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Hooked on Drugs

American public discourse simply cannot accept to what extent drug use, illicit and legal, is now embedded in everyday sociality.

Letter from America

Hooked on Drugs

American public discourse simply cannot accept to what extent drug use, illicit and legal, is now embedded in everyday sociality.


he world (at least those watching on TV) recently witnessed one of the greatest feats of cycling ever, when Floyd Landis, the US cyclist, went from 11th to 3rd place in one of the most difficult mountain stages of the Tour de France. His winning margin in that stage was more than five minutes over his nearest competitor, a stunning feat in a sport that usually has seconds separating winners from runnersup. This feat was all the more amazing because Landis, who was leading the Tour, had a miserable outing the day before, dropping from 1st to 11th place. Commentators were unanimous in writing him off. Landis too seemed to share their views, mentioning that he had drunk a beer or two after his poor showing, in despair. But he came storming back the next day in a performance that left viewers and competitors stunned. As is standard practice, Landis was tested for drugs after his winning performance. And, following his eventual victory in the Tour, it was announced that he had tested positive for a banned substance. There appeared to be excessive testosterone in his system. Before deciding whether to strip him of his victory, the sample was sent for further analysis. The second round of tests confirmed the first: Landis’ extraordinary feat was due to the help of performance boosting drugs. Within a few days of this fall from grace, it was announced that Justin Gatlin, the US Olympic 100 metre champion and co-holder of the world record, had also tested positive for testosterone. He could face a lifetime ban if this is confirmed. His coach, Trevor Graham, announced a few days later that the reason for the high testosterone level was because a disgruntled massage therapist had rubbed a cream containing the substance into Gatlin’s legs without the runner’s knowledge. But Graham’s peculiar explanation must be set against his own history as a coach of no less than six athletes who have tested positive for drugs in the last few years.

It was revealed that, some years ago, Graham had anonymously sent a syringe to the US Anti-Doping Agency. The syringe was found to contain a new designer steroid THG, which was undetectable by existing tests, and which was allegedly being used by anumber of leading athletes. Investigators followed clues that led them to a San Francisco lab, BALCO, run by Victor Conte, which sold human growth hormone and designer steroids to help athletes perform better. BALCO’s most famous client was Barry Bonds, the baseball player, who at the relatively old age of 37 had astounded the baseball world by breaking the single season home run record. Rumours about substance abuse began to circulate at once, as Bonds was bigger, stronger, and playing better as a 37-year-old than he had as a rookie, 15 years before. The home run record was only a year old, having just been broken by Mark McGwire the previous season, after standing for 40 years. McGwire acknowledged taking a steroidlike substance, and refused to testify before Congress, invoking his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, at a session when a number of former baseball greats openly admitted that the sport was drug-ridden.

What few seem to be willing to acknowledge is the extent to which these high profile drug scandals reflect American society as a whole. Simply put, the US is hooked on drugs. A national survey showed that 19.1 million Americans aged 12 or older used illicit drugs in 2004. 14.6 million admitted smoking marijuana, two million had used cocaine, and one million had used hallucinogens. But also, six million persons admitted regularly using non-medical psychotherapeutic drugs like pain relievers, tranquillisers and sedatives. The same survey found that 9.4 per cent of the total population had a substance abuse problem in 2004, including alcohol dependence.

In the official response to illicit drugs, now a century old, the “war on drugs” has had one constant theme. Target the supply chain, ignore the demand – except when users are politically and ethnically marginal. The class and race dimension of America’s drug “problem” is well known. Users of so-called street drugs, which get tremendous media attention, are relatively small by comparison to the numbers listed above. There are half a million users of crack and 1,66,000 heroin users. However, jails are filled with crack and heroin users who are overwhelmingly black and poor, rather than the many more white, middle class users of cocaine, hallucinogens and marijuana.

Although much concern is expressed over the flow of drugs from abroad, especially Latin America, an increasing proportion of the illicit drugs consumed in the US is produced locally. There has been of late a surge in the domestic production of “crystal meth” or methamphetamines. This can only be described as a cottage industry as most of the chemicals needed for this drug can be purchased over the counter. Among the most common ingredients is pseudophedrine, which is found in most cold medicines.

Recently 49 individuals working in or owning convenience stores in Georgia were arrested in a police sting operation: 44 of them were of south Asian origin, mostly from Gujarat and named Patel. Although south Asians own only one-fifth of the convenience stores in Georgia, they constituted 95 per cent of those arrested. They were charged with willingly selling items known to be ingredients for “cooking up” meth to undercover operatives. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed to get the cases dropped for explicit racial profiling, noting that there was little question that police officials specifically targeted south Asian-owned stores in spite of plenty of evidence that drugmakers used a range of retail outlets including the giant Wal-Mart chain. Defendants noted that they spoke poor English, making it difficult for them to understand why customers would buy these items (but it must also be noted that the prices of items known to be useful for meth manufacture were often considerably marked up, making protestations of complete innocence a little farfetched). Notwithstanding, the bottom line is, once again, the cops went after the supply chain; in this case, south Asian convenience store owners. As one lawyer said, “selling Sudafed while south Asian is not a crime”.

Floyd Landis and Justin Gatlin will soon disappear from public view, stigmatised as aberrant individuals seduced by money and fame. But individualising the problem sidesteps the larger issue. America’s public discourse simply cannot accept to what extent drug use – illicit and legal – is now embedded in everyday sociality. Drugs have become the American way of life, but any talk of legalisation is verboten.



Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006

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