
appetite, disoriented behavior
Effects of Overdose: Fatigue, paranoia, possible psychosis
Withdrawal Syndrome: Insomnia, hyperactivity and decreased appetite occasionally reported
— from the UC Berkeley Health Services pamphlet, sent out to all "members of the campus community," called Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs

There are two basic kinds of stories you hear about drugs: the first is about how it feels to take various drugs, and the second is about getting busted. In the 90s, mainstream drug stories are generally about busts and anti-drug laws, rather than drugs themselves. A recent underground movie called The Money Tree, about a pot grower in Marin County, California, emphasizes the pleasures of outsmarting police and drug thieves over the pleasures of drug use. While this is as close to a "pro-drug" movie as you'll find, we never see our hero, the pot grower, smoking any of his crop. Paying attention to the drug market, in this movie, is far more seductive and compelling than the drugs effects — hence pot has gone from being a counter-cultural symbol to being "the money tree."

Jerry Garcia's recent death at a drug rehab center is another example of how drug use gets understood in the 90s. One might say that this famous icon of the "hippie" drug culture was killed in his effort to conform to drug laws. Media coverage of Garcia's death focused on how much money he had made from his drug-inspired music, but emphasized that he had died in the process of trying to become sober, or drug-free. Drugs, in relationship to Garcia's death, were understood as a money-making device, and a possible cause of his death, but not for getting high.

During the 1960s and 70s, the "drug experience," especially of marijuana and LSD, was touted as socially and aesthetically radical, capable of changing people's minds about everything from politics to sex. While this notion of drug use is not entirely dead, it has undergone considerable alteration since the War on Drugs in the 80s. Former counter-cultural hot spots in the San Francisco Bay Area, like the Haight-Ashbury district and Berkeley, post signs which say — perhaps a little wishfully — "Drug Free Zone." Drugs are presented as a psychological problem requiring a 12-Step program, a social problem which keeps the ghettos poor, and a national problem that makes America violent. Rarely do we hear a message about drugs comparable to that which Timothy Leary once preached: drugs are fun, and they can expand consciousness too.

Unsurprisingly, one reason for the silence about drugs is pervasive anti-drug propaganda in the United States. Just recently, a pamphlet about campus anti-drug policies arrived at my mailbox in the English Department at UC Berkeley. Apparently, this pamphlet is sent to all employees of the university every year, and it indicates — among other things — that if you are arrested for drug use you may be expelled from school. That is, on top of whatever forms of punishment are visited on you by the law, you will be punished additionally with expulsion from what is arguably one of the country's top universities. Included with this information was a weird and very tiny taxonomy of illegal drugs and their effects, printed nearly illegibly on the last page of the pamphlet. A sample listing — regarding marijuana — serves as the epigraph for this article. It would seem that the punishment for using illegal drugs is far more severe than the effects of drugs themselves.

Getting High in the USA

There is clearly something transgressive about doing illegal drugs — in part because they are illegal, but also because they are usually taken to escape one's ordinary state of consciousness. Hallucinogens like LSD, peyote, or cactus can radically alter one's perceptions, while marijuana, cocaine, or speed can change ones emotional state and moderately affect one's actions. Some illegal drugs are considered a problem because they are physically addictive and therefore potentially harmful to the person using them. Opium, morphine, heroin, and crack cocaine are the most notorious of these. Each of the drugs I've listed — in spite of their drawbacks — will get you "high," or make you feel euphoric in one way or another. To put it simply, all drug users share in common a desire to feel good.

Feelings are often as powerful as drugs, and in part we use drugs to stimulate feelings we want to have. While there is no pat phrase for the emotional equivalent of being "really wasted," or "tripping out," people intuitively respond to them in the same way as they might to drug-induced highs. Just as we would not want the pilot of our plane to be munching tabs of LSD, we wouldn't want him to be flying after just hearing that his lover is gravely ill either. We imagine his emotions, like a drug, would impede his ability to do his job safely and well. To offer a slightly more extreme example, we also know in a common sense way that a person does not need to be on drugs or drunk in order to murder or physically abuse someone. Drugs may create a "deviant" form of consciousness, but it is no more deviant than the kinds of consciousness we can create for ourselves.

No one knows this better than the US government, the very same institution which made certain drugs illegal. In their excellent book Acid Dreams (1985), Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain chronicle CIA-sponsored experiments with LSD and other drugs in the 40s and 50s which assumed that such drugs were useful precisely because they imitated human emotional states such as anxiety, fear, passivity, and euphoria. During this period, drugs like mescaline, concentrated THC (marijuana), and LSD were called "psychotomimetics," which means they were understood to mimic what the CIA and its psychiatrists considered a "psychotic" state. Special task forces in the CIA were assigned to study ways in which psychotomimetics (later called psychedelics) could be used for the purposes of interrogation and mind-control.

Scientists and doctors associated with the CIA would administer drugs — and especially LSD — to prisoners, mental patients, CIA employees, and various unsuspecting civilians to find out more about their effects, and their effectiveness as a possible weapon against the Soviets. The Army Chemical Corps began experimenting with LSD during the early 60s, and it was in Army reports that the terms "trip" and "tripping" were first used to describe the LSD experience. In other words, one of the most famous illegal drugs of the late 20th Century was popularized by the US government and its employees. Ultimately, their idea was not to escape or endanger normal consciousness with drugs, but rather to produce specific types of "ordinary" consciousness — or mental illness — which would suit their needs.

While there is a certain attraction, and accuracy, to blaming the illegality of drugs on the government, the military, and police forces, fear and distress about the effects of drugs come as much from ordinary citizens as they do from official government agencies. Like alcohol prohibition laws, laws against illegal drugs in the early 20th century were advocated first by grassroots "morality" groups. Both the Harrison Narcotics Act (enacted in 1914) and the Marihuana [sic] Tax Act (enacted in 1937) reflected a national acknowledgment of already-existing local and state laws prohibiting or severely curtailing the use and sale of opium, heroin, morphine, coca, cocaine, and marijuana. Before national laws limiting the sale of these substances went into effect, many of them were widely available over the counter in various medicines and drinks. Pure and spruced-up cocaine, marijuana, and morphine could be purchased at many drugstores. Indeed, it was not until 1903 that Coca-Cola stopped putting cocaine into their soda pop — in part due to negative reports from Prohibition groups that people were drinking up to 50 Cokes a day to support their "habit." Coca Cola replaced cocaine with caffeine, and continued to sell their peppy drink.

It's important to remember that for the majority of people who helped make drugs illegal, attacking drugs is not about hating pleasure. More than drug-induced euphoria, people fear its flip side: paranoia, distracted anxiety, the tooth-grinding speed come-down, depression, addiction, and the possibility that a user might become violent while high or afterward in order to get high again. Each of these separate problems point up the extent to which there is a great fear of being "out of control" while high. On drugs, there is a possibility one may be more vulnerable to the social and physical environment. Something about the way certain drugs influence consciousness and behavior seems to clash with what many people think of as "the American way." Many Americans, who live in a culture which values individuality, controlled "toughness," and the work ethic, find little use for vulnerability and an enhanced connection to one's social world. Furthermore, America is a country which likes to think of itself as "in control" of the global scene. It is interesting to note that America came into its own as a world power at virtually the same time it began suppressing the circulation and legal importation of drugs.

Yet many illegal drugs can stimulate the feelings Americans are naturally supposed to have and express as citizens — they can make you work hard, think individualistically, and often provide a sense of control and power. Cocaine and speed enhance one's work performance to a great extent. A few sniffs of these powders can keep one adding up figures, driving, researching, or typing all night long to meet a deadline. Furthermore, drugs like LSD are conducive to highly individualistic thinking, generating introspection and self-knowledge in their users which can, and reportedly do, offer them a greater sense of self-reliance. Even a highly addictive and physically debilitating drug like heroin remains popular precisely because it can make the user feel as safe as an unconquered nation. In America, we are supposed to work hard, think for ourselves, and be strong in ways which are literally impossible. But when we chemically enhance ourselves to keep up with cultural expectations, we're breaking the law and courting immorality. That Americans long to take drugs reveals how difficult it is for them to perform "up to speed" without actually snorting some. Drugged feelings and American feelings may be less contradictory than we are led to believe.

The New Prohibitionism

President Roosevelt repealed Prohibition in 1933, but Americans still live under it. Prohibition now refers to laws against certain types of drugs which do not include alcohol, tea, coffee, and nicotine. Americans are not forbidden from getting high by their legal and cultural environment; they're just restricted to certain types of high. What this means is that in America there is a kind of moral and juridical hierarchy of drugs, which implicitly demonizes some highs while endorsing others. But why, for example is marijuana illegal and "bad", while alcohol is both legal and celebrated in commercial culture as integral to a "good time"? Alcoholism is widely acknowledged to be a social problem, perhaps the social problem in America. Legal drugs like cigarettes and coffee are just as addictive — and sometimes just as unhealthy — as drugs like marijuana, LSD, opiates, speed, etc. The illegality of certain drugs has not eliminated the problems of substance addiction, nor the problems of anti-social behavior while under the influence.

What it is then, that we fear about particular drugs? An article about the market for speed in The San Francisco Chronicle (8/27/95) offers a compelling clue. Although the headline promises an article about how "methamphetamine is rapidly becoming the drug of choice for affluent suburban teens," the article is ultimately about the production, not the consumption, of speed: who makes it, how, and what the environmental effects are. We discover that speed production in the 90s has increased due to "well-organized Mexican drug syndicates" who can make it cheaply. Furthermore, speed production in the US creates toxic waste dumps — the article notes that "after each raid, private toxic waste contractors are summoned [by the DEA] to clean up the chemicals, at a cost of up to $125,000 per lab." Third World production, associated with badly regulated environmental controls and countries like Mexico, is deeply bound up with why drugs are understood as terrifying in the US.

Many of the drugs which are illegal in America today originally came from — or still come from — regions of the world which were once or are still considered enemy territory. Marijuana and the opiates, for instance, come from parts of Asia and South and Central America where communism or hostile dictatorships have existed in uneasy to antagonistic relationships with the United States. Marek Kohn comments in Narcomania: On Heroin (1987) that British anti-drug propaganda has been, historically, marked by xenophobia and a fear of miscegenation. The threat from marijuana in England was often attributed to the Africans and Jamaicans who brought it into England, rather than the drug itself. Characterizing British drug laws of the post-war period, Kohn claims that they often boiled down to something like this: "We can't stop blacks coming over here, but we can use the drug laws to criminalize them, lock them up and keep them out of our society."

Illegal drugs in the US are also associated with particular racial and national groups. It is a combination of folk wisdom and truth that heroin and cocaine come from developing nations in Central and South America; marijuana (at least before the War on Drugs) comes from Mexico or Thailand; and all drugs seem to proceed from a superabundance of nameless, placeless ethnic ghetto regions within the United States but somehow beyond its borders. Coherently enough, then, "bad" drugs come from places which seem "bad" from the perspective of US national mythology. And many of these places are the source of illegal people as well as illegal drugs. Perhaps the horror of illegal drugs is a horror of illegal aliens and US ghetto residents? Are new anti-immigration laws a part of Prohibition?

The answers to these questions are more complicated than one might think. What do we make of coffee, for example, which is grown in developing nations, imported like a legal immigrant and consumed guilt-free? Coffee is what you might call an ideological escape hatch. Like alcohol, it is a legal drug which takes the edge off drug Prohibition and thus distracts us from grappling with what is really at stake there. As long as some drugs and some forms of immigration remain legal, it is impossible to claim that the US government is behaving in an entirely xenophobic manner regarding people and pleasures which come from developing nations.

Prohibition also allows the problems associated with legal drugs to be deflected onto illegal ones. The logic goes something like this: maybe alcohol is addictive and can kill you, but heroin is worse; and maybe alcohol causes people to get into car accidents or fights, but LSD and marijuana make you hallucinate and lose contact with reality even more. Illegal drugs are thus symbolically associated with the terrible and damaging side-effect which proceed from all forms of drug use, legal and illegal. Prohibition acts like a legal and social version of psychological repression — it behaves as if wishing a problem away could be equivalent to eliminating the problem entirely. And, like repression, Prohibition only succeeds in setting up a very ugly and violent set of unconscious problems. Undeniably, the unconscious of Prohibition in America is the black market.

It's hard to separate the American fear of drugs from a fear of working or buying in the black market. The threat of death, profound violence, and punishment accumulate around every transaction there: prostitutes are murdered and beaten; drug dealers are shot; smugglers go to jail for life; and students who buy a joint get kicked out of school. Buying drugs always brings with it a host of worries about everything from getting caught by the law to being ripped off by your source. After all, you can't report him or her to a consumer rights group. Black market trade is capitalism at its most brutal, where life matters less than the production and circulation of goods. And black market shopping is consumer culture uncut: you buy sheer pleasure and sensation, rather than an object which promises both in its packaging or advertisements.

While the black market feels a little like super capitalism, it also embraces a system of social relations which are almost pre-capitalist or medieval in structure. Knowledge about drugs — making them, growing them, ingesting them — is almost purely folkloric. There exist certain underground publications about them in large urban areas, and there are medical, psychological, and legal treatises on them for the expert, but HarperCollins won't be mass marketing a readable paperback called The Joys of Drugs anytime soon. Ask a pot smoker how she learned to smoke a bong, or where she picked up phrases like "smoke a bowl," or "it's dusted," or "take a hit," or "let's buy an eighth." Inevitably, her knowledge of drug use and distribution has been gleaned entirely from what folklorists call "oral history." Her friends told her about "good stuff" and "bad stuff;" an older sister taught her to cover the carb hole with her thumb, then light the bowl while she inhaled to get a good bong hit.

Because most of our knowledge about illegal drugs comes to us through folklore, a great deal of what the common user knows resembles superstition, and may be dangerously incorrect. Very few users — especially casual ones — are familiar with ways to treat overdose, or how to detect whether a drug has been cut with something potentially poisonous. With its folkways and life-or-death modes of production, the black market seems simultaneously to intensify and lag behind capitalist economic relations. Like the developing world, the black market may be frightening precisely because it demonstrates how capitalism can damage a society; and yet it also reminds us how difficult society would be without capitalist "rationality".

Anti-Social Consumption and the War on Drugs

In an odd way, however, we need the black market to legitimize the marketplace in general. While illegal drugs take the rap for problems we face using legal ones, black market capitalism takes the rap for what is dysfunctional and terrifying about "legitimate" market capitalism. The black market may be more overtly and sensationally fatal for its participants, but workers in legitimate capitalism are put at risk just as often for the sake of cutting production costs or enhancing goods that are sold. Manual laborers of many types are not only endangered by chemicals, radioactivity, and heavy machinery, but also live with the threat of losing their jobs due to uncontrollable shifts in industrial production or corporate "outsourcing" to developing nations where labor is cheap and less regulated. Even the middle-classes feel the threat of capitalism's instability. Professional jobs these days are often short-term or uncertain, and events like wealthy Orange County's bankruptcy are reminders that middle-class financial rings can get busted almost like a drug ring.

Admittedly, being busted on the black market can result in death or a life sentence, while being busted — or laid off — on the legit market may only cost you your job, life savings, and social standing. Thus it remains true that the threats faced by working-class and middle-class people in the marketplace seem to pale in comparison to that of an inner city gang banger who sells crack. This is precisely how the violence of capitalist production gets repressed and displaced. We are willing to admit that work killed the crack-dealing black marketeer shot for his goods. But we cannot believe that work killed the woman employed "legitimately" at a chemical manufacturing plant who contracted a mysterious ailment after handling bottles of sink cleanser. Cancer cannot be directly traced to her job, while the bullet hole in the pushers body can be linked with his.

But there is another story that might be told about black market habits of drug production and consumption, and this is a story which threatens capitalist legitimacy even more than violence or a fear of poverty. Within many drug cultures, most notably among people who use marijuana and psychedelics, drugs are not commodities in a capitalist sense, nor are they strictly private property. Indeed, pot smokers often engage in what might be called anti-capitalist consumption, growing their own plants and sharing what drugs they have with friends and people in their community. Commodities sold on the legitimate market belong to the person who bought them and are not often shared among many people. Treating your drugs like private property, among many pot smokers, would be tantamount to rudeness. If you have a joint at a party, the point is to share it with anyone who wants some. And if you see someone getting high, you can generally expect to be offered a hit if you'd like one. I don't mean to paint an overly optimistic picture, for certainly one doesn't see the sharing of drugs at all times. But, as William Novak commented during the heyday of pot culture in the late 70s:

There is still an ethic among smokers that marijuana is to be shared whenever possible. Some smokers, particularly the older ones, are wary abut the prospect of legalization, which, they fear, might destroy the last vestiges of community among users, replacing it by rampant commercialization...The bond that exists among smokers makes it difficult to conceive of a marijuana tavern, unless someone is perpetually buying a round of joints for the house. Marijuana and capitalism work well together when it comes to...marijuana-related products, such as...paraphernalia, but many smokers prefer that marijuana itself be distributed more personally (from High Culture, 1980).

This culture of sharing goods procured on the black market — or produced illegally — is essentially nowhere to be found in legitimate market practices. While people will sometimes treat each other to dinner or a drink, they certainly don't do it regularly. Moreover, there is no tradition in capitalism for the sharing of food before it is cooked, or for sharing clothes, furniture, or cars without any thought of future repayment or getting the goods back. Charities exist, but giving old things away to charity is not the same as sharing something good with your neighbor just because it feels right. It is fairly common for one stoner to say to another, "Come over and try out some of this great new stuff I've got — it's beautiful, fresh, and covered in resin!" Very few people would say to their neighbors or even their pals, "Hey, I got a great new car. Use it whenever you want!" Consumer habits on the legitimate market are anti-social — they promote competition, rather than the sharing of resources; and they divide us up into "haves" and "have-nots," rather than bringing us together into groups with common property and pleasures.

What legitimate consumer culture lacks in the way of inspiring social cohesion, the War on Drugs tries to supply by bringing people together to eradicate "bad" and illegal forms of consumption. The War on Drugs is still being waged in America, although with slightly less relish than it was during the Reagan/Bush years. Singling out drug transactions as Public Enemy Number One, as if transactions could themselves be an "enemy," seems to imply that America's social problems are traceable to one source which affects equally the highest and the lowest members of society. Drug use is, after all, rampant among all classes, races, and genders. Kohn writes in Narcomania that anti-drug campaigns portray drugs as "the great leveler," a problem which defies class difference and therefore seems to bring a variety of social classes together as both the victims of drugs and fighters against them.

But of course, drugs are deeply imbedded in the very economic class system which they are supposed to defy. The vast majority of black market activities take place in ghettos and the developing world. Indeed, the black market has made many ghetto residents quite wealthy — as wealthy as their middle-class suburban counterparts. Black market wealth, however, is perhaps even more vilified than black market goods, and hence it is quite difficult for wealthy black marketeers to invest their money in legitimate financial institutions or businesses and "go straight." They are thus encouraged, if not quite forced, to sink their wealth into quick fix commodities like cars or high-end clothing and jewelry. Ultimately, the black market seems to leave its tracks all over the underclasses, both domestically and internationally. Even the wealth of these classes is deemed unacceptable in legitimate economic society, and thus whatever benefits and comforts they can earn from their black market jobs are minimized and they remain poor for all intents and purposes. When the upper-or ruling classes are involved in black market trade, this is certainly not the case; but I would note that for these classes drugs are hardly ever the source of their wealth, but rather a sideline to their legitimate earnings.

The War on Drugs is a useful way to selectively repress the crucial differences between people who live on different rungs of the economic ladder. Horrors accompanying drugs sold on the black market are used to "prove" that the cycle of wealth and poverty isn't a problem — only certain kinds of wealth and poverty are the problem. Capitalism may fail spectacularly to bring people together in anything other than anti-social violence and fear, but drugs and the black market are "worse." As America becomes increasingly less powerful on the global scene, and as the gap between rich and poor in this country grows wider, it's very convenient to have a fall guy to take the blame. It isn't our social values, but rather drugs, which have undermined our national power. And it isn't capitalist relations and economic crisis, but rather the black market, which promotes violence and poverty.

The question for us at the end of the 20th Century in America is not whether drugs should be legalized, for certainly they should be. There are no reasons, save hypocrisy, arbitrary prejudice, and repression, to keep drugs off the legitimate market. The real question facing us is whether we will be able to stop blaming black markets for the failures of so-called legitimate ones; and whether we will be able to stop idealizing an American national character which is often more anti-social than any drug-induced state. When there's no one and nothing left to blame, we'll have to face ourselves and a social system which is currently doing more harm than good. It might be kind of nice to have a little toke off a communal joint when that happens. We'll probably need it.

Annalee Newitz is Co-Director of Bad Subjects, and a member of the Production Team. She is currently finishing her dissertation in English at UC-Berkeley, and, with Matt Wray, is co-editing an anthology called White Trash, forthcoming from Routledge in 1996. You can find her latest articles in Cineaction, Bright Lights Film Journal, and Film Quarterly this fall. Reach her at:

Copyright © 1995 by Annalee Newitz. All rights reserved.