The woman was screaming. I was nine years old, and it was about 2:30 in the morning. I had never been up at that hour before, and I had never heard a human being make sounds like this woman was making. We went out onto our back patio, which looked up onto an apartment block behind our house. A woman in a third floor apartment had the window open, and her leg was slung out over the ledge.
She was screaming and crying in utter panic she was saying things, but her words made no sense. Someone inside the apartment was trying to get her to come back inside, but she teetered and swayed on the ledge, clearly unconvinced. My parents called the police.
This being the Bahamas in 1983, it took a while for the police to arrive. In the interim, the woman screamed and cried some more, and my mother told me to get back in my bed. I listened to the noises from outside, and peeked out the window to keep an eye on what was happening, anxiety chewing my stomach to shreds. Eventually the woman went back inside the apartment, and the window was closed. The police came and left. Another neighbor from down the road went into the apartment building, got the woman, and took her back to her house.
Mum came back inside. I asked her what on earth had been happening? She shook her head and said, “Cocaine.”
People don’t usually associate hallucinations and paranoia with cocaine, but if you’ve been taking a lot of it, you’ll get what’s called “stimulant psychosis.” This is what had happened to our neighbor. It was the the Miami Vice years in the Bahamas, and cocaine was flowing freely through the country on its way to the main market in the United States. Along its path, it unleashed a wave of crime and violence stimulant psychosis on a cultural level. This wave has never receded.
Within the space of half a decade, bars on house windows became standard, and if you were out driving after dark, you didn’t stop for red lights any more. A family was kidnapped in broad daylight from our church parking lot, driven to their house, and forced to let their assailants in to ransack the place. People we knew were robbed, raped and killed. As I got older, it only got worse. A guy I had gone to elementary school with was walking his girlfriend home one night when a man with a gun came out of the bushes. He made my friend lie down on the ground, and raped his girlfriend right on top of him. My cousin went to his canning factory one Sunday to put some beans in to soak for cooking the next morning, and disturbed a robbery in progress. He was stabbed 17 times and died, leaving behind a wife pregnant with their first child. When I was 18, I was followed home from a club but by then, my constant state of hypervigilant paranoia was dialed all the way up, and I figured out what was happening while I was still driving my car and was able to get away. We found out later that the night before, our neighbor across the street had been held at gunpoint, and the night afterward, the same thing had happened to the guy next door. All this violence spilled out of the coke trade, driven by ruthless sociopaths who had cut their teeth in guerrilla warfare and graduated to create the cartels.
Years later, I watched the movie Blow in a theater in the Bahamas. With almost every scene, you could hear people murmuring, “yep…” It’s a small nation, and everyone knows everyone, everyone is related to everyone, and everyone is affected. The coke trade came through like a Category 5 hurricane, and just destroyed everything in its path. If you pissed off the cartels, you were lucky to get a bullet in the head. If you were unlucky, they’d slit your throat and pull your tongue out through the hole and let you strangle slowly. If you were really unlucky, they’d kill your family in front of you before they killed you.
Unsurprisingly, I grew up with a pretty poor opinion of cocaine. I talked to an older family member in the Bahamas about it, though, to get a better idea of what it was like to be an adult at the beginning of those years, and why coke was so compelling.
“Well, it was glamorous,” he told me. “It was Hollywood. In the late ’70s, cocaine was just this amazingly fun thing to do. I remember the first time I tried it, it was the best feeling I’d ever had! We used to get it in solid little crystal blocks, and you’d have to take an old safety razor blade and shave it to powder before you snorted it. It was very pure back then.” The drug war hadn’t really taken off, and the violence was yet to come. “They used to land little planes out on the highway,” he told me. “Two men with pickup trucks would block off about a mile of the road in the middle of the night, and put their high beams on to delineate a runway. A little plane would land, they’d refuel it, and they’d receive a bundle of cash and a couple of kilos for their trouble. If anyone happened along the way, they’d also get paid off.” This happened a lot, and a lot of money came with it. Whole towns that used to be only shanty shacks got rebuilt into sturdy concrete block houses during this era. The coke trade giveth…but the coke trade taketh away.
We paid for that prosperity in corruption and death. Soon, local dealers learned how to cook cocaine into crack, and whole communities got hooked. The psychosis inherent in the drug spread far and wide.
When I lived in the Bahamas in the late 90s and early 2000s, I got to see the effect it had on individual people I knew. A friend would turn into an asshole someone formerly compassionate would suddenly be making cutting remarks and jokes at other people’s expense, and generally just turn into a drag to be around. “What happened to that guy?” “Oh, he got back on coke.”
People who had a real habit or who went on binges would graduate from “asshole” to “psychotic.” I knew a woman with a coke problem who had a reputation for domestic violence, who at one point tried to blow up my father-in-law’s generator shack by throwing lit matches down the exhaust pipe. She was always on the phone to the police, complaining that there were “Haitians” in the trees in her garden, spying on her and planning to rape her. When I talked to a friend who’s a police officer in Boise, he said that this was almost identical to what he’d seen dozens of times with local meth-heads there: “They literally see ninjas everywhere, men in black stalking around in the shadows, coming to get them!”
This brings us to another point. What, exactly, is the difference between cocaine and methamphetamine? The answer is, not a whole lot. They are both what’s known as dopamine reuptake inhibitors, which flood the brain with the euphoria-producing neurotransmitter. Coke doesn’t last nearly as long as meth does, but it can ruin your dopamine receptors in exactly the same way, and all the bad behavior we associate with meth addicts can come out of a coke addiction too. “It never gets as good as that first line,” my family member told me.
Another friend who is from Columbia had a really striking experience with cocaine addiction. “I was living in the USA and I was a club kid. By the time I was 19, I was hooked on cocaine, dealing it to a small group of friends. I weighed 90 pounds, and was just doing coke all the time. My father figured out what was going on, and he said ‘You’re going to Columbia!’ I just laughed at him. Really, Dad, you’re going to send a cocaine addict to Columbia?”
But her father knew what he was doing. “Cocaine is a glamorous drug in the USA…but it’s like meth down in Columbia. Homeless people do coke. And I got to see a lot of really brokendown people who were hooked on it,” she said. She also got to experience firsthand the associated human cost in lawlessness and violence. “I went to a little shop where I’d found out I could get some cocaine, and when the owner let me into the back room it was full of guns and stacks of money. It was shocking! The guy saw I was scared, and he laughed at me.” She was staying with her uncle, whose next door neighbor was a mercenary. “This guy liked my uncle, so he’d tell him if there was going to be some trouble in the city that day, not to go into this or that area. And then we’d hear later about the murders. We’d hear gunshots throughout the day, almost every day, and everyone would just keep their heads down and hope it wasn’t someone they knew.” She quit coke when she realized the extent of the human cost.
The number one reason that coke retains its Vegas glamor is that it’s expensive. Cocaine in the Bahamas is $100 a gram. Cocaine in the USA is similarly pricey. “Cocaine in Columbia was $5 a gram,” my friend told me. “It was like dirt. You think of it differently when it’s cheap like that.” Cocaine, at its core, is meth in a rhinestone dress. It’s like a designer label it’s expensive because people will pay a lot of money for it, for the image of it, for the glamor. It’s expensive because of the ongoing cat-and-mouse game of the failed War on Drugs. It’s expensive because of the blood spilled during its production and transshipment. It’s not expensive because it’s worth the expense.
Additionally, the producers are now cutting some 73%-90% of it at the source with a kind of veterinary wormer called Levamisole, which increases the rush and the addicting aspect of the drug, but can cause a nasty death-inducing immune reaction called agranulocytosis in chronic users. Mystery white powder. Will you take it?
And the human cost goes on. The latest rumor I’ve heard from my homeland is that some cartels are now operating out of Haiti, packing cocaine and guns onto rickety boats filled with refugees. Human trafficking completes a trifecta of misery. It doesn’t matter if one boat sinks there are plenty more behind it, and some will get through.
With marijuana legalization on the books in Colorado, it’s possible to get even organic cannabis these days, grown legally and with a recorded provenance. There is, however, no such thing as “fair trade” cocaine. Psychosis is inherent in the drug, and violence is inherent in its production.
I think about that lady, hanging her leg out the third-floor window ,and threatening to jump, and I’m so glad she didn’t. I hope she found a safe place to be, and got off cocaine just like my friend and my family member did. I hope someone took care of her, and that she came out the other side of her psychotic break with more wisdom. I hope that, some day, my home country can put a brake on the wheel of violence. I hope that some day we can end the drug war, and that people can see cocaine for what it really is, stripped of all its glamor and bling and make appropriate choices about it. In the meantime, put your arms around your friends and family, love each other, and keep each other safe. And honestly, please, don’t do coke.
Alice Toler is a Bahamian-British citizen writing, painting and sculpting in Salt Lake City.