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Heroin Chic

As drugs mainline into popular culture, drug wars are not enough.

Fashion magazines such as Vogue and W have been featuring a new look for the '90s: gaunt, emaciated women with hollow eyes sprawled on a bathroom floor, holding out their arms for a needle. Glamorous models cultivate a zoned-out look, shuffling down the runway like semi-conscious zombies. The fashion world is calling it "heroin chic."

The smash hit British movie Trainspotting features the antics of five charming junkies, one of whom dives into what is labeled "the worst toilet in Scotland" to recover some opium suppositories. Despite the death by overdose of many prominent rock musicians, the music scene openly celebrates the use of drugs. On the comics pages of America's newspapers, Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury ran an entire series defending the use of marijuana.

In the meantime, teenage drug use is skyrocketing. All the drug wars, federal programs, educational crusades, toughened laws, and "just say no" campaigns mean next to nothing in a pop culture climate in which drugs are cool.

Teenage drug abuse has risen 78 percent from 1992, according to a major study by the Department of Health and Human Services. Drug use had steadily declined during the 1980s, reaching its lowest point in 1992, but since then it has been accelerating. Thirty-three percent of the increase occurred between 1994 and 1995 alone. This study found that just over 10 percent of teenagers use drugs at least once a month. But a more recent survey indicates that the situation is getting even worse. The National Parent's Resource Institute for Drug Education found 18 percent of junior and senior high students using drugs.

A recent USA Today poll projected future drug use: Among 12-year-olds, 4 percent said that it is "very likely" that they will experiment with drugs. Among 17-year-olds, 20 percent have drugs in their plans. Why? The older teenagers cited "friends doing it" (25 percent), "to feel good" (23 percent), and "stress relief" (22 percent). Another reason given was flat-out rebellion. Among the 12-year-olds, the number one reason, cited by 49 percent, was "to be cool."

The rate of drug use by adults has remained constant since 1992, which means the increase in drug use has been almost exclusively among 12- to 17-year-olds. Since "coolness" seems to be a major factor in the popularity of drugs among young people, the fashion mavens of the pop culture surely deserve some of the blame.

Music groups used to veil their drug references in enigmatic symbolism, but much of today's rap, rock, and heavy metal--as well as their visual correlatives on MTV--openly celebrate drug use. Groups such as Cypress Hill crusade for the legalization of marijuana and gangsta rappers routinely laud the rush of crack cocaine.

"I believe in drug use," confesses the head of a major record label, quoted anonymously in The Los Angeles Times. "It's part of growing up and the creative process. It's not for me as an individual to interfere with what people are doing with their destiny." Of course, that is exactly what this anonymous figure is doing: interfering with what people are doing with their destiny by leading legions of young record-buying fans into prison, treatment centers, and death.

The psychedelic '60s turned on with LSD; the strung-out '70s found an energy in amphetamines; the hard-charging '80s got its kicks from cocaine. Today's pop culture is cultivating a dark, depressed mood, the fruit of decades of spiritual rootlessness and family collapse. Young people, dressed in black, indulge themselves in bleak, moody introspection, and their music wallows in cynicism, anger, and despair. Their drug of choice, increasingly, is heroin.

Jonathan Melvoin, keyboardist for the Smashing Pumpkins, recently died of a heroin overdose. So did Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon. So did Hole's Kristen Pfaff, Skinny Puppy's Dwayne Koettel, and Replacement's Bob Stinson. Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, hailed as the spokesman for his generation, killed himself after a long struggle with heroin addiction.

Another Smashing Pumpkin, Jimmy Chamberlain, has been arrested for possession of heroin. So has Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots and Al Jourgensen of the death metal group Ministry. Mr. Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, David Gahan of Depeche Mode, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Layne Staley of Alice in Chains have all confessed to being heroin addicts.

The allure and cultural significance of heroin chic can best be seen in the British film Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle. The movie was England's second-highest-grossing movie ever (after Four Weddings and a Funeral) and became a minor hit in the United States. To a soundtrack of alternative rock, the film chronicles the squalid lives of five punk junkies from Edinburgh. With mordant humor and absurdist horror, the film shows a baby dying of neglect, the screams of withdrawal, and the filth and squalor of the addict lifestyle. But it is also a celebration of the junkie attitude.

"What people forget about heroin is the pleasure of it," explains one character. "Otherwise we wouldn't do it." Well, right, but the mad pursuit of pleasure at the price of self-destruction is precisely the evil of drug addiction. But the film suggests another attraction. The "trainspotters" of the title are dull, middle-class folk who make a hobby of recording the time when trains come by. The trainspotters represent the respectable, bourgeois citizens who live orderly, obedient, but meaningless lives. The junkies, on the other hand, may be low-rent, depraved, and pathetic, but they are free, honest, and fun. In contrast to the nerdy trainspotters, they are supremely, defiantly cool.

In Homer's Odyssey, the sailors who survived the Trojan war, the Cyclops, and a host of physical dangers are almost undone when they come to an island of gentle flower children who offer them a life of pleasure through simply eating a mysterious plant called the lotus. Odysseus desperately drives his men, by force, from the land of the lotus eaters. Those who eat the lotus, he knew, lose all desire for home. He dragged his men kicking and screaming from their drug-induced paradise because they had responsibilities, families, and a future to work for. They were human beings, and, as such, had more to live for than mere euphoria.

Though drugs were an ancient problem, the Bible says nothing about them explicitly, beyond the general injunctions against intoxication. (The New Testament does warn against pharmakeia, translated in the NIV as "witchcraft" in Galatians 5:20 and "magic spell" in Revelation 18:23. The Greek word, from which we derive our English word pharmacist, had reference to poison, a mixer of poisons, and hence a sorcerer. Some Bible scholars believe that the word carried the connotation of drug use.) The moral danger of drugs has to do with the havoc they wreak on the mind, the suicidal harm they do to the body, the lawlessness and criminality they entail, and the pleasure-at-all-costs egoism that is a hallmark of sin.

American culture is ill-equipped to muster a moral consensus against taking drugs. Few societies have been so pleasure-centered. Parental authority, which is supposed to teach children right from wrong, is itself compromised on the issue of drugs. According to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 49 percent of parents of teenagers used drugs when they were young, and about that many take for granted that their children will also use drugs. The flower children of the '60s now have teenagers of their own. They find it difficult and hypocritical to criticize behavior they themselves indulged in, as if their earlier failings disqualified them from preventing their children from making the same mistakes. This parental failure of nerve threatens to disable a whole generation, and not just when it comes to drugs.

Though their values are often unwittingly drug-friendly, Americans are nevertheless terrified of drugs. In movies and TV shows, the drug lord is one of the few politically correct villains. When a report of CIA complicity with Nicaraguan drug dealers became public, blacks rose in righteous indignation, accusing the government of conspiring to destroy the black community by introducing crack cocaine. Ritual denunciation of drug use has become commonplace across the political spectrum. But what can be done?

Draconian laws? Harsh, mandatory sentences for drug dealers are filling the prisons to overflowing. Special programs are confiscating the cars, boats, and other property of suspects in the drug trade. The legal system--seemingly lax when it comes to other crimes--cracks down with a vengeance on drug arrests. In 1970, 16 percent of inmates in federal prisons had been convicted of drug offenses. Today, the number has shot up to 61 percent. During the last 20 years, the prison population has quadrupled to some 1.5 million, mostly due to drug convictions. With the prisons full, violent criminals are getting off with plea bargains and early paroles. Even though we spend enormous amounts to warehouse drug offenders in prison, it seems to do little good. Every time a dealer goes to prison, it only creates another job opening on the streets.

Critics argue that the harshness of drug laws is selective, disproportionately targeting poor blacks, while suburban white users go into 12-step treatment programs. It is true that blacks constitute 13 percent of the users, but make up 35 percent of the arrests, 55 percent of the convictions, and 74 percent of the sentences for drug-related offenses.

Some observers worry that druggers are being turned into scapegoats, setting dangerous precedents for the crushing of civil liberties. Confiscating property without conviction and using American military forces against American citizens can be accepted and rationalized because of the public's virulent hatred of drugs. Nevertheless, such tactics are intrinsically tyrannical and could one day be used against other citizens who have fallen out of favor with the state.

At any rate, it is clear that imprisoning a huge number of citizens has done virtually nothing to solve the drug problem.

Some say the solution can be found in education. Many Americans still believe Plato's assumption that a lack of virtue comes from ignorance, that to know the good is to do the good, a view that lacks the common sense of the biblical doctrine of original sin. Our problem is not that we do not know what is right and wrong, it is that our fallen nature leads us to desire what is evil, despite our better knowledge.

Drug education programs in high schools seem to do little good. Teenagers know that drugs are bad for them, but that seems to be part of the attraction. Hip young people typically make fun of the earnest teachers, the propaganda videos, and the touchy-feely group exercises that make up most drug-education programs. The ubiquitous D.A.R.E., the Drug Awareness Resistance Education program offered in 60 percent of the nation's school districts, is being proven an expensive failure.

Some are arguing that the best way to combat the drug problem is simply to legalize drugs. This is not coming simply from the Cypress Hill hempophiliacs. Many conservatives, including William F. Buckley and the whole libertarian movement, are advocating what is, in effect, a free-market approach to the drug problem. Legalizing drugs would send the crime rate plummeting by bankrupting the gangs, cutting down on robberies to support habits, and allowing the police to concentrate on more serious crimes. As for those who insist on using drugs, their punishment is inherent in their vice. Let them blow their minds until they kill themselves. That would solve the drug problem.

Rats given free access to as much cocaine as they want stop eating, stop mating, and stop every other rat activity, indulging themselves until they die a blissful death. A society of lotus eaters could hardly function. The extraordinary threat to the social order that drugs pose and the natural desire to protect one's children make most people leery of the libertarian solution.

What about treatment? Americans tend to medicalize moral failings. Vices are not cured by hospital stays or psychological therapy. It is true, however, that drug addiction turns into an irrepressible physical craving, and its shattering effects on the body often demand medical attention. But counseling and medical treatment are effective only when the addict wants to change.

Ultimately, the solution to drug abuse is spiritual change. It is no accident that secular drug treatment agencies boast success rates only in the single digits, while the Christian ministry Teen Challenge cures 70 to 86 percent of the addicts it serves. Other Christian groups and churches are meeting with similar success. Bondage to drugs, like other bondage to sin, is best dealt with by the gospel of Christ.

When Smashing Pumpkin Jonathan Melvoin died of a heroin overdose, there was a huge clamor in the streets for the particular brand he used. "When people die from something or nearly die," reported narcotics officer Denis McCarthy, "all of a sudden there's this rush to get it because it must be more powerful and deliver a better high."

This love of death is a symptom of the perversity and hopelessness of sin (Proverbs 8:36). Such lostness is evident in the lyrics of Pumpkin songs: "Living makes me sick, so sick I wish I'd die," goes their song "Jellybelly." "There's nothing left to feel." Only Christ can fill this kind of vacuum and bring healing to this kind of spiritual disease.

The upsurge of drug use during President Clinton's administration is probably due less to his cutbacks in the drug czar's office and interdiction efforts than to the permissive culture he embodies and represents. The child of the '60s--joking on MTV about wishing he had inhaled but waxing moralistic about his drug-dealing brother--exemplifies American culture's schizophrenia over drugs.

Mr. Clinton's proposal to require drug tests to get a driver's license is actually not a bad idea. If being drug-free becomes an incentive for something teenagers want even more, it might have some effect, at least in the short term. But any such political tinkering will do little.

As long as the pop culture continues to glamorize drugs--and the hedonism and moral rebellion that accompany them--drug casualties will continue to mount and nothing, except the grace of God, can stop them. We will become a nation of lotus eaters. Or maybe our culture will change its tune for its own self-protection and create a climate in which drug use is uncool.

Gene Edward Veith

Gene Edward Veith

Gene is a former WORLD culture editor.