How Twitter is like Cocaine

I realize the allure of this article is the headline. All about the headline.

Which in all fairness should actually be something like

Understanding Compulsive Drug Usage: How being Involved with Twitter is like nursing a Cocaine Habit – the startling similarities

Excerpt from the book Cocaine Nation by Thomas Feiling.


But you know how it is with short, snappy headlines and short, snappy attention spans. I also understand that the premise of twitter as cocaine is not an original idea as such. Patrick Moberg in his strip Internet Vices has mentioned it, though in the sense of quite a different joke (also, he says crack cocaine and illustrates with sniffing cocaine – remarkably different levels of addiction, but let’s not bicker about splitting hairs).

From Internet Vices by Peter Moberg

From Internet Vices by Peter Moberg

While coming off twitter in the most recent edition of withdrawal, I have felt bouts of restlessness that have yet again moved into an all encompassing calmness (Just one of the effects readily felt). This happens every-time and the immediate effect on the attention span is embarrassingly stark. I am suddenly able to read up to 40-50 pages at a time, yesterday I watched a two and a half hour movie on my laptop, without stopping even once. The last time I measured my attention span in the throes of twitter’s check – refresh – refresh cycles, it was about 4 and a half minutes.

These are all personal observations, of course, inevitably tied up with how I use twitter, and how involved I get. Compulsive usage, Reinforcement, Withdrawal and Dependence would all add to one’s personal usage profile.

Anyway, I had finished reading this brilliant non-fiction book by Tom Feiling called Cocaine Nation (my review) a couple of days earlier and had a lot of those words fermenting in my head. My endeavour below has been to reproduce portions of a chapter from the book because of the connections it seems to make in my head. I would like to make it clear that no-where in the text does the author Tom Feiling actually compare twitter to cocaine addiction. It is my own endeavour, and in a way rather light hearted and foolhardy (while completely understanding the gravity of things being talked about).

Tom Feiling is a remarkable qualitative researcher. This book is an example of how to put forward an argument suavely, and utilising statistical data and anecdotal quotes to support the hypothesis and make it interesting and easier for the reader to connect the dots. In almost each of the eleven chapters of the book, Feiling has taken a different route to story telling, and it is fascinating to watch and humbling to read.

Reading the extract below would familiarize you with drug usage and anecdotal evidence of it. The read is worth it just for the myth cleaning exercises and the clarity in providing a framework to think about addiction. It would talk about not just cocaine, but about how modern society looks to get intoxicated. What is so different about modern drugs? And why would people take them? I have left the little numbers in the text (these are all footnotes in the book to studies that have been quoted in the text) just to provide an idea of the thoroughness of the conclusions being made.

My suggestion? Replace ‘Cocaine’ with ‘twitter’, and see what you get. Also, below this book excerpt, I have put in similar thoughts to mine from two very different articles.

The below extract is from Chapter 9 : The Demand for Cocaine.  I have not reproduced the entire chapter, but excerpted portions of it. On to the book.


Cocaine Nation, also published as The Candy Machine

Cocaine Nation, also published as The Candy Machine

Why do people want to take Cocaine?

Every era has its drug, its effects serving as a barometer of the prevailing mood of a time and a place. In some periods, people have been inclined towards relaxing, narcotic drugs such as opium; in others, people have chosen to take reality-warping, psychedelic concoctions. The spirit of the new century seems to respond best to stimulants, such as caffeine, cocaine and amphetamines. Throughout the 1970s, cocaine was available to a small and moneyed British market but it wasn’€™t until the following decade that use of the drug spread to highly paid, highly pressurized professionals working in the media and the City of London. All drugs gain their first adherents among a small clique, but it is telling that cocaine use first became fashionable among members of the elite. In 1985, a doctor in La Paz, Bolivia, described the city’€™s typical cocaine user. ‘The majority of occasional cocaine users belong to the upper or upper middle class. Almost all of them are professionals, artists, businessmen or successful politicians. Generally, the quantity does not go over a couple of grams a month. Its use is usually limited to weekends, and it is generally used only at night. Daily use is extremely rare. The majority use cocaine with the same frequency that they use alcohol, as an antidote to drunkenness or to prolong the entertainment. A minimal percentage uses cocaine to increase their physical or intellectual output. A few young women use it to lose weight; others like its aphrodisiac powers.’

Cocaine is part of a wave of democratization of bourgeois taste in the United Kingdom. As access to holidays abroad, designer fashion and exotic cuisines has spread from the elite to the masses, so too has access to cocaine. Its use has become a gesture of extravagance, sophistication and conspicuous consumption, akin to drinking champagne. ‘€˜Cocaine is getting more popular with less affluent people because it’€™s opening a gate for them,€™ a recreational cocaine user called Carl told me. It makes them feel a bit better about themselves, in the same way that people go to Tesco’€™s and buy an organic carrot instead of a cheap carrot. We a€™re in a consumer state now and people’€™s self-esteem is boosted by what they can afford to buy’.

In 1924, two German doctors wrote that €˜’generally a cocaine user is a sociable personality’€™.11 The UK might have become a politically and economically more conservative country in the past thirty years, but it has also become one whose mores are more permissive and whose people are more sociable. The Victorians first took bourgeois propriety to the masses. Today, the mantle has been almost entirely cast aside, as Britons revert to a pre-Victorian tradition of carefree pleasure-seeking.

Gabrielle works for Strathclyde police constabulary, but outside working hours she has found cocaine to be an effective social lubricant. ‘Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had have been between close friends when we’€™ve had some Charlie. You a€™re on it, but there isn’€™t that pressure to compete with other people for attention. You can have an earnest and honest chat about personal things. We were friends before, but the coke helped us to really open up to one another.€™ When I asked Alan from the advertising agency about the pleasure he got from cocaine, he described it as ‘a tribal feeling, doing it with your friends, and all going off into a little story together. Coke amplifies your personality and makes your conversation that little bit more amusing and sparkly, if only for a short period of time. It’€™s a subtle state of euphoria. It makes me lose my inhibitions without being out of control. Or at least you think you a€™re in control. While you might be boring the shit out of the people you are talking to, you think you a€™re being witty and intelligent.’

The sense of heightened awareness, combined with confidence and ease that cocaine users describe was recognized by the first Europeans to study its effects. According to his biographer, Sigmund Freud €˜tried the effect of a twentieth of a gram and found it turned the bad mood he was in into cheerfulness, giving him the feeling of having dined well, “€œso that there is nothing at all one need bother about”, but without robbing him of any energy for exercise or work€™.12 Under the influence of cocaine, Freud’s intellectual output was much increased. On 21 April 1884, he was still only planning to secure some cocaine, but by 18 June, he had completed a veritable paean to the wonders of cocaine, an essay that was hurriedly published in the Zentralblatt fur die gesamte Therapie. Freud’€™s initial praise and eventual repudiation of cocaine has become a widely cited cautionary tale. After wholeheartedly recommending cocaine to his friend Ernst Fleischl von Marxow as a cure for his morphine addiction, Freud watched as Fleischl developed an all-consuming cocaine habit.

What most tellers of this tale omit to mention is that Fleischl was driven to daily use of morphine and then cocaine by recurring tumours that kept him in unremitting physical pain. For the average recreational cocaine user, Freud’€™s experience of cocaine is more pertinent than that of his friend because it demonstrates that while cocaine has long been regarded as a drug for the sociable, it has other uses as well. As might be expected, British cocaine users are more likely to go to pubs and clubs than non-cocaine users. But 62 per cent of British people who have used cocaine in the past month are not frequent pub-goers and several of the users that I spoke to incorporated cocaine into their daily lives. ‘€˜I got a couple of grams for my birthday and it lasted me a month,€™ a recreational user called Paolo told me. I’€™d have a little line before I went to work and maybe one when I was at home with the kids. Last Sunday, I had a line at about 4 o’ clock and I happily did the ironing. Today I had a Red Bull, and my heart was pounding, but I don’€™t get that with coke. But it is expensive and I don’€™t want to be in zippy mode all the time.’

The need and desire to be in €˜’zippy mode’€™, to face the world with energy, optimism and fearlessness, provides a promising insight into cocaine’€™s rise to fashionability.

Pam is a former cocaine user from Detroit, who has long put her addiction to cocaine behind her. I asked her what she had got from cocaine. ‘I grew up in a town in rural Michigan, so there weren’t a lot of drugs, but I would do anything and everything I could get my hands on. I didn’€™t have access to cocaine until I was fifteen. I had a boyfriend from Detroit who was a little bit older than me, and he brought cocaine on a date for us to snort. I liked it a lot. It suited my personality. I a€™m pretty hyperactive, and one of the things that I liked about cocaine was that I didn’€™t have to sleep as much. I could stay up and get a lot done.’

In the course of the freezing Sunday afternoon I spent with Ted in Williamsburg, New York, I asked him about the reasons underlying his cocaine use. I was met with a look of befuddled frustration. ‘I never thought about why I did coke. It’€™s a central nervous stimulant. It makes you feel really good. It makes you want to talk and have sex and dance, and whatever else you normally do, only more so. I guess some people want to be more awake than others. You miss stuff if you go to sleep. I might have dozed off once or twice when I ran out of drugs, but I basically didn’€™t sleep from 1979 to 1986.’

In the early years of the twentieth century, an artistic movement that came to be known as Futurism was notable for being the first to recognize high speed as the main, if not sole, contribution that modern civilization had made to the history of human pleasures. Life in the modern cities of the world is characterized by its speed: city dwellers in all the developed countries are in constant physical, mental and spiritual movement. Everything is subject to change, and we are constantly being encouraged to absorb and respond to those changes. In this context of incessant stimulation, we cannot afford to switch off because anyone tempted to passively observe change risks being left behind. The coordination, communication and efficiency that speed facilitates are among the greatest virtues of modern city dwellers. The hyperactivity, impatience and restlessness it produces are among our worst vices. The seductive capacity of cocaine resides in its promise of committed engagement with the present. Cocaine helps its users to maintain intense attention, even as it shortens its span. Indeed, cocaine promises its users little other than a fascinated engagement with the here and now. Perhaps the sensation of speed has eclipsed the origins and destination that once gave the journey its meaning. Even as the object and purpose of that engagement remain distressingly elusive, cocaine reminds the skittish of what complete engagement feels like.

Hard drug use was virtually unheard of in the United States in the period between the First and Second World Wars.13 By contrast, drugs had a profound impact on the postwar period. There has been a generation of heroin users born between 1945 and 1954, a generation of crack users born between 1955 and 1969, and a generation of marijuana users born since 1970. Hysterical claims about drug use have abounded since the Industrial Revolution, but a more sober assessment now seems possible. Most people don’t like most drugs. Most of those who do try cocaine do not go on to use it heavily. They don’€™t even go on to use cannabis heavily.

Most recreational drug use is unproblematic. Studies have shown that young Americans who use drugs heavily and often are more likely to be emotionally insecure, less likely to be able to form healthy relationships, and were often emotionally distressed as children. But they have also shown that young people who abstain from all drug use tend to be equally maladjusted, described in one study as “anxious, emotionally restricted and lacking in social skills”€™. Those who fared best were those young people who used drugs occasionally, engaging in what the authors of one study termed €˜age-appropriate, developmentally understandable experimentation€™. They went on to argue that heavy, frequent drug use among American adolescents is a symptom, rather than a cause of psychological problems, and that focusing on symptoms rather than the underlying causes is counter-productive.14Another study showed that the same holds true for American adults: life satisfaction is associated with moderate and occasional drug use. Dissatisfaction is associated with both heavy use and abstinence.15

Today’€™s aesthetes take drugs because they can get away with it, but also because they have an almost politicized sense of pleasure. They jealously guard their right to define what their pleasures might be. Pleasure, having been harnessed to the engine of commerce, carries its passengers to a utopia of endless shops. Goods and goodies have become indispensable to our personal happiness as well as that of the wider economy. As pleasure and profitability become paramount, and the global drug economy continues to thrive, the distinction between a chocolate cake, a fine single malt and a line of cocaine has become blurred. Many consumers would argue that if they have the money to pay for all three, they have the right to buy all three.

Drug sub-cultures still exist. They are a way of life and an important part of the self-identity of some young people. Asking some teenagers to give up smoking cigarettes is tantamount to asking them to give up their credibility in the only peer support system they have. Drug use was so important to a specific sub-culture of the 1960s that it was regarded by friends and foes alike as an ideological statement. Today, however, there are multiple sub-cultures based on race, sexuality, music, even the food you choose to eat and the shops you choose to buy it in. It is no longer a question of being hip to drugs that mainstream society spurns. Instead, there is a grey area of generalized drug use, which most practitioners would file under ‘occasional leisure activities’€™.

As Alan the ad-man put it, ‘Teenagers today are incredibly blasé. ˜They’€™ve been watching women getting fucked by horses on the internet since they were five. Everything that was counter-cultural or subversive has been co-opted, so drugs have become more normalized. They a€™re an option. To worry about young people taking drugs is about as sensible as worrying about what kind of shoes they wear. What’€™s the big deal? It’€™s highly unlikely that they a€™re going to take as many drugs as my generation did, and we didn’€™t turn out that badly’.

A blasé attitude to cocaine is, however, no surer a guide to its effect than a fearful one. Understanding the risks inherent in using cocaine is a vital first step towards anticipating and dealing with compulsive cocaine use. Trying to figure out why cocaine becomes a problem for some but not for others, I started by asking recreational users what they considered to be cocaine’s negative effects. Ricardo, who I had met while I was in Bogota, wanted to talk about the contradictions inherent in taking cocaine to ease communication. ‘One of the main effects of coke is that everyone wants to talk and talk and talk. But after a point you realize that the words aren’€™t working. You find yourself trying to describe your need to talk, but realizing that the words to do so barely exist. Words become useless, despite your fluency with them’.

Back in London several months later, I met Mark, who told me that he had tried cocaine and decided that he didn’€™t like it. Like Ricardo, he had found that far from easing conversation, the loquacity that cocaine gave him betrayed him in the end. ‘I was out until five o’€™clock in the morning, having the most earnest conversation of my life. I felt a desperate urge to unburden myself, to reveal things. But then I asked myself, €œam I only saying this because I a€™m on charlie? That terrible double-edged paranoia was quite a horrible experience. The cocaine should have created some kind of bond between me and the person I was talking to, but your inhibitions are there for a reason and we hadn’€™t loosened them organically. We’€™d caustically stripped them’.

‘I went to a nightclub the other day’,€™ he went on, ‘Everyone was on charlie, but I’€™d arrived at the point where the coke had run out, and I had the feeling that the party was going on somewhere else, in some dark recess. Everyone was an island, like monkeys in some strange zoo. You couldn’t talk to anyone, because they were all following the one guy with coke, like he was the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The desperation was frightening’.

Ted seemed to have a prosaic explanation for this. ‘€˜Coke turns you into an asshole just by being expensive and desirable. You’ve got to make sure that everybody doesn’€™t find out that you’€™ve got coke, so you make your secretive trips off to the bathroom with your elite little club of buddies. Cocaine is an IQ test. If you a€™re still doing it, you flunked. It’€™s like masturbating. Masturbating is good fun, but in the end we probably want to do something else with our day, don’t we?’€™

Bridget agreed that the pleasure to be had from cocaine was self-limiting. €˜In the run-up to one Christmas, I remember having quite a hard-partying agenda, and I got very bored of taking cocaine. If you a€™re always artificially excited, how can you ever be genuinely excited? Most people work that out. For me, the downside comes when I go to bed at four in the morning, and I say to myself, I am not going to be able to go to sleep,€™ Alan told me.

Whether bringing out its users’€™ wit or their morbidity, cocaine seems to have none of the quasi-mystical connotations of other drugs. Indeed, the promise of a €˜trip€™, an escape from or transcendence of reality, no longer appears to be a tempting one for most drug users. Cocaine has been described as €˜the steel drug.19 It changes perception, not by making the world appear more wonderful or magical than the user had imagined, as might be said of cannabis or hallucinogens, but by making it seem even more stimulated than it really is. There hasn’€™t been a cocaine movement, as there has been an ecstasy movement, or a heroin sub-culture, perhaps because cocaine makes people too self-conscious to listen to other people, let alone devise a collective plan. Sherlock Holmes was probably the first fictional cocaine user. His creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, used Holmes’€™s drug abuse to illustrate his character’s restless intelligence, low tolerance for boredom and the ennui that they gave rise to. In The Sign of Four, the great detective says, ‘I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”€™ As this suggests, among the risks of taking cocaine is that it can elevate the ego to airless heights, the better perhaps for the user to throw himself from. For misanthropes, it can make the world appear inane and people mechanical.’

Though illuminating, these accounts tell us more about the context in which cocaine is used and the personality traits of its users than they do about the drug itself. The primary effects of any drug are physical, and stem from its natural properties. The pleasure experienced when taking cocaine is a result of the drug’s effects on levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine plays a big part in rewarding us for experiences which promote reproduction and survival, which is why eating, having sex and fighting feel good. Cocaine blocks the re-uptake of dopamine at the nerve synapses in the brain, so the dopamine stays in the synaptic gap between axon and neuron a little bit longer, making the synaptic nerve endings especially sensitive. It is this heightened sensitivity which produces the euphoric feelings described by cocaine users. The Andean Indian chewing a mouthful of coca leaves, the stockbroker snorting a line of cocaine and the homeless prostitute smoking a crack-pipe are each getting high on that delayed re-uptake of dopamine in the brain. What they actually experience varies enormously, however, because a drug’s effects also depend on how much you take and the way you ingest it.

Many substances can be both cure and poison, depending on the size of the dose. Discussing a local medicine, Aristotle recommended that doctors prescribe a dragma (measure) to enliven the patient and boost his confidence, but warned that two dragmas would make him delirious and start to hallucinate, three would drive him to permanent madness, and that four dragmas should only be administered if the doctor wanted to kill his patient. Can it be said that dragmas are dangerous? Not as long as Aristotle was able to measure the dosage. As Ted pointed out, €˜’even drinking the nicest Chardonnay, if you drink two cases you a€™re going to be puking on your shoes. Similarly, if you take the most subtle, refined Peruvian vintages in sufficient quantities, you can find yourself committing some bizarre sex act that lasts for three days’.

One of the unintended consequences of driving drug use underground has been to make the accurate measurement of dosage much more difficult. Every year there are about 3,000 cocaine and heroin-related deaths in the United States. Eighty per cent of them are thought to occur either because the drug has been adulterated with harmful additives or because it hasn’€™t, in which case the user runs the risk of injecting a much purer dose than he or she intended to.20 In the days when the US government prohibited alcohol as well as drugs, drinkers ran similar risks and died in similar numbers.21

The cocaine experience depends on the form in which the drug happens to be available. Coca leaves, typically chewed or brewed as a tea, are a mild stimulant comparable to tea or coffee. The World Health Organization’€™s investigation of coca and its derivatives found that coca consumption had beneficial effects on health, and produced no noticeable problems for the user’€™s work, family or social life. But because all coca products are illegal, importers bring them into the UK in their most lucrative, concentrated and powerful form, as powdered cocaine. There is no market for coca leaves, coca tonics or the myriad milder forms that proved most popular with British consumers in the nineteenth century, when buying cocaine was as easy as buying tea. After all, why would a smuggler risk going to prison for a cheap, bulky product that offers its users only a mild high? Banning drugs has had a crucial effect on the demand for them. Nobody had even thought of smoking cocaine before it was banned.

The effects of any drug also depend on the setting in which it is taken and how it is regarded by others. If you can imagine a world in which alcohol was unknown, the slurring of words, the woozy stagger and clumsy bonhomie that characterize the drunk would be unrecognizable. Instead of being met with a knowing wink, he would have to contend with an uncomprehending stare. Put that drinker in the company of someone who has also had a drink, or has at least been drunk in the past, and he is much more likely to be able to relax. Anyone who has learned how to drink alcohol knows that his clumsiness is not permanent. It is a passing effect of the drug he has imbibed, for which sensible drinkers make allowance, and from which they can then derive amusement.

Having realistic and well-informed expectations of a drug’€™s effects also explains why some cultures seem able to use drugs that others are ruined by. There are hill tribes in Thailand and Burma that are entirely dependent on growing opium. Precisely because it is widely available, opium consumption has had to be regulated and codified, and is generally reserved for old, unproductive members of the community. In less homogenous and cohesive societies, it is more difficult to set ground rules for who can and cannot take drugs, which makes it all the more important that drug users are well informed.

Drug education in schools would be better grounded if it adopted the same aims that underpin the teaching of other subjects: to increase young people’€™s knowledge and understanding, so that they can arrive at their own, informed views.

Jorge Hurtado, in his book Cocaine: the Legend, quotes a doctor from La Paz, Bolivia, as saying that ‘cocaine is a safe drug, provided that it does not get into the hands of unbalanced people that can use it with self-destructive aims€™’.25 The authors of a study published in Toronto in 1989 found that the most frequent pattern of cocaine use over time, far from being an inexorable descent into drug addiction, was up-top-down€™. Most of the 100 cocaine users they looked at had taken larger amounts of cocaine over time, but they didn’€™t lose control of how much they were consuming and only a minority progressed to really heavy use.27 An American study which followed twenty-seven cocaine users over an eleven-year period concluded that €˜the tendency for use to escalate to abuse was neither inexorable nor inevitable. Most never came to use cocaine daily or regularly in heavy amounts. The majority of our subjects had used cocaine for more than a decade, usually in a controlled fashion.29

The typical career of a cocaine user lasts between three and six years, and peters out with age, experience and changing lifestyles. This is much shorter than the typical career of alcohol and heroin users, who can be dependent on one or the other for their whole lives.30 Four years after the first interviews were conducted in Amsterdam in 1987, almost half of the respondents had stopped taking cocaine. Of the rest, over 90 per cent reported periods in which they hadn’€™t used cocaine for at least a month. These reports and studies suggest that far from being blindly led down a road to ruin, most cocaine users take increasing amounts, realize that the effects are self-limiting, and soon tire of them.

The notion that the charm of cocaine is such that it destroys the user’s powers of self-control just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As Alan said, ‘what limits my intake of cocaine is that I don’t want to get off my face that often, the same reason that I don’€™t want to get drunk every day. I want to be in control of my life 95 per cent of the time and 5 per cent of the time I want to let myself go and forget about the other 95 per cent’.€™ 

Plenty of Britons enjoy bingeing on cocaine (partly because it helps them to binge on alcohol), but few of them develop a daily habit, if only because most of them have to go to work on Monday morning. For those so inclined, a true intoxication marathon can last for days, and pave the way for a drug experience quite different to that produced by snorting a couple of lines. The pulses of euphoria experienced by participants in a cocaine binge can create vivid long-term memories, which for some will become a fount of craving for stimulants. Large doses of cocaine can also lead to severe psychosis while the user is still on the drug, with symptoms including powerful cravings, escalating doses, inability to eat or sleep, chaotic mental processes and paranoid hallucinations.

The doctor cited in Cocaine: the Legend had treated some of the first problematic cocaine users of La Paz and offered an explanation for the tendency of regular cocaine users to keep taking the drug. ‘The intervals of abstinence from chronic use are invariably followed by a rebound effect, manifested in bad humour, irritability, and permanent tiredness. This in turn deepens the exhaustion, closing the circle and establishing the psychological drug dependency’.€™ Ted’€™s explanation of escalating use echoed the doctor’€™s. ‘Cocaine is like spending your whole pay cheque on Friday night. It feels great on Friday night, but it sucks to wake up broke on Saturday morning. That’€™s what cocaine does to your dopamine levels. You’ve used up your capacity to feel pleasure for the foreseeable future. Like Freud says in The Cocaine Papers, cocaine is not addictive. It’s just that discontinuing the dose produces a feeling of lethargy and ennui that is immediately relieved upon repeating the dose’.

‘As soon as I’€™d get high, I’€™d want some more’, Doris told me. Heroin is more physical, but that cocaine, it’s a psychological addiction. The desire is so strong, when you run out, you feel desperate. It makes you think “man, I’€™d do anything.”

€™Yet as the user starts to take cocaine on a habitual basis, what was once a completely engaging experience ultimately becomes a boring one. ‘With all this stuff, the longer you use it, you don’t get the same high any more’,€™ Pam said. ‘You spend a lot of time trying to get that same high back, and you just can’t€.€™ Unrealistic expectations lead to inevitable disappointment, yet habitual users seem to have a perverse need to experience that disappointment, perhaps to puncture expectations they know to be unreal’.

The feelings that accompany withdrawal from heroin or the delirium tremens of the recovering alcoholic set in hours or days after the user has stopped taking the drug. Because the physical symptoms of withdrawing from a cocaine habit are minor, many doctors initially classified cocaine as a non-addictive drug, or at least one which all but the pathologically pathetic could resist. Habitués of cocaine were not thought to be addicted to the drug, but to pleasure itself. The problem lay not so much with the drug, as with its users, who saw no reason to cease gratifying their basest instincts. As a result, compulsive cocaine users were generally given shorter shrift than heroin addicts, with enforced abstention being the typical means of breaking the habit. Ted disparaged the very idea that people become addicted to cocaine. €˜’People who talk about their addiction to cocaine are basically weak-minded pussies. With heroin you get physically sick, you a€™re vomiting, you are shitting in your pants as you walk down the street. With coke, you feel like shit and life sucks, but what exactly is the difference between that and real life? If you can’€™t handle the shit that’s around you, you should go and get a heroin habit or something’.€™

Asa Hutchinson was head of the DEA between 2001 and 2003. In a speech he made on accepting his new job, he echoed the notion that drug addiction is essentially a character flaw. ‘I will bring my heart to this great crusade. My heart will reflect a passion for the law, a compassion for those families struggling with this nightmare, and a devotion to helping young people act upon the strength and not the weaknesses of their character’.

There was a time when ‘addiction’ was used exclusively to refer to compulsive use of alcohol or class A drugs like heroin. These days, we can be addicted to just about anything, from pornography and chocolate to shopping and love. The advocacy group Action on Addiction claims that one in three British adults suffers from some form of addiction.32

So in what sense is cocaine ‘addictive’? Repeated use of a substance is no indication of addiction (if it were we would all have to admit to an addiction to toothpaste). Compulsive use would be a better description, and a substance’s potential for being used compulsively seems to depend on several factors. The first is how intoxicated the user feels after taking it. In terms of intoxication, alcohol is an even stronger drug than heroin, which is in turn stronger than cocaine, which is stronger than marijuana. Reinforcement is a measure of how often users dose themselves with the substance. Alcohol tops the list, followed by heroin, then nicotine, then cocaine. The third factor is withdrawal. Nicotine has the severest withdrawal symptoms, followed by heroin, then cocaine, then alcohol. The factor that best highlights the potential dangers of cocaine use is dependence, which refers to the likelihood that users will continue using the drug even after it has started to do them harm, how hard they find it to stop using the drug and, having stopped, how easily they relapse into using the drug again. Cocaine is more likely to attract dependants than heroin, alcohol, nicotine or marijuana.33

But the physical qualities of any substance only go so far in explaining why people become dependent on it. Compulsive internet use is reported to be a problem all over the world, but it became an issue in South Korea when young people started dropping dead from exhaustion after playing online games for days on end. South Korea claims to be the most internet-savvy country in the world. Ninety per cent of homes have broadband internet connections. There are 140 internet-addiction counselling centres and 250,000 of the country’€™s under-eighteen year olds are said to show signs of internet addiction, a syndrome characterized by an inability to stop using computers, rising levels of tolerance that drive users to seek ever longer sessions online, and withdrawal symptoms like anger and craving when prevented from logging on. Dr Jerald J. Block, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health and Science University in the United States, estimates that up to nine million Americans may also be at risk of developing the disorder.34

What Dr Block calls €˜pathological computer use€™ cannot be explained by scrutinizing South Korea’€™s computers or the online games that users play. It has its roots in an intensely competitive society that regularly sacrifices the rounded self-development of its young people to a conformist, target-driven education system. The compulsive escapism€™ that this has created might also be a better explanation for problematic drug use. The law and the medical profession generally focus on the drug, rather than the life and mind of the drug user, when trying to explain why people lose control of their drug use. But if young South Koreans can suffer withdrawal symptoms when deprived of online entertainment, in what sense can it be said that drugs are more dangerous than computers? Ted is critical of the pharmacocentric approach to understanding compulsive drug use. ‘It’€™s an easy cop-out from personal responsibility to blame the drugs. Skiing is a dangerous activity involving a white powder. It involves starting up real high and then coming down real fast. And it takes all sorts of effort, like a ski-lift, to get back up to the top. Is that an addiction? Is it pernicious? Should ski lifts be banned?’

Pain and intoxication are intimately bound, as the doctor from La Paz, Bolivia, made clear. ‘In almost all cases where there is this type of abuse of cocaine, I have found in the user’s previous history depressive states of the most varied origins: losses in life, dependent personalities, low tolerance for frustration, etc. These states in turn create conditions for easy dependency. Really, [drug abuse] is a desperate and intuitive search for treatment, an uncontrolled self-medication, which only results in the worsening of the previous depression’.

A verse from Proverbs 31:6 advises the reader to ‘€˜give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts’€™. Popular iconography of the drug addict suggests that social deprivation and self-destructive drug abuse go hand in hand. While there is a lot of truth to this, this materialistic focus on poverty masks the many, more familiar instances in which depression leads to substance misuse, as in the case of Gabrielle. ‘I’d come home having worked really hard all day and I’d have a line to give me the energy to do the things that I needed to do at home, to feel like I could have my spliff, to feel like I’d earned it. I had to earn everything. Cocaine was very linked to my working pattern, being on my own at work and being on my own at home. The cocaine use was easy to keep hidden, but it was also completely miserable because I’d have a lot more time to consider what I was doing and to feel shit about it the next day. I was coping really well with the rest of my life. But when there’s no one to stop you, you just keep going. I ended up going deeper and deeper into it to try to escape. I’m quite frightened of cocaine now.’

Intoxication by any substance offers an escape from circumstances. It follows that the most dissatisfied people tend to take the most intoxicating drugs. The most marginalized and isolated among them continue to take hard drugs in spite of the harm it does them because all too often there is nobody to stop them. Crack cocaine is not a drug that appeals to many people.

Crack is not the sort of drug that you can indulge in at leisure. It picks you up and runs with you, all the while convincing you that you are more in control of your life than you have ever been. Many of the people interviewed by the authors of On the Rocks: A Follow-Up Study of Crack Users in London spoke in glowing terms of the pleasure they got from ‘running about’€™ and being €˜’on a mission’€™.36 The pleasure of crack might be lost on the average Londoner, but the motive for taking the drug is a familiar one. For every City of London stockbroker with a weekend cocaine habit, smiling with satisfaction at the pace and excitement of his life, there is a compulsive crack user smiling for the same reason.

But crack use is not necessarily compulsive. A crack user can stop using rocks, and experience no physical withdrawal symptoms. To suggest that the drug is responsible for the dependent relationship that many users develop is to gloss over the deprivation and neglect that many of them have experienced. Far from facing up to the origins of problematic drug use, it would seem that the greater society’s reluctance to confront mental illness and depression, the more strictly it prohibits the use of certain drugs.

‘€˜Hell is of this world,’€™ wrote the French theatre critic and opium smoker Antonin Artaud in 1934, ‘and there are men who are unhappy escapees from hell, escapees destined eternally to reenact their escape.’38 In discussing the prohibition of opium, Artaud wrote that nobody can stop another from intoxicating himself. But he also insisted on a much broader definition of intoxication, to mean something more akin to immersion. He described the intoxicating effects of solitude, reading and anti-sociability. People value intoxicants, not just for the immediate pleasure they give, but for the measure of independence from the outside world that they supply. Most people enjoy that independence in small doses, but those buckling under the pressure exerted by the outside world will crave it. Sigmund Freud defined drugs as ‘painkillers’€™. It is precisely because painkillers offer refuge from external pressures that they will always be potentially dangerous.

Why some people enjoy cocaine from time to time while others let their drug intake define the course of their lives, is a question of what sobriety means to the drug taker. Mass drug addiction is a recent phenomenon that has flourished in a specific culture, one notable for the stresses that many of those who live in it have to bear and the solitude that many of them bear it in. But modern city dwellers don’t just take drugs to escape the world. They also take drugs in a misguided attempt to kick-start their participation in it. They are actively encouraged to believe that there is a product that can be bought that can satisfy their every desire, including their desire to participate more fully or escape entirely. The market for escape is partially fed by our notions of success, many of which are as prohibitive and exclusive as our favourite goods. Those deemed unsuccessful will always be tempted to alight on drug-taking as a pursuit (in the original sense of the word, as a flight from reality). Many of them will use drugs as part of a compulsive quest for some imagined state of grace; and some will use them in greater quantities as they realize the ultimate futility of the quest.

I asked Ted who he thought was most likely to develop problems with drugs. ‘Stockbrokers basically play Monopoly for a living. Most people past the age of seven find that boring. If you’€™re a guy with a healthy Wall Street income, you almost certainly have no emotional or psychological centre, so when you plug into the main circuit of pleasure, you’€™re fucked. Brokers are a drug dealer’€™s dream customers. They value things that are expensive and showy. Big tits! Porsche! Coke! So of course they get all fucked up on cocaine and are out selling pencils six months later. But to extrapolate from that sample something about the substance? No. I would certainly be in favour of criminalizing stupidity, but criminalizing something because stupid people might like it is not a very productive approach, is it?

Dealing with other people’s stupidity, as well as their depression, means facing up to the destructive qualities inherent in personality traits that we prefer to celebrate, such as competition, individualism and self-denial. It requires that we accept drug abuse as an attempt to self-medicate conditions beyond the aegis of most doctors, who are trained to focus on physical well-being. Regular, compulsive crack use is symptomatic of deeply rooted obsessive or compulsive psychological disorders. Such disorders can also manifest themselves through torturous relations with other substances (like alcohol) or activities (like sex, or even the internet). The pharmacological properties of cocaine can only go a short way in explaining why there are so many compulsive crack users in America’€™s inner cities. Far more telling is the price and wide availability of drugs like cocaine in communities of deeply troubled people.


Jerry, a former methamphetamine user and treatment programme graduate from Chico, California, told me where he thought the roots of compulsive drug use lay. “€˜A lot of people feel lonely, you know? So they seek companionship, sometimes in a very unhealthy way, via drugs and alcohol. You have to ask yourself OK, what can I do?€ First off, I can change the way I perceive being lonely. It’€™s not such a bad thing. How can I develop some support, some friendships, so I feel a part of things, and have some purpose in my life? We treat drug dependency as a symptom of a lack of coping skills. You start to learn how to deal with anger and frustration without having to run and numb yourself with drugs and alcohol. How to deal with loss and grief, and relationship issues. How to communicate effectively. A lot of the guys have never had to manage money or be responsible for their actions. So we focus on changing thinking patterns, changing our environment, and really developing some sober living skills.”

But as Louis told me, drug treatment can only work when its providers recognize the drug user’s right to define their problem for themselves. “€˜It is one thing to be using recreationally, another thing to be self-medicating, and another thing to be on a suicidal track”.€™ For the many people whose drug-taking is a response to trauma, depression or hopelessness, being told to stop taking drugs is not always the best way to reduce the harm they are doing to themselves. “Crack users are stigmatized, marginalized and criminalized, but really, the harm is caused more by society’s attitudes than by the drug in and of itself. My drug use has changed as I’€™ve realized that it is possible to be a productive member of society and still be a drug user. You need some kind of base, a sense of responsibility for yourself and your relationships. The self has to be in place, and then the self can make choices. Once you have that, you can enjoy the experience of smoking crack, without the would-have-beens, could-have-beens or should-have-beens. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. It’s a quaint saying, but I believe there’s some truth to it.


From a New Yorker Online Blog Stop The World,

I’m told that Twitter is a river into which I can dip my cup whenever I want. But that supposes we’re all kneeling on the banks. In fact, if you’re at all like me, you’re trying to keep your footing out in midstream, with the water level always dangerously close to your nostrils. Twitter sounds less like sipping than drowning.

The most frightening picture of the future that I’ve read thus far in the new decade has nothing to do with terrorism or banking or the world’s water reserves—it’s an article by David Carr, the Timess media critic, published on the decade’s first day, called “Why Twitter Will Endure.” “I’m in narrative on more things in a given moment than I ever thought possible,” Carr wrote. And: “Twitter becomes an always-on data stream from really bright people.” And: “The real value of the service is listening to a wired collective voice … the throbbing networked intelligence.” And: “On Twitter, you are your avatar and your avatar is you.” And finally: “There is always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on.”

This last is what really worries me. Who doesn’t want to be taken out of the boredom or sameness or pain of the present at any given moment? That’s what drugs are for, and that’s why people become addicted to them. Carr himself was once a crack addict (he wrote about it in “The Night of the Gun”). Twitter is crack for media addicts. It scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it. I’m afraid I’d end up letting my son go hungry.


From Is the Internet Driving Us Mad?, a fascinating 2010 article.

Questions about the Internet’s deleterious effects on the mind are at least as old as hyperlinks. But even among Web skeptics, the idea that a new technology might influence how we think and feel—let alone contribute to a great American crack-up—was considered silly and naive, like waving a cane at electric light or blaming the television for kids these days. Instead, the Internet was seen as just another medium, a delivery system, not a diabolical machine. It made people happier and more productive. And where was the proof otherwise?

Now, however, the proof is starting to pile up. The first good, peer-reviewed research is emerging, and the picture is much gloomier than the trumpet blasts of Web utopians have allowed. The current incarnation of the Internet—portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive—may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic. Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts, and normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.

Does the Internet make us crazy? Not the technology itself or the content, no. But a Newsweek review of findings from more than a dozen countries finds the answers pointing in a similar direction. Peter Whybrow, the director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, argues that “the computer is like electronic cocaine,” fueling cycles of mania followed by depressive stretches. The Internet “leads to behavior that people are conscious is not in their best interest and does leave them anxious and does make them act compulsively,” says Nicholas Carr, whose book The Shallows, about the Web’s effect on cognition, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It “fosters our obsessions, dependence, and stress reactions,” adds Larry Rosen, a California psychologist who has researched the Net’s effect for decades. It “encourages—and even promotes—insanity.”

Perhaps not that surprising: those who want the most time online feel compelled to get it. But in fact these users don’t exactly want to be so connected.

We may appear to be choosing to use this technology, but in fact we are being dragged to it by the potential of short-term rewards. Every ping could be social, sexual, or professional opportunity, and we get a mini-reward, a squirt of dopamine, for answering the bell. “These rewards serve as jolts of energy that recharge the compulsion engine, much like the frisson a gambler receives as a new card hits the table,” MIT media scholar Judith Donath recently told Scientific American. “Cumulatively, the effect is potent and hard to resist.”

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