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A Taboo Passion

3.1.00


A Taboo Passion: "Addiction is the name we give to a taboo passion," says Ann Marlowe '79, G '80, author of how to stop time: heroin from A to Z (Basic Books, 1999), a rare literary treatment of heroin that neither defends nor demonizes the drug. Marlowe is an intense woman of strong views who used heroin both occasionally and regularly between 1988 and 1995, when she quit. She only sniffed, never injected, was never arrested, and did not ruin her life. On the contrary, she has an M.B.A. from Columbia and for 13 years has been a prosperous headhunter for tax and pension attorneys.

"I never felt it was a big deal. I could quit anytime, and I did," she says. "Heroin is not magical, not irresistible. Withdrawal is like having a cold or the flu for a few days. A lot of what we perceive as classic withdrawal symptoms are there from the start. As your body becomes more skilled at processing heroin, it goes through you more quickly. At first you don't feel so great the morning after taking it, then only six hours after, then an hour or two. Following this path leads to a narrowing focus and a demeaning obsession with your immediate physical state, which is one reason heroin addicts can be so tiresome to be around. It's not a fit focus for an intelligent person."

Marlowe's core thesis, summarized in her title, is that heroin use functions as a way of stopping time, or postponing life. Taking opiates, she says, forestalls both aging and maturation: "You see a lot of people who are truly youthful looking--they are truly pickled by the drug. It's like a Dorian Gray effect. But their insides are also frozen in time. You don't age, and you don't grow,
either.

"Nothing about doing heroin interferes with functionality," Marlowe continues. "A lot of the pathology of heroin is really the pathology of poverty. What's the point in getting straight, if it's to work at Kinko's the rest of your life? Heroin does have ill effects. It's not harmless. It can be bad for your cardiovascular and pulmonary systems. If drug education told the real truth, instead of focusing on half-truths, taboos, and scare stories, fewer people would do it."

Marlowe has some unconventional theories about the drug, drawn from her years of experience in Manhattan's East Village heroin-chic world, where her fellow users tended to have trust funds and prep-school educations. Experienced street junkies might laugh their way through some of her aperçus, such as "Organic foods are popular with dope users." (As Marlowe notes, "Everyone who writes about the stuff is an exception and generalizes from their experience.") Other ideas could bear research. She believes "heroin cures the effects of jet lag, and jet lag cures heroin addiction." Marlowe tells of a friend who quit a sizable five- to 10-bag-per-day habit, suddenly and without withdrawal symptoms, by flying from New York to Australia. She also thinks there is a connection between heroin, jet lag, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the syndrome of depression that affects some people in the winter, when days are short: "People who are very susceptible to SAD, those who have trouble resetting their biological clocks, are also susceptible to heroin. Before Prozac, opiates were the best-known cure for depression."

Marlowe places heroin in a mainstream socioeconomic context. "We only see heroin as a medical condition, a psychiatric problem, or an example of the awesome power of drugs. But why not look at escalating consumption as exactly that--why don't we see it as a subspecies of greed, of overindulgence, in a consumer society?" she asks. "I could have chosen to do $300 worth of heroin a day, or to buy $300 worth of shoes per day--and I'd feel ridiculous and contemptible making either choice." Yet she thinks individuals ought to be able to make this choice if they want to. "I think all drugs should be legal," she says. "I'm a libertarian, a free-market capitalist."