America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945 – 2000
Illicit drugs have transfigured the American cultural landscape in the past half-century, leaving their mark on everything from art, music, literature, sexuality, spirituality, pop culture, the economy, and politics, to crime, public health, and national law enforcement policy. In Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945 – 2000, documentary filmmaker and writer Martin Torgoff traces the tangled trajectory of illegal drug use in America, as it spread post-World War II from the Beats and bebop musicians, all the way to the Ecstasy-fueled rave culture.
Torgoff’s personal experiences with drugs inform the book, and, without apologizing for the drug culture or condemning it, Torgoff takes readers from the jazz clubs during the heyday of New York’s 52nd Street, to the halls of Timothy Leary’s Harvard, from the hippie pads of the Lower East Side and San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, to the jungles of Vietnam, from gay leather bars and sex clubs, to the Miami of the Cocaine Cowboys, from the Humboldt County of the sensimillia growers, to the gang-ridden neighborhoods of South-Central Los Angeles, prison cells, rehabs, and finally, the coming of a new generation, and the warehouse-sized cyberpunk raves of San Francisco.
Torgoff writes, “The story of illicit drugs in this country is a winding and murky tale that’s been shaped by laws, manipulated by politics and bureaucracies, fueled by black market capitalism, and forged in the collective imagination of national dream and nightmare. It’s a story told at different times by the saxophone, the typewriter, the electric guitar, the movie camera, and the gun.”#
We chose to interview Torgoff because of the undeniable connection of drug use to the American culture we were part of during the mid-to-late twentieth century. Its affect on the icons of the era — many of whom impacted our own lives in dramatic fashion — certainly contributed to our curiosity about them and the ground breaking art they created. Preparing for the interview was a fascinating reminder of where we came from and, most importantly, who we have become. The interview took place on August 27, 2004, and was hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.
“The story of drug taking constitutes one of the most curious and also, it seems to me, one of the most significant chapters of human beings. Everywhere and at all times, men and women have sought, and duly found, the means of taking a holiday from the reality of their generally dull and often acutely unpleasant existence. A holiday out of space, out of time, in the eternity of sleep or ecstasy, in the heaven or limbo of visionary phantasy ”
– Aldous Huxley
JJM You write that your book is “not a formal history but rather a journey through the experience and culture of illicit drugs in the country during the second half of the twentieth century, from roughly 1945 to the present.” How did you conceive this book?
MT It began as a result of my own experiences. It is a classic case of how your life becomes the book and the book becomes your life. I was a teenager in 1968 — the year I smoked marijuana for the first time, in the basement of my parents’ suburban home. It was my oldest sister who first brought the sixties down to that basement, and marijuana was a part of the sixties experience. It was an immensely important night in my life for many reasons, and it sent me off on a twenty-one year relationship with drugs that ended with me crashing and burning at the age of thirty-seven, and having to pick up the pieces of my life as a result.
As I was going through that, I became very interested in understanding how drugs had impacted my own personal life. I knew that in some very important ways they had opened me and enhanced experiences, and in other very important ways they had shut me down and damaged me. I began to seriously think about how that may be true for many people in my generation, and how it might be true for the American culture at large.
It was out of that desire to understand that which led me to tell the story of how drugs had gone from being used by an inconsequential number of people in a few subcultural enclaves in the country, to something that roughly one-in-four Americans had come to experience. Approximately seventy-million Americans have admitted to using an illicit substance at one time or another, whether it was smoking pot for a number of years, taking psychedelics, snorting a line of cocaine, or even becoming a full blown heroin addict. From where we were after World War II to where we find ourselves today, I believe that is a major change in the cultural landscape of this country.
It is a story I wanted to write about, and I decided to go about it by following the proliferation of the drugs. I looked at every decade and examined all the cultural scenes that had coalesced around different drugs — bebop and heroin and other drugs during the “beat generation,” then filtering into the psychedelic era, the cocaine age, the crack epidemic of the eighties and the appearance of ecstasy. It culminated in an examination of the war on drugs and the recovery culture.
JJM It is a huge endeavor, and it’s an interesting social history wrapped around the theme of drugs. It is also a reminder about how drug use impacted each era. It must have required a tremendous amount of research on a topic people aren’t always forthright about. For example, Judy Collins told you, “This is the sort of book I’d be very interested in reading but not something I really want to talk about.” Was it difficult to get people to admit to their use of drugs?
MT With some people, yes. The people who were closely identified with some aspect of the drug culture had no problem with it, whether it was an Allen Ginsberg or a Tim Leary or a Terence McKenna. Other people were not so open. The whole climate around drug use became so toxic in the eighties. I started this book in the early nineties, and it was still very difficult to get people to talk openly and candidly, which is a situation that we have in the culture at large. One of the main reasons I wrote the book was because I felt that a tremendous amount of wisdom and knowledge about this experience had been accruing for generations, but it wasn’t being passed on. The reason that it wasn’t is because we live in a country where a drug culture was never supposed to exist in the first place. Since the early eighties, a serious war on drugs has been going on. We have spent in the neighborhood of half-a-trillion dollars trying to make the country drug free, so it is not easy for people to acknowledge their experiences in public forums and schools, and people are reluctant to talk about it in their homes as well.
JJM Earlier in this interview you talked about how sixty to seventy million people have admitted to using drugs. Its popularity grew with the use by a few very key people. You chose to begin the book with Herbert Huncke, about whom you wrote, “Huncke frowned and put his feet up on the bed. Somehow the whole journey of illicit drugs through the culture and consciousness of mid-century America seemed to begin with those very feet. What long, hard mileage they logged, what wear and tear as he searched so relentlessly for the junk that he pumped into his veins over the course of a lifetime, haunting the parks, squares, bars, cafeterias, coffee shops, the endless pacing of jail cells, cheap hotel rooms, methadone clinics.” Why did you start this story with him?
MT Huncke was a fellow who encountered William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in 1945, when they were part of the scene that was coalescing around Columbia University. Kerouac and Ginsberg were students there at the time, and Burroughs was hanging out with them. These guys were interested in drugs for various reasons, having to do with creativity, aesthetics, sensibility, sensuality and consciousness. Huncke started using drugs in the thirties in Chicago, and he became a teenage heroin addict at that time. He went on the road and learned what it was like to be a junkie “on the bum” in Depression-era America, which, needless to say, was not an easy experience. He was kind of a hustler, basically, but a harmless man. He would consort with various criminals at times, but they were mostly thieves and pickpockets and people of that nature — certainly nobody heavy.
When he arrived in New York around 1940, he hit the streets of Times Square and became part of a small drug scene. When Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs met Huncke, he was like a door into this strange and intriguing subterranean world of drug users. He had a powerful influence on them, not only because he got drugs for them, but also because he shared great stories about drugs with them. They soon started using these substances in their earliest writings, and Huncke became characters in their writings. Burroughs wrote about him in Junky, his first book — the scene where he gives Burroughs his first shot of narcotics is rendered exactly the way it happened. Ginsberg wrote about him in his famous poem Howl. Huncke was the original angel headed hipster. Kerouac wrote about him in On The Road, so, he became a really significant character in that regard. Also, Huncke was the man who coined the term “Beat” that ultimately identified that group known as the “Beat generation.” He would use the word as a way to describe the conditions of his life and as a hustler, a drug addict, a user who was in and out of jails and always dealing with being on the road. He called the lifestyle “Beat,” and that is where Kerouac got the word.
JJM What were the images of the marijuana user prior to the likes of Kerouac and Charlie Parker using it?
MT It is pretty interesting, because a reefer culture formed in the Harlem of the thirties that had its roots in New Orleans. Marijuana — cannabis — has been known since antiquity, of course. Some people knew about hashish and were like wealthy libertines, but in terms of popular usage of the substance, some of the Mexican laborers who worked in the beet sugar fields began bringing it over the border during the twenties. The writer Terry Southern, for instance, encountered it as a twelve-year-old boy from a field hand in Texas, and he wrote a very famous story about it called “Red Dirt Marijuana.” Many substances came through New Orleans because so many people went there from Europe, the West Indies, South America and Mexico. Marijuana was first noticed by police in around 1910, and it was immediately associated with crime and degeneracy. It was very available in the cradle that formed jazz music – the Storyville district – so many of the key musicians of the era knew about it and had experiences with it. People like Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton
JJM Louis Armstrong had a love affair with reefer.
MT True, but not until he went to Chicago in 1921. He wrote about it very openly in his memoir. Marijuana made its way up the river, right along with those guys who played on the boats, tying up from New Orleans, Memphis, Natchez, and all the way up to Chicago. Amid the jazz culture of the twenties, not only was Louis Armstrong the most important first soloist in the history of the music, but he was an every day pot head who firmly believed that the substance was beneficial. It was always associated with the part of him that was genial, easy going, friendly and warm, and it was always associated with the part of him that was a brilliant musician.
JJM He had such an influence on the culture, and many admired and emulated him
MT One of those individuals was a man named Milton Mezzrow, known as “Mezz.” He was one of the first white jazz musicians in Chicago, and he ran around with people like Bud Freeman and Dave Tough. They, of course, were completely bowled over by Armstrong. Mezz moved to Harlem in the early thirties and he became one of the first pot dealers in Harlem. He hung out on the corner of 137th Street, where he dealt really good Mexican pot that became known as the “Mighty Mezz.” A lot of the musicians in the era of swing — guys like Lester Young — were avid marijuana users. Mezz was completely intrigued by the scene of poor black kids who danced the lindy hop at the Savoy Ballroom, and who could be called the first hipsters. They were kids who never would have seen the inside of a place like the Cotton Club. Their scene was the beginning of what became known as a “teapad” culture.
Mezz’s 1946 autobiography, Really the Blues, was the only book that really told the story of what that scene was like, and for the most part it was completely benign. These people’s interests were in jazz and dancing and having a good time. During this time, the Savoy became the most profound interracial melting pot in New York City — it was a place where white kids from all the boroughs would go during the Depression to enjoy jazz and dance. Many of them encountered reefer there and had very positive experiences with it, but it was because this scene was happening in a place where whites mixed with blacks that it was so threatening to society, and it became the target of the first anti-marijuana campaign. Harry Anslinger, who as the founder of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was the first drug czar in America, was obsessed with stopping this kind of thing.
JJM You wrote, “As surely as reefer had come to be associated with swing, heroin would mark the transition from swing to bop.” As we know, heroin is clearly a much different drug than marijuana
MT It’s a classic example of the lack of drug education. No one knew how destructive heroin was. Take Charlie Parker, for example. He encountered the drug as a teenager in Kansas City, when it just started trickling out from cities on the East Coast. There was not much of it around. Narcotics were declared a controlled substance in 1914. At that time, the basic drug addict in this country was a very conventional, middle class woman who had become addicted to some sort of opiated medication that a doctor had prescribed for her, like Laudanum or something like that. So, when the law went into effect, there was an instantaneous black market for drugs. People still wanted it and could no longer get it. Some of the doctors continued to prescribe it and were arrested. They had clinics for a while where these people could go, but they were shut down eventually, and the only place to get it was in the underground.
The first drug dealers were ethnic immigrants in the neighborhoods of New York — Jews, Italians, and Irish, primarily — who began procuring this stuff, but until the Mafia started organizing a global trade, there was just piddling amounts of it. But it found its way into the life of Parker, a teenage alto player in Kansas City, and, “Bird” being “Bird,” with his voracious appetite for all kinds of experiences, became addicted to it by the time he left Kansas City to go first to Chicago, and then to New York. So, Parker’s addiction to heroin coincided with the emergence of his genius, which coincided with heroin’s wider distribution in Harlem. It was a simultaneous happening. As he became a hero, he was influencing the lives of his fellow musicians who were also getting into the drug. By 1948, after he had his breakdown and was enjoying his comeback in New York, heroin was beginning to flood the neighborhoods of Harlem as a result of gangsters like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, as well as corrupt New York City narcotics police and intelligence agencies — some of whom allied themselves with the gangsters as a way to counter the influence of the communists in places like the port of Marseille in France.
So, while these drugs were coming into Harlem in 1948, by1950, you had the brightest young jazz musicians in America already addicted to heroin — Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon — I could go on and on. No one really knew how bad the drug was, but they certainly found out quickly enough once they became addicted to it.
JJM Parker’s use of the drug certainly influenced the image of “hip” also, and that must have had an enormous affect on people like the pianist Hampton Hawes, who said, “Those of us who were affected the strongest felt we’d be willing to do anything to warm ourselves by that fire, get some of that grease pumping through our veins. He fucked up all our minds. It was where the ultimate truth was.”
MT I don’t think anyone has articulated it quite as good as he did right there.
JJM So, what affect did Parker have on the Beat writers’ use of drugs?
MT Well, they idolized him. Parker’s most famous statement about art was, ” They teach you that there is a boundary line to music, but man, there is no boundary line to art.” That is exactly what the writers of the Beat generation were after; they were trying to blow out the boundaries of writing. So, Parker was a god to them, really. Jack Kerouac likened him to the Buddha in Mexico City Blues. Not only that, but conceptually, when Kerouac wrote On the Road, his famous taping together of Japanese rolling paper was done so he could type words on his typewriter in a continuous flow of consciousness exactly the way Bird was blowing jazz with his saxophone. Ginsberg adopted what Kerouac called a long saxophone line, used in his poem Howl. Parker’s influence on them was not only around his drug use and creative innovation, but also the conceptual thinking identified with the jazz of the time. They brought it into their writing.
JJM Herbert Huncke said of Parker’s recording of “Lover Man,” “You can hear his agony, one junkie to another, and the people I was with felt the same way about it.”
MT Yes. The famous Los Angeles recording session of “Lover Man,” when Bird broke down, is a powerful episode in this whole story. He went to Billy Berg’s on the West Coast with Dizzy Gillespie to bring bebop there, but Dizzy had to let him go because he was so strung out. He just sort of fell into an abyss at that point. Subsequently, Howard McGhee got him a recording session for Dial where he recorded “Lover Man.” He plays it with everything he can possibly muster, but he is right on the edge — you can hear the pain. The musicians of his era who were trying to achieve breakthroughs in music viewed this as a triumph of Bird’s, in a way. He was strung out, he broke down, they sent him to Camarillo, yet he came back out more brilliant and stronger than ever. What it meant to them is that Bird had created great art out of this pain.
JJM And his death made him even more legendary.
MT Yes, it did. One of the remarkable things about that is that you would think that the stories of the likes of Charlie Parker and Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix would be cautionary tales serving to prevent people from ever doing this kind of thing. In fact, that did not happen, and in a lot of cases they may have even stoked the embers. That has always just blown me away. I was about twenty when Hendrix, Janis and Morrison went down, and it had no restraining impact on us at all.
JJM Of another cultural icon within the beat group, Neal Cassady, you wrote that he became “one of the great pot heads and speed freaks of the age.” How did he impact those around him?
MT Like Huncke, Cassady was quite a character. These guys did with their lives what the jazz musicians were doing with their instrument. They were trying to blow as well, but they were blowing different modes of being, different modes of looking at life and processing experience. Cassady was remarkable that way. He just burned with life. Everyone who knew him and spent time with him was deeply affected by Cassady. The most powerful thing about him was the way he was able to be in the moment. That is so different from the way most Americans lived their lives at that time. You have to understand how revolutionary that was — the conventional American middle class protestant culture of the mid-century was not about being in the moment, it was about doing the right thing, it was about preparing for the future. It was about so many things other than being just absolutely present in the moment, like almost in a Zen sense, and that was what Cassady was about.
Of course, the drugs that he did — speed and pot — were things that enhanced that aspect of being in the moment. That is what Kerouac was so blown away by. For all of his aspirations to be a great writer and to break through with a new form of writing, Jack Kerouac was a mill town boy who had a lot of Catholic repression to deal with. When Neal Cassady came along, he felt he was dealing with a force of nature. Kerouac was essentially an observer. Cassady was this wild stallion, and his persona had an enormous impact on them, and he became a character in their stories as well. So a whole generation of kids in the late fifties became influenced by his character when these books started coming out amid the phenomenon of the beat generation. People read On the Road and they looked at the Cassady character of Dean Moriarity and responded with great enthusiasm. It was just as powerful as those kids who looked at Bird in 1945 and 1946 and went wild over his lifestyle.
JJM It was powerful and authentic at the same time.
MT Absolutely authentic.
JJM Kerouac became so popular during that time. How did the media’s portrayal of him affect drug use among the wider culture?
MT That is an interesting anomaly. When the beat generation happened, there was a huge media backlash. It was very vitriolic. One of the reasons for that, of course, was the element of drug use in their writings. Other things were offensive to people as well — the sexuality, the homosexuality, the crime, the sort of amorality of it. All of this was really eye opening. When On the Road first came out, it was reviewed so famously in the New York Times by Gilbert Milstein, who wrote about the drugs. He talked about the “readily recognizable stigma of drug use.” That is what the media seized on, and they tried to use it as part of the backlash against the beat generation, but the result is that the absolute opposite of what they intended occurred. It piqued the curiosity of young readers and more of them read the book as a result of the way it was portrayed in the media. The whole scene became charged with excitement with the aspect of doing the forbidden, and kids became more interested in drugs as a result.
JJM Was it widely known at the time that much of Ginsberg’s Howl was written while under the influence of or as a result of his use of drugs?
MT Well, Ginsberg himself made it clear. He was always completely candid about it. He would talk about how marijuana consciousness was an important part of it, in the way he juxtaposed images — he called it eyeball kicks, optical consciousness. When he was a student at Columbia, he would smoke pot and go to the museum to look at the paintings of Cezanne, and he started to understand how he used the hot and cold retreating colors in his paintings, and he began to think about how he could do that with imagery. He always pointed out that that was a direct result of his marijuana experiences, and that is why he would always say that for a certain kind of person, marijuana could be an educational experience, because it certainly taught him stuff. And the second part of the poem — the famous Moloch section — was a peyote vision that he had in San Francisco. There are a dozen or so explicit references to the use of drugs in Howl — he was not only writing about people using drugs, he was writing about the drugs themselves, and they had a direct impact on the stylistic breakthrough of his writing.
JJM Did the civil rights movement accelerate the interest in drug use among whites?
MT Ed Sanders – a poet, activist, and rock and roll musician in a group called the Fugs — talked about that. Even before the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement was very much aligned with the early peace movement whose goals included things like banning the bomb. Sanders was a part of that. He writes about a peace march in his book, Tales of Beatnik Glory, that happened right at the same time as the civil rights marches. The participants tended to be a lot of the same people, and reefer was a very secret part of the lives of a number of them. Their use of it was kept very quiet — especially in the civil rights movement — because they realized how vulnerable they were. It was strictly forbidden to carry the stuff while on a march. These activists had come out of that same literary and musical sensibility, and were well aware of marijuana and how it was now a part of the bohemian neighborhoods in the country — whether it was the Village, Coconut Grove in Florida, Venice in Los Angeles, or North Beach in San Francisco. And where did a lot of the civil rights people come from? They came from those places and from college universities that by the mid-sixties were filled with people interested in marijuana. They were the advance guard of the baby boom generation.
JJM It may have given them some sort of revolutionary purpose. Record producer Paul Rothchild said “We became groupies to this jazz and blues revolution. See, the blacks had tried to integrate into white society, and now this small group of whites was trying to integrate into black society and was finding out how hard it really was to exist in it, but we were learning new ways of walking, talking, thinking, being. We became the diametrically opposite of the beer drinking fraternity types who formed the majority of the youth culture of America.” Maybe this was their way in taking part of the movement.
MT Rothchild was a classic example of those white middle class kids who totally immersed themselves in the Bohemia of that time — in his case Greenwich Village. He came to New York one night as a teenager and some hip kid that he knew took him out to a jazz club where he smoked his first reefer, and it just absolutely blew his mind and changed his life. He hung out with the jazz cats and met Coltrane and Bird. He moved to the city and wound up running the record shop on Bleeker Street, which was one of the great record shops of the time.
Rothchild was such a great character for me because he spanned the eras. He was so emblematic of what would happen to the kids who became refugees, in a way — exiles from the conventional American middle class who were really looking for something else. In his case, the jazz culture provided that for him, but he took it into a very new and authentic direction, by affiliating himself with what became the folk scene. That is how he cut his teeth as a producer, and marijuana was central to that. The musicians playing in those clubs down there would socialize together and smoke together, and there was this very unique scene for a couple of years where not only were they exchanging marijuana, but musical ideas as well. They were constantly meeting to play each other’s songs and talk about their influences and the traditions of their music, and it began coalescing into a cultural sensibility. In Rothchild’s case, he came out to the West Coast and became one of the more progressive record producers, working with Paul Butterfield, Love, the Doors and eventually Janis Joplin — and was enormously articulate about it all. Of course as time went on, he got into deep trouble with drugs, cocaine and freebasing.
JJM Your book was an interesting reminder about the impact of Timothy Leary on the psychedelic era.
MT I thought Tim was one of the great American characters of the twentieth century, I really did. For all of the mistakes he made — and many of them he acknowledged as time went on — he remained a remarkable American figure. He was incredibly committed and open-minded. He was a revolutionary, a scholar, and a philosopher. He became a kind of political figure, a promoter, a huckster, a victim, a symbol, and it just goes on and on and on. But the amazing thing about Leary was how he never turned his back on his beliefs after he went to jail and came back out. He just went on and took it in new directions. For example, he became a cyber cultural philosopher. He felt the personal computer was the LSD of the eighties and beyond. Ultimately, by 1992, the Gap was using him in a campaign to sell blue jeans to a whole new generation of Americans. So, clearly, in a way he was vindicated.
JJM Yes, and The Gap eventually used Miles Davis as well, another cultural icon whose drug use was well known.
MT That’s right.
JJM When you bring up the name Timothy Leary, there are those who thought he was a contributor to the society, and others who believe he was the major contributor to its breakdown.
MT And he will always represent that.
JJM Even he and his peers were amazed at the impact psychedelics had on the culture. You quote Ram Dass as saying, “The psychedelic experience was going to shape and change all our lives; there was no doubt about it. We had found something that was going to change the culture and the whole way people played social games. We were very grandiose in our expectations, not only about the impact it would have on the culture, but how fast it was going to happen. Why? Because we saw how fast it was happening to us.”
MT Yes, those guys were just completely swept away by the powers and wonders and mysteries of the psychedelic experience, and in their conceptual thinking about what it could do and about how it could be used, there were no boundaries. There was no limit to it. At the same time, the government was moving toward declaring psychedelics illegal, so any and all of the research that was going on at the time stopped, and the whole story was changed. Now it was a matter of a social and cultural movement that was engaging in something that was against the law. Consequently, they had no choice but to put their eggs in that basket and hope that as the more people used them, there would be more open-mindedness about the possible role of psychedelics in fields like science, medicine, sociology, and social engineering.
JJM And then Charles Manson showed up
MT Yes, their greatest nightmare. It wasn’t only Manson though. The novelist Robert Stone, who was part of Ken Kesey’s scene during the early psychedelic era around Stanford University, said something very powerful about this. He told me that he never really thought that drugs would ultimately be a good thing, but they represented freedom, and at that time those things were very important to us. Eventually, he said, when that deep part of the human psyche gets stirred up by these drugs, crazy stuff was going to happen. So he looked at it, he saw it, and that prophecy came to pass. It wasn’t just Manson that was the trouble with psychedelics, it was the fact that people started doing them unintelligently, and it was because vulnerable people who were not really good candidates for trying psychedelics did them and had bad experiences. So, the dark side of psychedelics wasn’t just because someone like Manson came along.
JJM Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) president Todd Gitlin wrote, “The escalation of the war so completely dovetails with the introduction of psychedelics that it becomes analytically impossible to separate them.” Is the history of psychedelic drug use in Vietnam overstated?
MT I don’t think its history is overstated. Not only did drugs have a profound impact on the war, but also on the perception of it, and how it was portrayed. There is absolutely no doubt that the people who were in charge of escalating American involvement in Vietnam never for a second considered that drugs would become a problem for them over there. Meanwhile, they are fighting in a country that harvests some of the most potent marijuana in the world. Opium was prevalent, and chemists were turning it into heroin. Warlords got involved in drug trafficking, and corrupt members of the South Vietnamese regime used the distribution of drugs to enrich themselves. All of this, and more, conspired to make South Vietnam an absolute cornucopia of illicit drugs. Wouldn’t it make sense that these young soldiers going over there in this situation would be interested in that?
It is probably true that the majority of the men in Vietnam were not interested in that — they may have been drinkers, or they may have been straight and never participated in drugs or alcohol — but there was a sizable segment who became avid pot heads. Add to that the fact that acid became available. While there was never a tremendous amount of it in South Vietnam, it was definitely around, with most of it being sent to soldiers from Australia. Can you imagine taking acid in that environment? I encourage readers to revisit the book Dispatches by Michael Herr to really see what this was all about. His reportage, which became so famous, was really created at the exact juncture where the drug consciousness met the Vietnam experience. So, that had a huge impact as well. What most people overlook is what happened to these guys when they came back. At one point, one in four servicemen in Vietnam in the early seventies was a heroin addict.
JJM You point out that there were fifty thousand heroin addicts in the United States in 1962, and an estimated seven hundred twenty thousand a decade later.
MT That reflects the fact that heroin had made its way to the white middle class suburbs, it reflects the fact that by the early seventies, there was more heroin on the streets in cities than ever before as a result of these soldiers coming home, and as a result of policies of the United States government, and of police corruption. So, ten years after the wave of users that Claude Brown chronicled in Man Child in the Promised Land, there was a whole new generation of African Americans now coming into heroin.
JJM The use of heroin may have impacted the effects of black protest. Black Panther Party member Willie Jones said, “In some ways, dope was more powerful than the FBI or the bullets that cut down guys like Fred Hampton. And it wasn’t only the Panthers. I believe that dope slowed down the whole black movement in America.”
MT It is not really hard to see how many of these firebrand revolutionaries — Huey Newton and Bobby Seale among them — got into trouble with drugs. The Panthers were based in Oakland, a city that was inundated with heroin by the late sixties and early seventies. The same thing in Harlem
JJM Concerning the business of marijuana distribution, Jerry Rubin said “If you do an economic analysis, it was really multilevel marketing.” Did marijuana help finance the anti-war movement as Rubin would claim?
MT What he is saying there is that many of the marijuana dealers were involved in the anti-war movement, and they gave money to the movement, which was used for things like mimeographing pamphlets, printing posters, funding events — that kind of thing. He was referring to the cultural aspects of the anti-war movement. Just as marijuana dealers gave money to help fund communes and crash pads and music events, they did with the anti-war movement as well.
JJM Lenny Bruce once said, “Someday marijuana will be legal because of all the law students are smoking pot.” Do you think pot had a chance at being legalized if not for the emergence of cocaine?
MT That is a good question. One could speculate about that, and my answer would tend to be no. The whole decriminalization trend of the seventies was coming to an end even before Reagan took office. By the early eighties, there were four thousand chapters of the Parents Movement in this country. These were groups of parents who were teenagers and college students in the fifties whose children were in high school during the seventies at a time when marijuana use among high school students was reaching its highest point ever. It had just spiked, and they were freaked out, aghast, horrified. They began to organize and formed an important part of what became Reagan’s core constituency — the true believers in the war on drugs — and it was largely marijuana that they were against. To a degree, that is why the whole war on drugs has always been largely a war on marijuana, because it was those people that he really wanted to satisfy. He was acting on their behalf.
JJM Cocaine, on the other hand, was the white-collar drug
MT Yes. It is the closest thing to a white-collar drug that we have ever had in this country. The whole demographic of cocaine was something that was unique. It was a Wall Street drug. It crossed into areas of American culture that had never really been involved in drug use before, and as a result, it also had a corruptive aspect to it that was unique. The Northern California sensimilla growers of the seventies, or the people running pot out of Jamaica or Columbia or Thailand, certainly made a tremendous amount of money, but they were much different from the people who became the big cocaine smugglers of the eighties. There was a darkness that began to pervade the whole drug scene at that time. It started to get very toxic and dangerous, and as the dollars increased, so did the capacity for violence and corruption. And that darkness was because of cocaine. It was not because of marijuana.
JJM The very nature of the drug itself is so different from marijuana. You point out that it isolates the user from others, and because of its cost and reputation, people did it on their own. It made them anti-social, in a way. And the way it was distributed was more illicit and the people involved in its distribution were more dangerous.
MT That’s right.
JJM In its war on drugs, the government pursued the marijuana growers in Northern California, cutting down that supply, which only served to stimulate interest in cocaine as it became more readily available
MT Yes, it is incontrovertible. As the cost of marijuana went up, the cost of cocaine came down, and it became more available. Therein lies the whole crack cocaine phenomenon.
JJM And suddenly the entertainment culture got hooked into this. About Saturday Night Live, you write, “The writers were aware that they were putting together a show for a mass audience of viewers who were staying home and getting high.” These writers were marketing their humor to these viewers. This brings us to comedian John Belushi, who had quite an impact on cocaine use in this country. You mentioned earlier that when you were a kid the drug deaths of the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison didn’t seem to slow your own use of the drugs, whereas Belushi’s death seemed to have that affect on a generation of cocaine users. Why?
MT He was a real handy symbol who came along at a time when a lot of people were starting to burn out anyway. The first large wave of people got into cocaine around the mid-to-late seventies, and you started seeing all these signs of cocaine in the culture. There was the publication of Robert Sabbag’s Snowblind, which was the first really great book about cocaine use; Saturday Night Live was up and running; Studio 54 was really raging, and the drug was marketed by High Times magazine as being the next big “thing.” So cocaine had a real cache. There was something very chic about it. I believe it was Sabbag who compared it to “flying to Paris for breakfast.” So during those four to five years of the late seventies/early eighties when coke use was prevalent, twenty million Americans “flew to Paris for breakfast.” Many of us wanted to make the trip over and over again. It just kept building and building, until it finally peaked and started turning bad.
Right around that time, a number of things happened. The distributors of cocaine in Miami were largely Cuban middlemen who worked out of the Cuban American community. The guys who became the Medellin Cartel also started to organize, and they began trying to control the trade down to the street. They went up against these Cuban Cocaine Cowboys, which led to the first instances of shootouts, right out in the open. The violence started surging in Miami. All of that was going on right at the same time that Belushi flamed out. So, here it is, Belushi goes down in 1982, and Bob Woodward’s book on him, Wired, comes out after his death and, like Snowblind, captured a moment about cocaine right when it was turning toxic. People saw that there was nothing romantic about Belushi’s death, at least in the way Woodward portrayed it. It looked stupid and wasteful and ugly, and a kind of symbol for what had become a whole generation living the fast lane lifestyle. In a way, Belushi became a handy symbol.
Many people who knew John were really devastated by what had happened, and how he was being held up as this symbol of drug abuse. To them, he was this life loving man who got in trouble with drugs and who happened to take a wrong turn. Belushi went down on a speedball — heroin mixed with cocaine — and a lot of his friends felt that the binge that took him down was not at all characteristic of who he was and how he lived his life. While there is no doubt that the guy was a raging drug fiend, their attitude was that he just turned in the wrong direction. If he had turned left instead of right, this may not have happened to him. There were many aspects to the demise of John Belushi that were important to the story, not only how he became emblematic of that excess, and that burnout, but also how he was kind of victimized by it at the same time.
JJM While his death encouraged people to quit their use of cocaine, it also encouraged the government to accelerate its war on drugs, to the point where the Princeton scholar Ethan Nadelmann compared it to the communist hysteria of the fifties.
MT Nadelmann was the head of the Drug Policy Alliance, the most influential group lobbying for drug policy reform. He wrote articles for prestigious publications like Foreign Policy and Science magazine that were very critical of the war on drugs and caused people like George Schultz to think differently about the war on drugs. So Nadelmann is a big player in this story. He was the one who looked at the drug hysteria of the eighties and said it was really no different than the excesses of McCarthyism in the fifties.
JJM Lester Grinspoon of Harvard used the term “psychopharmacological McCarthyism” to describe this.
MT That’s right.
JJM Given the current political climate, how can a rational debate about drug use exist?
MT That is why I wrote this book. I am hoping to get out on the university circuit this fall and speak to college audiences. They are a motivated audience for this discussion. Forty percent of college students support the legalization of marijuana right now, which is the highest percentage since the seventies. Clearly this is a generation disposed to thinking differently on the subject. At the same time, I will be the first one to say that any kind of drug policy reform is going to be painfully slow and incremental. We have spent half a trillion dollars since 1980 trying to make this country drug free. There are a lot of people invested in the war on drugs — the laws have been evolving, and they are not going to be easy to turn back any time soon. Just look at the fact that the Republican Party has a base of sixty million religious fundamentalists who truly believe that these substances are the tools of Satan. You are not going to get those people to start seeing it differently any time soon. Until there is a sizable population in this country that is willing to organize politically on behalf of drug policy reform, it is going to be hard to have that debate, and it is going to be hard to make those policy changes.
JJM Could you have written this book if not for your background?
MT Other people have attempted to write this kind of book, but they tend to be academics. That is why I state in the beginning that this book is not a formal history. I am essentially a journalist who lived through the drug experience. It had a huge impact on my life and I came to see it having a huge impact on the culture as well. I wanted to write essentially a popular work about it, but at the same time, I am really happy that a number of academics have read my book. The Library Journal gave it a very nice review, and I am quite enthusiastic about the possibility of getting out there and talking about it.
JJM You wrote, “As the Great Stoned Age turned into the Age of Recovery, one of the most powerful ironies was how so many people would find in recovery the very freedom they had sought in drugs.” But, would they have gotten to that place without using drugs in the first place?
MT My answer to you is no. It is one of the great ironies. So many of the people who became addicts and alcoholics and who had horrific bottoms had their lives completely resurrected in twelve-step programs. They found themselves on a totally new spiritual path as a result. There is no doubt that they would not have gotten to that place without their drug experiences. The question is, is it worth it? Oh, that is a good question. In my case I have to say yes, and I can only speak for myself, obviously.
I also work as a producer, writer and director for film and video, and a number of years ago I did a documentary on the band Aerosmith. They were one of the most visible of the bands that had bottomed on drugs, but they got sober and became very open and candid about their use of drugs earlier in their lives. During the filming, their drummer, Joey Cramer, told me that drugs was an important part of the path they followed, and that despite all the pain and turmoil and darkness and damage they caused, he would not have turned his back on any of those experiences. While I definitely have remorse about some of the things that happened to me, in my years of addiction, I don’t have regret. I can’t have regret.
JJM Everyone has their own personal journey in life. David Crosby, whose life was severely impaired by drug use, has a slightly different opinion on this. He said, “We were right about a lot of things twenty-five years ago. We were right about the war. We were right about the environment. We were right about the civil rights and women’s issues. But we were wrong about the drugs.”
MT And that is a powerful statement coming from him. I will close by saying that despite the fact that I myself ended in a twelve-step recovery program, for which I am eternally grateful, the overwhelming majority of people who did drugs during that time did not become addicts and alcoholics. And that is the dirty secret that all of the drug warriors and the prohibitionists do not want to talk about.
“Maybe William Blake had it right when he wrote that the path of excess leads to the temple of wisdom. The rub is that there will always be those who won’t live to tell about it.”
– Martin Torgoff
About Martin Torgoff
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
MT For the longest time I was obsessed with baseball, and I would have to say that my childhood hero was Mickey Mantle. He represented this heroic, almost god-like figure out on the baseball field, who just kept playing and playing fantastically no matter how injured he was. He was a real powerful example about how people could continue to excel despite liabilities. He played through the pain, as they say, and I have come to see that that is really what life is about, too — you play through the pain. Of course, as we found out later, Mantle’s major liability was that he was a budding and ferocious alcoholic. But in terms of childhood “Field of Dreams” kind of stuff, I would have to say that Mantle was it for me.
Martin Torgoff has been a Contributing Editor of Interview and a producer for CNN “World Beat.” A documentary filmmaker, he is the author of several previous books, including the best-selling Elvis: We Love You Tender, and American Fool: The Roots and Improbable Rise of John Cougar Mellencamp, which was awarded the ASCAP Deems Taylor Prize. He lives in New York City with his wife and son.
Martin Torgoff products at Amazon.com
This interview took place on August 27, 2004
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with free speech movement historian Robert Cohen.
# Text from publisher.