In observance of the anniversary of Aleister Crowley’s death on December 1, we’re republishing a special edition of the erstwhile “Cocaine Confidential” column from the September, 1982 edition of High Times, featuring Crowley’s 1917 essay, “On Cocaine.”
Once upon a time, Aleister Crowley tipped off a zealous decency society in Britain to the “conspicuous signs of prostitution” he’d observed in a tiny Scots town. Considering the source, Crowley himself, to be unimpeachable on such matters, the horrified do-gooders dispatched a morality squad to the spot, at considerable expense. When they presently reported no evidence at all of any such thing, Crowley explained, “It is conspicuous by its absence, fools.”
This is not to say Crowley was entirely sane. After his first wife, whom he called the Ape of Thoth, went wholly crazy, he would hang her by the heels in a closet while he entertained girl friends. He named their first girl-child with a string of misogynistic mystical epithets: Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith Crowley, who died, age five, of typhus in Rangoon. He enjoyed few things more, when he was running his fabulous cult playland on Sicily in the 1920s, than watching his female groupies screw animals, which would be bloodily sacrificed just as they achieved orgasm. The only groupie he hexed to death, though, was male: Crowley had him drink some cat’s blood, ordained a day and hour for him to die, and die he obligingly did, on the very second.
Crowley treated cocaine as a test of pure will: Aleister vs. the Drug. There was no way he’d get strung out behind coke. If legions of weak-willed plebeians might become slaves to cocaine, was that any suitable grounds for prohibiting it from superior immortals like Crowley? He wrote this paper on cocaine in 1917, when Britain was already following the USA’s lead in banning pleasure drugs, to Crowley’s vast displeasure: “We are not under the laws and do not enjoy the liberties which our fathers bequeathed us; we are under a complex and fantastic system of police administration nearly as pernicious as anything even in America.”
To “master” coke, Crowley kept bowls of it around at all times, to be snorted as copiously as possible, and the same with mescaline and heroin. The heroin, of course, got decidedly ahead of him. Unlike coke, which is nonaddictive, smack had a special physical magic beyond even Crowley’s monumental will. But this only developed into a tougher test of his powers; for the rest of his life, he would purposely kick smack every few months, creating brilliant crazy occultist fantasies amid the withdrawals, and then relapse directly back into the shit. Of course he eventually died—in 1947, at the age of 72, after more than 50 years of gargantuan drug abuse.
Of all the graces that cluster about the throne of Venus the most timid and elusive is that maiden whom mortals call Happiness. None is so eagerly pursued; none so hard to win. Indeed, only the saints and martyrs, unknown usually to their fellow men, have made her theirs; and they have attained her by burning out the ego-sense in themselves in the white-hot steel of meditation, by dissolving themselves in that divine ocean of consciousness whose foam is passionless and perfect bliss.
To others, Happiness only comes by chance; when least sought, perhaps she is there. Seek, and ye shall not find; ask, and ye shall not receive; knock, and it shall not be opened unto you. Happiness is always a divine accident. It is not a definite quality; it is the bloom of circumstances. It is useless to mix its ingredients; the experiments in life which have produced it in the past may be repeated endlessly, and with infinite skill and variety—in vain.
It seems more than a fairy story that so metaphysical an entity should yet be producible in a moment by no means of wisdom, no formula of magic, but by a simple herb. The wisest man cannot add happiness to others, though they be dowered with youth, beauty, wealth, wit and love; the lowest blackguard shivering in rags, destitute, diseased, old, craven, stupid, a mere morass of envy, may have it with one swift-sucked breath. The thing is as paradoxical as life, as mystical as death.
Look at this shining heap of crystals! They are hydrochloride of cocaine. The geologist will think of mica; to me, the mountaineer, they are like those gleaming feathery flakes of snow, flowering mostly where rocks jut from the ice of crevassed glaciers that wind and sun have kissed to ghostliness. To those who know not the great hills, they may suggest the snow that spangles trees with blossoms glittering and lucid. The kingdom of faery has such jewels. To him who tastes them in his nostrils—to their acolyte and slave—they must seem as if the dew of the breath of some great demon of immensity were frozen by the cold of space upon his beard.
For there was never any elixir so instant magic as cocaine. Give it to no matter whom. Choose me the last loser on the earth; take hope, take faith, take love away from him. Then look, see the back of that worn hand, its skin discolored and wrinkled, perhaps inflamed with agonizing eczema, perhaps putrid with some malignant sore. He places on it that shimmering snow, a few grains only, a little pile of starry dust. The wasted arm is slowly raised to the head that is little more than a skull; the feeble breath draws in that radiant powder. Now we must wait. One minute—perhaps five minutes.
Then happens the miracle of miracles.
The melancholy vanishes, the eyes shine, the wan mouth smiles. Almost manly vigor returns, or seems to return. At least faith, hope and love throng very eagerly to the dance; all that was lost is found.
The man is happy.
To one the drug may bring liveliness, to another languor, to another creative force, to another tireless energy, to another glamour, and to yet another lust. But each in his way is happy. Think of it!—so simple and so transcendental! The man is happy!
I have traveled in every quarter of the globe; I have seen such wonders of nature that my pen sputters when I try to tell them; I have seen many a miracle of the genius of man; but I have never seen a marvel like this.
Is there not a school of philosophers, cold and cynical, that accounts God to be a mocker? That thinks He takes His pleasure in contempt of the littleness of His creatures? They should base their theses on cocaine! For here is bitterness, irony, cruelty ineffable. This gift of sudden and sure happiness is given but to tantalize. The story of Job holds no such acrid draught. What were more icy hate, fiend comedy than this, to offer such a boon, and add “This you must not take”? Could not we be left to brave the miseries of life, bad as they are, without this master pang, to know perfection of all joy within our reach, and the price of that joy a tenfold quickening of our anguish?
The happiness of cocaine is not passive or placid as that of beasts. It is self conscious. It tells man what he is, and what he might be. It offers him the semblance of divinity, only that he may know himself a worm. It awakens discontent so acutely that never shall it sleep again. It creates hunger. Give cocaine to a man already wise, schooled to the world, morally forceful, a man of intelligence and self-control. If he be really master of himself, it will do him no harm. He will know it for a snare; he will beware of repeating such experiments as he may make; and the glimpse of his goal may possibly even spur him to its attainment by those means which God has appointed for His saints.
But, give it to the clod, to the self-indulgent, to the blasé—to the average man, in a word—and he is lost. He says, and his logic is perfect: This is what I want. He knows not, neither can he know, the true path; and the false path is the only one for him. There is cocaine at his need, and he takes it again and again. The contrast between his grub life and his butterfly life is too bitter for his un-philosophic soul to bear; he refuses to take the brimstone with the treacle.
And so he can no longer tolerate the moments of unhappiness, that is, of normal life, for he now so names it. The intervals between his indulgences diminish.
And alas! the power of the drug diminishes with fearful pace. The doses wax; the pleasures wane. Side-issues, invisible at first, arise; they are like devils with flaming pitchforks in their hands.
A single trial of the drug brings no noticeable reaction in a healthy man. He goes to bed in due season, sleeps well and wakes fresh. South American Indians habitually chew this drug in its crude form, when upon the march, and accomplish prodigies, defying hunger, thirst and fatigue. But they only use it in extremity; and long rest with ample food enables the body to rebuild its capital. Also, savages, unlike most dwellers in cities, have moral sense and force.
The same is true of the Chinese and Indians in their use of opium. Everyone uses it, and only in the rarest cases does it become a vice. It is with them almost as tobacco is with us.
But to one who abuses cocaine for his pleasure nature soon speaks, and is not heard. The nerves weary of the constant stimulation; they need rest and food. There is a point at which the jaded horse no longer answers whip and spur. He stumbles, falls a quivering heap, gasps out his life.
So perishes the slave of cocaine. With every nerve clamoring, all he can do is to renew the lash of the poison. The pharmaceutical effect is over; the toxic effect accumulates. The nerves become insane. The victim begins to have hallucinations. “See! There is a gray cat in that chair. I said nothing, but it has been there all the time.”
Or, there are rats. “I love to watch them running up the curtains. Oh yes! I know they are not real rats. That’s a real rat, though, on the floor. I nearly killed it that time. That is the original rat I saw; it’s a real rat. I saw it first on my windowsill one night.”
Such, quietly enough spoken, is mania. And soon the pleasure passes, is followed by its opposite, as Eros by Anteros.
“Oh no! they never come near me.” A few days pass, and they are crawling on the skin, gnawing interminably and intolerably, loathsome and remorseless.
It is needless to picture the end, prolonged as this may be, for despite the baffling skill developed by the drug lust, the insane condition hampers the patient, and often forced abstinence for a while goes far to appease the physical and mental symptoms. Then a new supply is procured, and with tenfold zest the maniac, taking the bit between his teeth, gallops to the black edge of death.
And before that death comes all the torments of damnation. The time sense is destroyed, so that an hour’s abstinence may hold more horrors than a century of normal time-and-space-bound pain.
Psychologists little understand how the physiological cycle of life, and the normality of the brain, make existence petty both for good and ill. To realize it, fast for a day or two; see how life drags with a constant subconscious ache. With drug hunger, this effect is multiplied a thousandfold. Time itself is abolished. The real metaphysical eternal hell is actually present in the consciousness which has lost its limits without finding Him who is without limit.
Consider the debt of mankind to opium. It is acquitted by the deaths of a few wastrels from its abuse?
For the importance of this paper is the discussion of the practical question: Should drugs be accessible to the public?
Here I pause in order to beg the indulgence of the American people. I am obliged to take a standpoint at once startling and unpopular. I am compelled to utter certain terrible truths. I am in the unenviable position of one who asks others to shut their eyes to the particular that they may thereby visualize the general.
But I believe that in the matter of legislation America is proceeding in the main upon a totally false theory. I believe that constructive morality is better than repression. I believe that democracy, more than any other form of government, should trust the people, as it specifically pretends to do.
Now it seems to me better and bolder tactics to attack the opposite theory at its very strongest point.
It should be shown that not even in the most arguable case is a government justified in restricting use on account of abuse; or allowing justification, let us dispute about expediency.
So, to the bastion—should “habit-forming” drugs be accessible to the public?
The matter is of immediate interest, for the admitted failure of the Harrison Law has brought about a new proposal—one to make bad worse.
I will not here argue “the grand thesis of liberty.” Free men have long since decided it. Who will maintain that Christ’s willing sacrifice of his life was immoral, because it robbed the state of a useful taxpayer?
No. A man’s life is his own, and he has the right to destroy it as he will, unless he too egregiously intrude on the privileges of his neighbors.
But this is just the point. In modern times the whole community is one’s neighbor, and one must not damage that. Very good. Then there are pros and cons, and a balance to be struck.
In America the prohibition idea in all things is carried, mostly by hysterical newspapers, to a fanatical extreme. “Sensation at any cost by Sunday next” is the equivalent in most editorial rooms of the alleged German order to capture Calais. Hence the dangers of anything and everything are celebrated dithyrambically by the Corybants of the press, and the only remedy is prohibition. A shoots B with a revolver; remedy, the Sullivan Law. In practice, this works well enough, for the law is not enforced against the householder who keeps a revolver for his protection, but is a handy weapon against the gangster, and saves the police the trouble of proving felonious intent.
But it is the idea that was wrong. Recently a man shot his family and himself with a rifle fitted with a Maxim silencer. Remedy, a bill to prohibit Maxim silencers! No perception that, if the man had not had a weapon at all, he would have strangled his family with his hands.
American reformers seem to have no idea, at any time or in any connection, that the only remedy for wrong is right; that moral education, self-control, good manners, will save the world; and that legislation is not merely a broken reed, but a suffocating vapor. Further, an excess of legislation defeats its own ends. It makes the whole population criminals, and turns them all into policemen and spies. The moral health of such a people is ruined forever; only revolution can save it.
However, let us concede the prohibitionist claims. Let us admit the police contention that cocaine and the rest are used by criminals who would otherwise lack the nerve to operate. They also contend that the effects of the drugs are so deadly that the cleverest thieves quickly become inefficient. Then for heaven’s sake establish depots where they can get free cocaine!
You cannot cure a drug fiend; you cannot make him a useful citizen. He never was a good citizen, or he would not have fallen into slavery. If you reform him temporarily, at vast expense, risk and trouble, your whole work vanishes like morning mist when he meets his next temptation. The proper remedy is to let him gang his ain gait to the de’il. Instead of less drug, give him more drug, and be done with him. His fate will be a warning to his neighbors, and in a year or two people will have the sense to shun the danger. Those who have not, let them die, too, and save the state. Moral weaklings are a danger to society, in whatever line their failings lie. If they are so amiable as to kill themselves, it is a crime to interfere.
You say that while these people are killing themselves they will do mischief. Maybe. But they are doing it now.
Prohibition has created an underground traffic, as it always does, and the evils of this are immeasurable. Thousands of citizens are in league to defeat the law, are actually bribed by the law itself to do so, since the profits of the illicit trade become enormous, and the closer the prohibition, the more unreasonably big they are. You can stamp out the use of silk handkerchiefs in this way: people say, “All right, we’ll use linen.” But the “cocaine fiend” wants cocaine, and you can’t put him off with Epsom salts. Moreover, his mind has lost all proportion. He will pay anything for the drug. He will never say, “I can’t afford it.” And if the price be high, he will steal, rob, murder to get it. Again I say: You cannot reform a drug fiend. All you do by preventing them from obtaining it is to create a class of subtle and dangerous criminals, and even when you have jailed them all, is anyone any the better?
While such large profits (from 1,000 to 2,000 percent) are to be made by secret dealers, it is to the interest of those dealers to make new victims. And the profits at present are such that it would be worth my while to go to London and back first class to smuggle no more than I could hide in the lining of my overcoat! All expenses paid, and a handsome sum in the bank at the end of the trip! And for all the law, and the spies, and the rest of it, I could sell my stuff with very little risk in a single night in the Tenderloin.
Another point is this: Prohibition cannot be carried to its extreme. It is impossible, ultimately, to withhold drugs from doctors. Now doctors, more than any other single class, are drug fiends, and also, there are many who will traffic in drugs for the sake of money or power. If you possess a supply of the drug, you are the master, body and soul, of any person who needs it.
People do not understand that a drug, to its slave, is more valuable than gold or diamonds. A virtuous woman may be above rubies, but medical experience tells us that there is no virtuous woman in need of the drug who would not prostitute herself to a ragpicker for a single sniff.
I still say that prohibition is no cure. The cure is to give the people something to think about; to develop their minds; to fill them with ambitions beyond dollars; to set up a standard of achievement which is to be measured in terms of eternal realities; in a word, to educate them.
If this appears impossible, well and good. It is only another argument for encouraging them to take cocaine.