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Manky Stuff

Quick Fixes: Drugs in America from Prohibition to the 21st Century Binge, Benjamin Yen-Yi Fong, Verso Books, pp. 272, $24.95


When I was a student, we used to play a boasting game. The rules were simple: all you had to do was list every drug you’d ever taken. The person who’d snuffled up the second-highest number of mind-altering substances would then, unofficially, win. Taking drugs is, after all, cool. Taking drugs makes you an adventurer. It means you’re open to the world, both the geographical outer world and the neurochemical inner world, in all its shades of weirdness. Lightly, sexily contemptuous of danger. A good person to know. But there is a limit. The person with the longest list would usually get some slightly concerned looks. There are other ways of taking drugs that aren’t so sexy. There are futures waiting for you. The hunched-over people under bridges with their frantic eyes.

I’m pretty sure the person with the longest list was, more often than not, me. That didn’t stop me running through the whole thing; I suppose I was secretly proud of myself. Maybe I still am. My list went something like this:

  • The boring, legal, socially acceptable drugs, which everyone would list very quickly to get them out of the way: Caffeine, Alcohol, Tobacco
  • The illegal but more or less socially acceptable drugs for having fun on weekends: Marijuana, M.D.M.A., Psilocybin, Cocaine
  • The drugs that were perfectly legal with a prescription, just not when I did them: Valium, Xanax, Amphetamines, Oxycontin
  • As above, but legal use was, at the time, mostly limited to horses: Ketamine
  • The drugs that were legal only because nobody had gotten around to banning them yet (or at least not when I first took them), which had awkward uncomfortable names and awkward uncomfortable effects, and which were sold online in small plastic sachets as “fish food,” or “plant fertilizer,” or most notoriously as “bath salts,” but sometimes simply as “research chemicals,” supposedly so independent chemists could play around with their methyls and ethers in test tubes and flasks, but really for the scientific experiments I was conducting inside my own body: Mephedrone, Dextromethorphan, Desoxypipradrol, Salvia, 2C-B, MT-45, K2
  • The drug whose name, when mentioned, would make everyone suddenly go ashen-faced and serious as they contemplated for a moment the wider oceans of human misery and desperation and utter all-silencing numbness that stretched far outside the fun pharmacological kiddie pool in which we were happy to play: Heroin
  • Unknown but worth mentioning: Whatever shavings and filings of psychoactive trash—rat poison, prescription opiates, bashed-up speed, benzocaine to make you bleary, phenacetin to numb your gums—actually accounted for most of the volume of the pills and powders I took
  • The drug that might have actually come closest to killing me: S.S.R.I. antidepressants.

There’s a story behind that last one. One summer when I was twenty years old, an old school friend and I decided to tour the disputed territories of Europe. So on one trip, we backpacked through Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo. For another, we flew to Ukraine, made our way through Moldova and the tiny self-declared ribbon of Transnistria, then Bucharest, then home to London. (Back then, Ukraine was just a mildly interesting place to visit; nobody contested Crimea, and Donetsk was about to host the Euros.) We had vague plans for what to do after that—Northern Cyprus, obviously, with its creepy abandoned beach resorts, stuck in an eternal, decaying 1970s; maybe Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh; maybe Palestine. Maybe, if we were feeling brave, Chechnya. And then finally, when we had exhausted every conceivable alternative, we would go to Gibraltar.

Anyway, we very swiftly made one important discovery about the post-Soviet world that had absolutely nothing to do with its geopolitics, which was that pharmacies in eastern Europe were much more lax when it came to handing out prescription medications than the ones back in the U.K. were. You could go into a tidy little shop on Khreschatyk Street, ask for speed or benzos, and they would simply give them to you. No prescription, no obligatory small talk in some drug dealer’s Fiat Punto with its smell of instant noodles and sour sweat—you just hand over a piddling sum of money and the deal is done. I think I spent the next few weeks constantly alternating between a teeth-grinding mania—frantic in Chernobyl, chattering crazily at the Golden Gate, firing a Kalashnikov from the hip on maybe an hour and a half of sleep and a brain full of chemically induced scurrying—and a total soporism. Nodding off in restaurants. Numb at Babi Yar. We popped benzos in the mornings, to take the edge off the sunlight. We gobbled up amphetamines at night. The transition between those two states would be eased with large volumes of cheap, good vodka. We drank a lot; we drank enough that some Russian tourists told us to slow down. We had a lot of bizarre conversations with bizarre people. One man, who called himself Konstantin, very genially explained that he was going to cut out my eyeball. It was all fun. I was on holiday. I was having a great time.

Our prescription-drug binge only ended once we reached Bucharest. My friend, who knew more than I did about this sort of thing, said that there was one commonly available prescription drug that, when taken at a sufficiently high dose, functioned as a hallucinogen. In its legitimate guise, it was an anti-epileptic medication. So late one morning, he went off to get some. That was the last I heard of him for most of the rest of the day. He didn’t pick up his phone. He didn’t return to the hostel. In the end I found him shambling, shellshocked, down the Bulevardul Libertății. What a day, he kept saying. God, what a day. Eventually he explained that he’d tried to get our drugs, but things hadn’t really gone according to plan. This place was not like Ukraine. They wanted paperwork. So he decided that obviously the best way to fix the situation was to pretend to have a seizure, right there in the pharmacy. This had some of the desired effect: everyone in the shop suddenly became very concerned. But for some reason they did not just immediately supply the drugs he’d been asking for. Instead, they gave him a sedative. He said he’d heard voices in the haze, speaking, in slow and very deliberate English, about an ambulance, a hospital, and a mental health unit. Somehow, our fun holiday had culminated in the very real possibility of his being involuntarily committed to a Romanian psychiatric ward. Visions of squeaking iron beds in cold mildewed halls, where the bodies that once belonged to some of Ceaușescu’s forgotten dissidents might still shiver, tapping fingers, mumbling the beginnings of words and then giving up. He started insisting that he was actually perfectly sane, which is very difficult to do convincingly once the issue’s in doubt. But it worked, well enough at least to convince them that it wasn’t worth the bother of getting involved when he bolted for the door. After that, he just sort of wandered at random. Walked through the center of Bucharest, still half-sedated, not really looking at anything in particular. Trying to work out how it had all come to this.

But before that, there was the morning I woke up in my room in the Hotel Aist in Tiraspol with something very wrong with my head.

Tiraspol is the capital of Transnistria, an unrecognized breakaway republic within Moldova, with a large population of ethnic Russians. In the early 1990s, its secession was the occasion for one of the briefer, less-remembered post-Soviet wars, in which maybe a thousand people died; since then, Transnistria has been a functionally independent state, although it’s not clear what, if anything, the Transnistrians are getting from their functional independence. The country still has a hammer and sickle in its flag, even though the leaders of its tiny Communist Party keep getting arrested. The coins, which also feature the hammer and sickle, are made of plastic. The Hotel Aist was a Soviet behemoth; vast, grand, and practically ruined. Its wide, well-tiled lobby was magnificently empty, except for four old men tucked away in one corner, playing a game of cards on a rickety plastic table. They wore string vests and smoked cigarettes inside and spat sunflower seeds on the floor. In Transnistria, spitting sunflower seeds seemed to be the only entertainment going, and possibly the only economic activity too. But the booze was very, very cheap, so we drank a lot of it. I’m not really sure how the rest of the night panned out. I remember being told that our bank cards wouldn’t work in Transnistria, which isn’t connected to the global payments system. I remember going to the city’s sole A.T.M. to discover that it only dispensed U.S. dollars, in one-hundred-dollar increments. I’d never seen a Benjamin before. I remember bellowing something along the Dniester at night. And then the void.

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