The Moral Eclipse of Drug Noir Economics

Back in the day, around the turn of the millennium, wreck-reational drugs like heroin, coke, meth, and crack used to hit the mass media in a hard way, getting us vicariously high over and over again. Such famed Gen-X junkie rockers as Kurt Cobain and Anthony Kiedis sold millions of records and played sold out shows in the nod, numbing the pain long enough to succumb to the next relapse, and in Cobain’s case, to his tragic and untimely death. But even the casualties couldn’t stop drug use from spreading and selling its way into the heart of our pop culture. It may have been hip and cool, but more likely, it was a recreational escape at a time when the economy was booming and everyone had more cash to burn off into the high moon. Hollywood’s most prestigious filmmakers responded to Bill Clinton’s War on Drugs declaration with a big middle finger, hyping the demoralizing struggle of addiction in such drug noir films as Trainspotting, Spun, and Requiem for a Dream. Amid the hype, emaciated supermodels strutted across catwalks fashion magazines with hollowed eyes and ghostly pallor, thrusting the alarming yet undeniably catchy ‘heroin chic’ en vogue. As if the late-‘80s crack breakout wasn’t enough, America found more ways to get high, from the youth and ecstasy-fueled rave movement to the present-day meth epidemic, which shows no signs of abating its rotting of blue collar American towns from the inside out.

Now, I’m not going to play innocent objective and pretend like I passively watched this play from the audience. I, too, gave Clinton’s War the finger, because like the War on Terror, it was impossible to win using conventional us vs. them scare tactics. My post-adolescent curiosity bought the drug hype, and why yes, FBI, I got fucked up a couple times. We can all say we didn’t know any better or blame the nearest bad influence. But I won’t let myself off that easy, especially since I’m not even ashamed. When I placed a nugget of tightly packed leaves in a pipe and inhaled, I didn’t do it because my President so ardently insisted that he hadn’t. I didn’t do it because my writer and musician heroes jumped off a cliff. I didn’t do it to see if my brain would fry like an egg. I was looking to revel in the journey of pure experimentation, sending my brain off to a place it hadn’t been before. By ingesting this journey in the form of pill, powder, or mysterious plant, my mind could stretch its limits at a time when my kid imagination had long since worn off. I did drugs to take a break from finding myself so I could let the high find me.

Because I’m a notorious lightweight whose brain gets taken over by drugs but somehow holds its own against alcohol (blame Grandpa’s genetics), I restricted the wreck-reational drugs to mostly one-time experimentation, all part of a phase I’ve since outgrown. But if I hadn’t been so high at the time, I might have stopped to ponder what drug addictions are really worth in cultural currency. Now that my head is clear, I can, especially since Clinton’s War has evolved into Bush’s case for Christian advocacy. According to the neo-conservatives taking over our government, drug addicts are nothing more than lost sinners, potential believers begging to be saved, just like our President’s pre-Born-Again hard-partying self. In a society so dependent on morals, the drug plight sells, and we don’t even have to get high to experience it.

Even though the ethical weight of substance abuse on popular musicians is complex and deeply personal, it has profoundly shaped and fueled the widespread appeal of such genres as rock & roll and jazz. On film, the tragic drug tales thrive on the dichotomies of right and wrong, good and evil, clean and possessed. A convincing character arc can be bought along with a baggie of cocaine. Engaging plot twists can be cooked up with smack in a spoon and dramatically injected mid-scene. Addictions last long after recovery, potential relapse dominating the protagonist's futile attempt to stay clean. Drugs are the worst villains because they take away who you are, over and over again, providing such an easy moral scapegoat that we often forget about the dollars and cents of it all, the economic realities of addiction. While every drug hit wears off with time and pain, who is counting our money, getting permanently higher, waiting for the inevitable next sale?

Since drugs are illegal in America, we buy our shit overseas, mooch Canada’s prescription market, although sometimes we scrounge highs over the counter, robbing pharmacies if we’re desperate. It’s capitalistic supply and demand at its most lucrative and illegal, thriving because this is a country full of daily habits to feed. With every addiction that’s created, there’s another life-altering sale for the drug producer/pusher, plenty of easy, illegal money to be made. We’re a society of consumers, spending money eating away our brains, day by day until we can’t function, addicted to relapse, rehab, afraid of withdrawal, or giving more than we’re taking in, importing more than we export. Europe. Mexico. Columbia. Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin. DayQuill mixed into speed. Crack laced into red-haired marijuana buds. Paxil. Prozac. Pharmacists. Doctors. The Surgeon General. Betty Ford. Who’s in on it? Who’s reaping the benefits from every hit? Who’s looting off the poor crack addict living off survival high, his function in society reduced to attaining the beauty of a daily rock? Who’s getting even richer as the wealthy spill continuously replenished resources into dangerously mounting habits?

I may not be high anymore, but I’m putting the economics of drug addiction cards on the table to see who wants to buy in, to see if this makes any sense to anyone else, or if I’m still feeling the effects from that unfortunately bad sugar cube of acid I took four years ago. You can hide behind your morals and argue your justifications for mental survival, but the signs are everywhere. Doesn’t anyone else see them? Afghanistan’s economy rides on opium fields run by wealthy warlords, its citizens unemployed addicts, its government U.S. puppetry. Mexico cartels trade narcotics, but it’s an impoverished country full of illegal aliens braving the deadly thirst of desert borders to come up to LA and wash some coke addict’s BMW, menial tips based on chrome wheel shininess feeding families back home.

I see the War on Drugs as being less about good vs. evil and more about complex class dynamics. But just like moral issues dominate more pressing and crucial economic matters on the political scene, the economic implications of the illegal drug trade is rarely raised in films, music, escaped from pop culture, instead nestled in the quiet pockets of those taking advantage. Introspective, self-centered moral dilemmas have always sold better than preachy public service announcements, but for the sake of momentum, I'll stick a needle in myself, because when all the drugs are busted, we'll need them more than ever.

We're all just trying to get high in a world bringing us down. We're all just trying to get high, any way we can.


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