The Konformist

Version 2.0
September 1998

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Dark Alliance:

The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion.

Gary Webb

Thanks to Gary Webb for permission to excerpt his excellent tome.



"A Pretty Secret Kind of Thing"


In July 1979, as his enemies massed in the hills and suburbs of his doomed capital, the dictator huddled in his mountainside bunker with his aides and his American advisers and cursed his rotten luck.

For the forty-six years that Anastasio Somoza's family had ruled the Republic of Nicaragua, the Somozas had done nearly everything the U.S. government asked. Now, after all his hard work, the Americans wanted him to disappear. Somoza could barely believe it. He was glad he had his tape recorder going, so history could bear witness to his cruel betrayal.

"I have thrown many people out of their natural habitat because of the U.S., fighting for your cause ... so let's talk like friends," Somoza told U.S. ambassador Lawrence Pezzullo. "I threw a goddamned Communist out of Guatemala," he reminded the ambassador, referring to the role the Somoza family had played in the CIA's overthrow of a liberal Guatemalan government in 1954. "I personally worked on that."

When the CIA needed a secret base to prepare for the Bay of Pigs invasion, Somoza couldn't have been a more gracious host. "The U.S. called me, and I agreed to have the bombers leave here and knock the hell out of the installations in Cuba," Somoza stormed, "like a Pearl Harbor deal." In 1965 he'd sent troops into the Dominican Republic to help the United States quell another leftist uprising. Hell, he'd even sent Nicaraguans off to fight in Vietnam.

And now, when Somoza needed help, when it was his soldiers who were locked in a life-and-death struggle with Communist aggressors, the Americans were selling him out--all because of some nonsense about human rights violations by his troops.

"It is embarrassing for you to be good friends with the Somozas," the dictator told Pezzullo sarcastically. Somoza then tried his trump card: If he went, the Nicaraguan National Guard, the Guardia, would surely be destroyed. The Guardia, as corrupt and deadly an organization as any in Central America, served as Somoza's military, his police, and his intelligence service.

Somoza knew the Americans would be loath to let their investment in it go to waste. They had created the Guardia in the 1930s and nurtured it carefully since, spending millions of dollars a year supplying weapons and schooling its officers in the complex arts of anticommunism.

"What are you going to do with the National Guard of Nicaragua?" Somoza asked Pezzullo. "I don't need to know, but after you have spent thirty years educating all of these officers, I don't think it is fair for them to be thrown to the wolves.... They have been fighting Communism just like you taught them at Fort Gulick and Fort Benning and Leavenworth--out of nine hundred officers we have, eight hundred or so belong to your schools."

Pezzullo assured Somoza that the United States was "willing to do what we can to preserve the Guard." Putting aside its international reputation for murder and torture, Pezzullo recognized that the Guardia was a bulwark against anti-American interests and, as long as it existed, could be used to keep Somoza's successors--whoever they might be -- in line. "We are not abandoning the Guard," he insisted. "We would like to see a force emerge here that can stabilize the country." But for that to happen, Pezzullo said, Somoza and his top generals needed to step down and give the Guardia "a clean break" from its bloodstained past--before the Sandinistas marched in and it became too late to salvage anything. "To make the break now. It is a hell of a mess," Pezzullo said sympathetically. "Just sitting here talking to you about it is strange enough. We are talking about a break."

Somoza knew the game was over. "Let's not bullshit ourselves, Mr. Ambassador. I am talking to a professional. You have to do your dirty work, and I have to do mine."

In the predawn hours of July 17, 1979, Somoza and his closest associates--his top generals, his business partners, and their families--boarded two jets and flew to Homestead Air Force Base in Florida to begin a vagabond exile. The vaunted National Guard collapsed within hours.

Sandinista columns swarmed into the defenseless capital, jubilantly proclaiming an end to both the Guardia--which had hunted the rebels mercilessly for more than a decade--and Somoza. Those National Guard officers who could escape poured across the borders into El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica, or hid inside the Colombian embassy in Managua. Those who couldn't, wound up in prison, and occasionally before firing squads.

Nine days after Somoza and his cronies were overthrown, a handful of congressmen gathered in a hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., to discuss some disturbing activities in Latin America. Though what had happened in Nicaragua was on everyone's mind in the nation's capital that week, these particular lawmakers had concerns that lay farther to the south: in Colombia, in Bolivia, and in Peru.

They were worried about cocaine. The exotic South American drug seemed to be winning admirers everywhere. References were turning up in movies, songs and newspaper stories, and surprisingly, many of them were positive. To Republican congressman Tennyson Guyer, an elderly former preacher and thirty-third-degree Mason from Findlay, Ohio, it seemed like the media was hell-bent on glamorizing cocaine.

Guyer, an ultraconservative fond of loud suits and white patent leather shoes, was the chairman of the Cocaine Task Force of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, and he wasn't just going to stand by and watch.

"Recent developments concerning the state of cocaine have come to my attention, which call for decisive and immediate action!" Guyer thundered as he opened his cocaine hearings in July 1979. "The availability, abuse, and popularity of cocaine in the United States has reached pandemic proportions.... This is a drug which, for the most part, has been ignored, and its increased use in our society has caught us unprepared to cope effectively with this menace."

But if Guyer was feeling menaced by cocaine, not too many others were.

Many Americans who'd grown up during the drug-soaked 1960s reasoned that an occasional sniff of the fluffy white powder was no more menacing than a couple of martinis--and considerably more chic. Cocaine didn't give you a hangover. It didn't scramble your brains. Many doctors believed you couldn't get hooked on it. It made you feel great. It kept the pounds off. And there was a definite cachet associated with using it. Just the price of admission to Club Cocaine was enough to keep out the riffraff. At $2,500 an ounce and up, it was a naughty pleasure reserved for a special few: the "so-called elites" and the "intellectual classes," as Guyer derisively termed them.

Even the paraphernalia associated with the drug--sterling silver cocaine spoons and tightly rolled $100 bills--carried an aura of decadence. In the public's mind, cocaine was associated with fame and fortune.

"The rediscovery of cocaine in the Seventies was unavoidable," a Los Angeles psychologist gushed to a convention of drug experts in 1980, "because its stimulating and pleasure-causing properties reinforce the American character, with its initiative, its energy, its restless activity and its boundless optimism."

While the street corners played host to lowbrow and much more dangerous drugs--angel dust, smack, meth---coke stayed up in the penthouses, nestled in exquisitely carved bowls and glittering little boxes. It came out at private parties, or in the wash rooms of trendy nightclubs. Unless some celebrity got caught with it by accident, street cops almost never saw the stuff.

"My first ten years as a narcotics agent, my contact with cocaine was very minimal," recalled Jerald Smith, who ran the San Francisco office of the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement during the 1980s. "As a matter of fact, the first few years, the only cocaine I ever saw was an ounce some guy would take around as a training aid to teach you what it looked like. Because it was something you saw so rarely. Our big thing[s] in those days were pills and heroin and marijuana."

But if Reverend Guyer thought the experts he'd summoned to Washington were going to help him change the public's mind about cocaine sniffing, he was badly mistaken. Witness after witness trooped up to the microphone to tell Congress that cocaine was not only a relatively safe drug but so rare that it could hardly be called a nuisance, much less the "menace" Guyer was advertising.

"Daily cocaine use is extremely uncommon, simply because of the high cost," testified Robert C. Petersen, assistant director of research for the National Institute off Drug Abuse. "Under present conditions of use, it has not posed a very serious health problem for most. Rarely does it cause a problem."

Lee I. Dogoloff, the White House's drug expert, concurred. "It is our assumption," he said, "that the current relatively low level of health problems associated with cocaine use reflects the relatively high price and relatively low availability of the substance."

To make the point, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Peter Bensinger, told the committee he had brought $800,000 worth of cocaine to show them. He pulled out a little bag and dangled it before his rapt audience.

"That is simulated, I trust?" Guyer inquired.

"No, that is actual coca," Bensinger replied. A sample, he said, of seized contraband.

"I can't believe you are holding almost $1 million there!" Guyer sputtered. "We ought to have security in the hearing room!"

"We have some special agents in the room, I assure you," Bensinger said.

The experts were careful to note that if cocaine became cheaper, it would be more widely available and might pose a bigger problem than anyone realized, but no one seemed to think there was much chance of that happening. Most of the smugglers, Bensinger said, were just bringing amounts small enough to put in a suitcase or stash on their body. "We don't think people are bringing cocaine across the border, to a large extent, in a car from Mexico." He recommended that Congress, instead of trying to prevent the drug from coming in over the borders, concentrate its efforts on getting the Peruvians and Bolivians to stop growing coca plants.

Dr. Robert Byck, a drug expert from Yale University, sat in the audience listening patiently to the testimony all day. When it was Byck's turn to speak, Guyer warmly welcomed him up to the witness table, complimenting him on his "very, very impressive" academic and professional credentials.

Byck thanked Guyer and then politely ripped into the federal government for spreading misinformation about the drug. "What I would like to talk to you about for the most part is the importance of telling the truth," Byck, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Yale Medical School, began. The truth was that cocaine wasn't the horrible health hazard Americans were being told it was. "Cocaine doesn't have the kind of health consequences that one sees with drugs such as alcohol and cigarettes. Right now, if we look at the hospital admission records and death records, cocaine doesn't look like a dangerous drug.... We have given a great deal of cocaine to many individuals and find it to be a most unremarkable drug. We are giving cocaine by nose to normal young men. When anyone visits our laboratory, they look at the TV screen and say, `That guy took cocaine?' They don't jump around, they don't get excited; they sit calmly and experience a drug high and don't become dangerous."

"What about five years later?" Guyer cried. "Are the membranes and so on not affected at all?"

"The damage to people's membranes is quite rare with cocaine. It does occur, but it is a rare phenomenon," Byck answered. "Part of this is because people don't use very much cocaine. It is expensive. Tell me the last alcoholic you saw with cirrhosis of the liver when cirrhosis was caused by Dom Perignon. You almost never see it."

As most Americans were using it, Byck said, cocaine "is a very safe drug. You almost never see anesthetic death due to cocaine. There have been a series of 14,000 consecutive doses of cocaine given with no deaths. Deaths from cocaine are very, very rare. They do occur, and I think it is important to recognize that they occur. But actually, the drug, in terms of the risk of killing people, is comparatively safe. If you want a dangerous drug, take digitalis or digoxin.... It is a heart drug. And that is really deadly, one of the deadliest poisons known."

"But that is used to save lives," Guyer countered.

"Yes, it is used to save lives," Byck said. "Cocaine is also used medically. So you cannot take whether or not something can kill you as a measure of dangerousness."

What the government was doing with its scare campaigns about cocaine, Byck complained, was poisoning the well. It was ruining the government's credibility with the public, just when the government needed its credibility to be impeccable. "I think we make a mistake when we say that snorting cocaine every once in a while is a dangerous habit and is going to kill people, because it does not," Byck said flatly. "There are a great many people around who have been snorting cocaine and know that their friends haven't gotten into trouble. If you then tell those people that cocaine is very dangerous, they won't believe it. Then, when you get to the next step--when you are talking about something that is really dangerous--they are not going to believe you the second time." And that brought Byck to the real reason he was in Washington on a humid day in late July.

He was there to deliver a warning from the scientific community.

Something bad was coming, Byck knew, something so deadly awful that the only way to prevent a catastrophe was for the government to tell the truth, and pray to God that it was believed. "I think we have to be careful that the government is believed about cocaine, because there are dangers associated with the drug," Byck said vaguely. "These dangers are not particularly associated with the present use pattern."

Byck told the committee that he'd hesitated for a long time about coming forward with the information and was still reluctant to discuss the matter in a public hearing. "Usually when things like this are reported, the media advertises them, and this attention has been a problem with cocaine all along."

Chairman Guyer, who'd spent two decades as a public relations man for an Ohio tire company, told Byck to spit it out. "[The purpose of our panel] is to bring into the open what has been, up to now, a pretty secret kind of thing."

The information Byck had was known to only a handful of drug researchers around the world. And it was as frightening a spectacle as any they'd ever seen.

For about a year, a Peruvian police psychiatrist named Dr. Raul Jeri had been insisting that wealthy drug users in Lima were being driven insane by cocaine. A psychiatrist in Bolivia, Dr. Nils Noya, began making similar claims shortly thereafter. Their reports, written in Spanish and published in obscure medical journals, went largely unnoticed in the United States because, frankly, they sounded so weird.

The first problem was that all of recorded history was against them. Peru and Bolivia had been producing cocaine products for thousands of years, with few reports of the drug causing serious medical effects. At the same time, some of America's leading researchers were claiming that cocaine was nonaddictive and perhaps should be legalized.

Jeri, a professor of clinical neurology at the National University of San Marcos, claimed a cocaine "epidemic" had swept through Lima's fashionable neighborhoods in 1974 and spread like a grass fire to Peru's other major cities: Piura, Trujillo, Chiclayo, Chimbote, Huaraz, Ica, Arequipa, and Cuzco. Within two years, he said, the alleged epidemic had engulfed Ecuador and Bolivia.

No one had heard of anything like it before. It also didn't help that the psychiatrists' studies read like the script of Reefer Madness, painting scenes of jails and insane asylums filling up with legions of half-mad drug fiends.

"When seen, these patients were generally very thin, unkempt, pale and looking suspiciously from one side to the other," Jeri wrote. "These movements were associated...with visual hallucinations (shadows, light or human figures) which they observed in the temporal fields of vision." Many of the patients bore scratches from trying to dig out the hallucinations they felt crawling under their skin, and they claimed they were being "followed by persons or shadows that seemed to want to catch, attack, or kill them....three patients died in this series, two by acute intoxication and one by suicide."

It wasn't a new drug that was causing this reaction, Jeri and Noya reported, but a new trick from an old dog. Instead of sniffing tiny crystals of cocaine up their nose, as Americans were doing, the Peruvians and Bolivians were smoking a paste known variously as pasta basica de cocaina, base, or basuco. It was all the same thing -- the gooey mess that leached out of solvent-soaked coca leaves. Coca paste was an intermediate substance created on the way to manufacturing the white powder known to most cocaine users. People had started drying the paste, crumbling it into cigarettes, and smoking it.

For the serious drug abuser, paste's advantages over powder were enormous. You could smoke as much as you wanted. With powder, only a small amount could be stuffed up one's nose, and it took time for the drug to kick in, because first it had to be absorbed by the nasal membranes. Eventually the nose got numb.

Cocaine vapor, on the other hand, hit the vast surface area of the lungs immediately and delivered an instantaneous sledgehammer high. Users described the feeling as more intense than orgasm; some called it a "whole body orgasm." And there was no limit to the amount of vapor the lungs could process. Paste had the added advantage of being richer in actual cocaine than the powder commonly sold--40-85 percent as opposed to 12-20 percent--and was far cheaper. In terms of bang for the buck, it couldn't be beat.

"Many patients said they found no other drug as pleasurable as this one," Jeri wrote. "Paste was almost unknown six years ago. Now it is the main drug reported by patients who are admitted to psychiatric hospitals or drug treatment centers in Lima. There is no zone of this city where youngsters do not get together to smoke coca paste and where pushers do not sell the drug in their own homes or in the street. They even come to the school entrances to do their business."

But there was a price to pay for such a blissful rush. The feeling lasted only a few minutes, and nirvana could only be reattained by another hit--quickly--or a crushing depression would follow, the devil's own version of the cocaine blues. It was a roller-coaster ride, and invariably the user couldn't keep up the pace.

Jeri was deeply troubled by his research, comparing paste smokers to those suffering from a malignant disease. "It is hard to believe to what extremes of social degradation these men may fall, especially those who were brilliant students, efficient professionals, or successful businessmen," he wrote. "These individuals became so dependent on the drug that they had practically no other interest in life."

The Bolivian psychiatrist Nils Noya claimed that the drug caused "irreversible brain damage" and wrote that cocaine smokers literally could not stop once they started. Some users, he reported, smoked sixty to eighty cocaine-laced cigarettes in a single session.

Cocaine-smoking parties would go on for days, ending only when the supplies dried up or the smokers passed out. "Immediately after smoking a cigarette, they have diarrhea," Noya said in a 1978 interview. "I mean immediately. But the worst part is they have to go on smoking until they finish the box [of paste]."

Jeri wrote that cocaine smoking was largely confined to Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia, but there were ominous signs that it was moving northward. "We do not know if coca paste has been introduced to America, but Panamanian authorities have reported heavy transportation of coca paste by American and Peruvian citizens," Jeri wrote in 1979, citing an unpublished Panamanian police report.

Byck, who among other things had collected and edited Sigmund Freud's cocaine papers, had been skeptical of the South American reports until he sent one of his students down to Peru on a summer project. In the spring of 1978 a first-year Yale reed student named David Paly came to Byck with an idea the scientist found intriguing: Paly wanted to measure the blood plasma levels of Peru's coca-leaf-chewing Indians to see what it was that got the Indians high. Plenty had been written about the cultural aspects of the habit, Paly told Byck, but no one had ever done any real experiments to see what it was that the leaf put in the Indians' bloodstream, and how much of it got there.

Paly, who had in interest in Peru from earlier travels there, said he "dreamed up" the project in order to start work on his thesis. "It was a fairly rudimentary proposal, but Yale has a thesis requirement for an M.D.--it's the only medical school in the country that does--so you have to start a proposal early in your career."

Coincidentally, Byck had recently gotten a letter from a prominent Peruvian neurosurgeon, Dr. Fernando Cabieses, who proposed some cooperative research on cocaine. At the time, the Peruvian government was cracking down on coca chewing and

Cabieses believed the Indians were being harassed unfairly. He was looking for some scientific evidence to back up his arguments that the Indians' social customs should be left alone. Both Byck and Cabieses liked Paly's idea, and the Peruvian agreed to provide the lab facilities, test subjects, transportation, and assistants.

Soon a delighted Paly was winging his way to South America to spend his summer among the Indians in the mountains of Peru. Cabieses squired the young Yalie around Lima and introduced him to his friends in the arts and sciences. One man Paly met through Cabieses was Dr. Raul Jeff, who latched onto him and began telling him of his research into cocaine smoking. Jeri, who was also a general in the Peruvian military police, insisted on showing Paly the wretched victims of this new drug habit he'd discovered. Mostly to humor his influential new acquaintance, Paly agreed to accompany Jeri to the psychiatric institute where Jeri worked as a consultant. Paly left the hospital more doubtful than before.

"I interviewed some of these quote unquote pastaleros, and to my mind, one of them was clearly schizophrenic," Paly said. "Another one appeared to be a poly-drug abuser. I mean this guy had done everything from Valium to Quaaludes. So I was very unimpressed when I went around with him that first time."

Reading Jeri's studies did nothing to enhance Paly's opinion, either. They "were mainly observational and not very scientific," he said. It wasn't until Paly began making friends in Lima that he started changing his mind about the insistent general's work.

"I began to hear...about their friends who were dropping out of medical school and dropping out of college and basically turning into raging cocaine addicts," Paly recalled. "They were good kids who had essentially abandoned their lives and turned into wildly addicted base smokers. They were stealing from their grandmothers and doing all the kinds of things that you would associate with a heroin addict...and there were thousands of them."

On motorcycle trips through Lima with his friends, Paly said, he'd "drive down these streets and the places would stink of cocaine. They would stink of it. You'd come around a corner and you could smell it for miles. It has a very characteristic, sweet odor. And these weren't slums either. These were middle-class neighborhoods that my friends had grown up in, and now their friends were hanging out in the middle of the street, gaunt, and totally strung out."

Alarmed, Paly called Byck at Yale and told him what he'd seen. "The substance of my conversation with Byck, if I remember correctly, was that if this shit ever hits the U.S., we're in deep trouble."

Said Byck, "I remember the phone call very vividly. He said something was going on down there, and I told him to get some bloods [samples] and bring them back with him." Paly drew blood samples from random smokers and had them analyzed at the Laboratories of Clinical Psychopharmacology at Yale that fall.

"Peter Jatlow, who was the lab director, said they had the highest plasma levels of cocaine that he'd ever seen in someone who wasn't dead," Paly recalled. "If the average experimental plasma level they were getting in the lab from ingesting -- snorting -- cocaine was 100 [nanograms per mil], these -- these were in the thousands."

Byck quickly got some federal grant money and sent Paly back to Lima to do some controlled experiments on cocaine smokers. Jeri, with his police connections, obtained the necessary permits and approvals, procured a half-kilo of coca paste and some cocaine smokers, and allowed Paly to bring them all to a room at the Peruvian Museum of Health Sciences. Most of them were young men in their twenties. Paly put on some music, served food and refreshments, and then brought out a box of coca paste.

"All subjects, calm while sitting in the room before the experiment, became markedly anxious as the box containing the paste was brought into the room," Paly wrote. "This nervousness became pronounced as they were preparing their first cigarettes and was evidenced by shaky hands and extremely sweaty palms and foreheads. This nervousness was borne out by the high blood pressure and heart rates taken immediately before smoking. This anxiety reaction is common to most experienced cocaine smokers and will often be brought on by the mere thought of smoking."

Paly was both fascinated and repelled. "It was Pavlovian," he said. "It was just unbelievable. Some of these kids, in the lab, would smoke twenty grams of paste and then, after you had paid them for their time, they would run out on the street with the money and buy more."

While Paly was running his experiments in Peru, further evidence was emerging in the United States that Raul Jeri's laughable predictions of a North American "cocaine invasion" were right on the mark. In February 1979 a psychologist from UCLA, Ronald K. Siegel, had a letter printed in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine warning of "a growing trend" toward cocaine smoking in the western United States. Siegel, who'd been researching cocaine use in the Los Angeles area since the early 1970s, was a well-known drug expert who had become something of a media darling, always ready with a good quote for reporters wanting the inside scoop on the latest drug craze in La-La Land.

Siegel had started a pioneering research project in 1975 by taking out newspaper ads seeking longtime cocaine users. L.A. being L.A., he got plenty of responses. He selected ninety-nine cocaine users, mostly young males, and proposed keeping in touch with them over the next four years so he could monitor the results of constant, long-term cocaine use.

His findings were great news for cokeheads. Not only did cocaine make you feel good, Siegel reported, but it had very few adverse psychological effects, and as a bonus, it helped you lose weight. "By the end of the study, approximately 38% of the subjects had shown increased elevation of the Euphoria Scale, indicating increased happiness and contentment with life," Siegel wrote. Only 5 percent of the subjects reported psychological problems, such as suspiciousness or paranoia, and Siegel dismissed those complaints as hypochondria or "perceptual" disturbances.

"Taken together, individuals reported experiencing some positive effects in all intoxications and negative effects in only 3% of the intoxications," he wrote. Even those negative effects "were usually of short duration and infrequent occurrence." All in all, Siegel concluded, the long-term negative effects of cocaine use "were consistently overshadowed by the long-term positive benefits."

There was, however, a curious footnote to Siegel's study, which the psychologist mentioned in passing. Over the course of his study, which ran from 1975 to 1978, six of the original ninety-nine cocaine users had become confirmed cocaine smokers, puffing something known on the streets as "freebase." Siegel was sufficiently intrigued to perform some cocaine-smoking experiments on monkeys, discovering that three out of three apes, given a choice between smoking lettuce or cocaine, clearly preferred coke.

So when Siegel read Jeri's reports about the cocaine smoking epidemic in South America, he realized the Peruvian was wrong about one thing: the habit wasn't confined to South America anymore. It had already planted its seeds in L.A. and was starting to pop up in other cities as well, building a devoted following among certain circles of rich drug users. Worse, Yankee ingenuity had already been at work, improving upon the deadly product, making it easier to use and more appealing to refined American tastes.

The substance Jeri's subjects were using, coca paste, came mostly from the jungle cocaine-processing labs that dotted Peru and Bolivia. Paste was an ugly gray glob laden with residues of the toxic solvents used to extract it from the coca leaves--kerosene, acid, and other chemicals. Some analyses had even found brick dust and leaded gasoline in it. Paste was hardly ever sold in the United States.

What Americans got for their drug dollars was the finished product, the sparkling white crystals of cocaine hydrochloride powder. But cocaine powder was made to be snorted. It was extremely difficult to smoke because of its high boiling point. So what was it that Siegel's patients were using, this cocaine they called "freebase"?

Siegel learned that it was cocaine powder that had been reverse-engineered to become smokable again. He traced the discovery of the process to the San Francisco Bay Area in January 1974, around the time that coca paste smoking had started becoming popular in Peru. According to Siegel, California cocaine traffickers who were journeying to Peru and Colombia for their wares "heard of the people down there smoking base." Though the Colombians were referring to coca paste, Siegel said, the Americans "mispronounced it, mistranslated the Spanish, and thought it was cocaine base. So they looked it up in the Merck Manual, saw cocaine base and said, `Yeah, that's just the alkaloid of cocaine hydrochloride,' which is street cocaine."

By a relatively simple chemical process, Siegel said, the dealers took the powder and "removed the hydrochloride salt, thus freeing the cocaine base. Hence the expression `freebasing.' That was something they could smoke, because it was volatile. And they were wowed by it when they smoked it." The traffickers "thought they were smoking base. They were not. They were smoking something that nobody else on the planet had ever smoked before."

By 1977, kits to extract freebase from cocaine, powder were available commercially; ads were appearing in the underground press and in drug magazines. But since cocaine powder was so expensive, freebasing was a habit practiced only by a few rich drug dealers or avant garde celebrities. "They had very inefficient processes in those days and thought you needed large bags of cocaine to reduce to the cocaine freebase. So during the early years, only dealers and very wealthy users engaged in this," Siegel said.

Dr. Sidney Cohen, another California scientist who recognized the dangers of cocaine smoking early on, wrote in 1980 that the only good thing about freebase was that it was "the most expensive of all mood changers when price is measured against euphoria time. Affluent hedonists are the only ones who can afford it."

In December 1978, after comparing notes with Jeri, Siegel fired off his letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, alerting the medical profession that there were problems afoot. "Users are now experimenting with smoking cocaine alkaloid or base," he wrote. "Free-base parties have become increasingly popular and the practice has spread from California to Nevada, Colorado, New York, South Carolina and Florida."

Siegel's letter appeared in the Journal in February 1979. Five months later, in July, he, along with Paly, Byck, Jeri, and other cocaine researchers, found themselves together in Lima for an international symposium on cocaine. It was the first chance North American and South American drug researchers had had to compare notes and discuss their latest work.

While the experts split on what to do about powder cocaine, those who'd been studying cocaine smoking were unanimous about their findings: there was a monster loose, a drug capable of totally enslaving its user.

At the Lima conference, the stories continued to pour in. Two Bolivian psychiatrists from La Paz, Gregorio Aramayo and Mario Sanchez, told of seeing patients coming in for treatment in bare feet and borrowed clothes. "One of the patients said, `This damn drug, doctor, I have had to sell even my clothes in order to buy it.'" Eighty percent of their patients, they reported, had committed "impulsive acts such as thefts, swindling,clothes-selling and others in order to buy more drug."

The Lima conference had taken place only two weeks before Byck appeared in Washington, and the stories he'd heard were fresh in his mind as he sat before Guyer's committee and listened to America's drug experts pooh-pooh the dangers of cocaine.

Once, Byck testified, he was in their camp. No longer. "I have come to the absolute, clear conclusion that it should not be legalized under any circumstances," he said. Cocaine smoking "can represent the same threat that the speed epidemics of the 1960's represented in their time.... We are on the verge of a dangerous drug use phenomenon."

Byck also wasn't the only American scientist who attended the Lima conference and came back alarmed. "The impact of these experiences was impressive, and observers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the White House, and the Department of State reported on the growing problem in South America when they returned to the U.S.," said a 1982 study. Two of those observers, from NIDA and the White House, backed up Byck's warnings at the hearing.

But there was still time to prevent a catastrophe, Byck told the committee. "We do not yet have an epidemic of freebase or coca paste smoking in the United States. The possibility is strong that this might occur," Byck testified. "I have reports from California, from Chicago, and from New York about people who are smoking the substance, and I hear there are numbers of people now in San Francisco smoking the substance. Here is a chance for the federal government to engage in an educational campaign to prevent a drug abuse epidemic." The government needed to do three things "as rapidly as possible. Number one, find out about it. Number two, establish some kind of collaboration with the media; and number three, show what happens when this drug is used, so that we don't get an epidemic. We need our best minds to figure out how to do this without advertising the drug."

But the congressmen weren't interested in discussing educational campaigns or public service announcements. That wouldn't get any cocaine, off the streets. What they wanted to know was this: What about the DEA's plan to ask the Peruvians and Bolivians to please quit growing coca plants?

Byck scoffed. "I don't think you can eliminate the growing of coca in Peru and countries which have had it for thousands of years."

"Not with [crop] substitutions?" Guyer asked.

"I don't think so."

"That is not going to work?" Guyer persisted.

"It can't work," Byck said, "if you consider these are crops grown on the slopes of mountains near jungle, and grown by people for their own use for 2,000 years. And talking about wiping it out? You have a better chance of wiping out tobacco in Virginia."

"We'll come back to this," Guyer promised, and the Cocaine Task Force hurried from the room for a break.

They never came back to Byck's warnings.

When the hearings resumed, the congressmen peppered the witnesses with such questions as whether they thought Hollywood cocaine use was contributing to the deterioration of quality TV shows (as one of them had heard recently on the Mike Douglas Show); if it was true that Coca-Cola once contained cocaine; and if the TV series Quincy, in which Jack Klugman played a coroner, was "accurate" or if it was "way out." Not another word was said about doing research or warning the public about the dangers of cocaine smoking. Byck left the hearing stunned. "Nobody paid any attention," he recalled. "They listened to it, and everyone said, `So what?' I felt very strongly that the information that I had should have caused somebody to say, `All right! We've got to start finding out about this stuff!' But they didn't."

Instead, Congress and the Carter administration did exactly the opposite of what Byck advised. It embarked on "the Andean strategy" advocated by the DEA to wipe out the coca plant, a tactic that even its supporters now concede was a failure. Nor did the federal government seem all that eager to allow scientists to do their own research into cocaine smoking, or to help them spread the alarm.

When Siegel, under U.S. government contract, finished a massive report on the history and literature of cocaine smoking, he couldn't get the government to publish it, allegedly due to concerns that readers would rush out and start smoking once they found out how to turn powder into freebase.

"They wanted me to do a scientific paper about cocaine smoking, but not to tell anyone how it was done," Siegel said disgustedly. "I tried to explain that people already knew how it was done. That's why there was a problem." Concerned that the information might never get out, he published it himself in a small medical journal two years later.

In 1982, Raul Jeri came to the United States to deliver his warnings in person.

He showed up at the California Conference on Cocaine, a well-attended affair held at a hotel in balmy Santa Monica, a few miles south of Los Angeles. Surrounded by palm trees and hibiscus, with the sounds of the ocean breaking in the background, the setting was perfect for a gabfest about such a sexy topic. Reporters flocked to the event, mobbing LSD guru Dr. Timothy Leary for a few witticisms about cocaine.

If any of them sat through Raul Jeri's presentation, it is likely they came away with the conviction that the thin, dark Peruvian was even stranger than Leary. Jeri showed his American colleagues a few slides, and in broken English tried to bang the drum about the dangers of cocaine smoking, which he claimed would result in "grave incurable cases of dementia." He trotted out his horror stories about the walking dead, the coke zombies that populated Peru. He showed more slides. "I would like to warn the U.S., against the plague which has reached its borders!" Jeri said dramatically, as the lights came back on. "The trivialization of cocaine use is a curse on humanity!"

The speech was "followed by an uneasy silence," a doctor in the audience remembered. How did Jeri treat such patients? someone asked.

Nothing worked really, Jeri said. They'd tried everything. Long periods of confinement, heavy doses of tranquilizers, lobotomies. It didn't matter. The relapse rate was between 50 and 80 percent, he said.

Um, lobotomies, did you say?

"Yes, surgical lobotomy--cyngulotomy, to be precise," Jeri said. He assured the audience that the brain surgery was done "only in desperate cases on incurable repeaters, often upon request by the family and with the patient's consent."

It was hard for Jeri's listeners to imagine how cocaine could become so addictive that a person would volunteer for brain surgery. "How barbaric," one muttered.

Byck said the Food and Drug Administration shut down attempts to do any serious research on addiction or treatment, refusing to approve grant requests or research proposals and withholding the government permits necessary to run experiments with controlled substances. "The FDA almost totally roadblocked our getting anything done. They insisted that they had total control over whether we could use a form of cocaine for experimental purposes, and without a so-called IND [an Investigation of New Drug permit] we couldn't go ahead with any cocaine experiments. And they wouldn't give us an IND."

Why not? "Once you get into the morass of government, you never understand exactly who is doing what to whom and why," Byck said.

Eight months before he appeared before Guyer's task force, Byck had requested official government permission to bring a coca paste sample into the United States for laboratory analysis. He filled out many forms, turned the sample over to a DEA agent in Lima, and never saw it again. "I now have a number of licenses I never had before, but no samples," Byck told Guyer's committee sarcastically. "The regulations which govern the legal importation of cocaine and coca research are much more effective than the regulations which seem to govern smoking or smuggling."


Konformist of the Year - 1998

Beast of the Month - August 1997

(Jerry Ceppos)

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