On Drugs, Part I

This is the first installment of Chris Fleming’s account of his drug addiction, and the modes, mechanics, and madness of legal and illegal drug acquisition. Although he has been clean for many years, the fourteen years he spent as an addict left a permanent imprint on how he thinks and moves around the world – his interactions with people, substances, and how he reads social space.



It was tough scoring drugs off Ed. He’d been introduced to me by a friend in the music industry who’d asked, at my prompting, if he could ‘help me out’. Ed said he could, and I bought a fifty – $50 worth of pot. I’d been between dealers, but with Ed’s phone number now in my wallet, I seized the opportunity. I called him a couple of days later, reminded him who I was, told him that ‘the pot was great,’ and that I wanted ‘to score some more’. The wording was a mistake. Ed called me a fucking idiot and threatened to hang up – told me that he should hang up. He then paused, sighed, and asked where I was and how long it would take for me to get to his place.  (It wasn’t the last time I was to make this kind of faux pas. Thinking that this was merely Ed’s preference, I went on to ask for ‘hydro’ from another dealer; she hung up and we never spoke again.) For the four years I bought drugs from him, Ed would always ask where I was and how long it would take for me to get to his house. Whatever my answer – however long my estimate – his response would always be either ‘Hurry’ or ‘No. Too long. I’m going out.’ I’d be forced to bargain – to contract my estimate – and eventually, if this wasn’t enough, just plead leniency. He’d invariably acquiesce, which he’d indicate simply by reiterating the demand to hurry and then hanging up.

I still don’t know why he always made this demand for speed – as if any pace that I employed to get to his house would be too slow. It might have been for security purposes – so there wasn’t enough time for police to be tipped-off and mobilised. More likely, though, it was simply a way he could ensure the reliability of his customers – and he never thought that they would just show up at his house whenever they wanted. It would also be a way of controlling how many people were coming and going (and so how many were seen by outsiders to be coming and going). Or perhaps the demand was just an expression of Ed’s need for control. He saw himself as a grand orchestrator, a mastermind, one whose talents were too frequently unnoticed and under-appreciated.

For most of the time I bought drugs, mostly pot, from Ed, I had to get to his house in Surry Hills from where I lived in the inner west – at different times, Newtown, Enmore, and Marrickville. For the time I was buying from him I didn’t have a car and so that usually meant a combination of bus or train and taxi – or, sometimes, when he demanded that I get there within twenty minutes, taxi only. I could afford neither the drugs nor the travel, but some degree of cash flow meant that I could fool myself for a time that I could: I was on the last legs of a scholarship and was doing a reasonable amount of tutoring at the time. I eventually also sold almost everything a hock-shop would buy, mostly guitars, pedals, and amps. In the space of just under four years, I spent somewhere between $30,000 and $60,000 on cannabis –$150 to $300 per week.

Knowing the kind of rush involved to get to Ed’s, I’d prepare for departure before making the phone-call, have the cash ready and a backpack stuffed with whatever I stuffed it with – clothes, gum, cigarettes, a book. The proper language was simply a request to ‘come over’, although an improbable number of dealers I bought from seemed to prefer some reference to laundry as part of the appropriate signal to buy, as in ‘Can I come around and pick up the laundry?’ This always struck me as too self-consciously spook-like, involving a code which was far more loaded than any request for drugs. ‘Pot’ sounded mischievous or even counter-cultural to me; ‘The Laundry’ sounded like I could have been requesting anything from explosives to slaves. But this kind of conspicuous coding was common. Another dealer, who lived in Glebe, insisted that we meet on Glebe Point Road. He gave me the same instruction each time – to begin at the St John’s Road intersection and to walk slowly along Glebe Point Road towards Rozelle Bay; he would catch up with me and merge and we’d engage in inane chit chat for a hundred metres or so before he would produce the drugs: keeping his arm straight down beside his body, his hand would extend outwards in the shape of a beak – the kind one would make to make a hand puppet close its mouth – and I’d cup my own hand underneath his and take the bag, all the while walking. After a further twenty metres or so, we’d stop and I’d simply hand over the money. It was an uncharacteristically odd performance, but one which he demanded. It always seemed that this kind of inefficient dissimulation actually drew attention to itself more than any straightforward exchange would – like whispering a secret through a PA system. In terms of cover-ups, I was more sympathetic to the kind of strategy Edgar Allen Poe presented in ‘The Purloined Letter’, where the Minister D-’s brief success is owed to hiding a letter in plain sight.

These were, of course, not the only kinds of codes in operation, codes which – like many tacit social rules, one would learn about only when violated. The more time I spent at dealers’ houses, the more I learned that there was a hierarchy of drugs, a sort of regime of acceptability. Having tried amphetamines a couple of years before, I once asked Ed if he could get me some speed. ‘Speed? Fuck off. Who do you think I am?’ The obvious answer was ‘my drug dealer,’ but I didn’t supply that. It soon became clear: cocaine was for people who’d succeeded, whose principle tool of drug delivery was the rolled bill; speed was for losers, for junkies who couldn’t get heroin, ex-crims who now did long-haul trucking. Amphetamines may since have climbed the social ladder; I don’t know. I got out well before ice became the drug du jour.

It wore on my nerves never knowing whether Ed would be home or not, and if so, how long he’d give me to get to his place before he disappeared; I found intolerable the fundamental uncontrollability of securing what I saw as an absolutely necessity. At one point Ed even chastised me for coming around too often. It was hard to suck up to someone who would insult you for a range of things, including buying too many drugs from him. Sometimes, unable or unwilling to face the pressure of the phone call to Ed, I would simply make my way to Surry Hills and call him from a public phone on Oxford Street. There was a minor victory to be had when he’d say ‘hurry’, and I’d be at his front door within a matter of minutes. (It seemed debasing to admit that I was in Surry Hills just to see him, though, so I was always ‘seeing friends’ or ‘just passing through’.) It was a gamble, but Ed was home about eighty percent of the time – and that’s probably one of the reasons I didn’t seek out another dealer, despite the hassles. Better the dealer you know…

Addiction is reliable; dealers rarely are. It put me on edge making the journey to Surry Hills facing the possible catastrophe of having his phone ring out. In those circumstances, I’d simply go to his door and knock. Only once can I recall Ed actually being home when he didn’t answer the phone. I heard music coming from inside the flat and so knocked loudly. There was no response. I knocked again. Again, no response. I walked to the corner, sat down at a bus stop, had a cigarette, and returned. I redoubled my knocking efforts, such that another resident from the same block came out and glared at me. Maybe he doesn’t want to come to the fucken door, you dickhead. I said nothing, just looked blankly back and waited for him to go inside. I rallied for one final burst of knocking. This time, Ed came to the door half-naked, long, wet hair stuck across his face, heat blotches on his body, dripping on the floor, seething. It looked like he’d emerged from some swamp. For a moment I thought he might actually hit me, his face contracted into an apoplectic rictus; then I thought he might be having a stroke. I told him I was just in the area and thought I’d drop by. Silently, he stepped back and to the side so I could enter. He shut the door, turned around, glared and growled something I couldn’t make out. I was scared. Ed was a large man – about 6’2” and one-hundred kilograms – a Welsh ex-prisoner who had risen to become Unofficial Supplier of Cocaine to Sydney Fashion Week. He exploded, yelled and cursed, told me I was a dickhead, a cunt, a fuckwit, a cock, that I didn’t know who he was, and I wasn’t welcome at his house, to never call him again and if I did he’d tell me to Fuck. Right. Off. He then lit a cigarette, sat down, and sold me the pot. I paid but decided right there and then that I’d stop smoking, this time for good. I resolved to change. I called him again a couple of days later to line up another deal. Ed acted like absolutely nothing had changed; he was right.

The majority of times I arrived in Surry Hills without calling first Ed would answer the phone. On those occasions that he didn’t, it was a minor devastation. If it were evening, I’d usually walk the twenty or so metres to the nearest pub and drink VB steadily. Every half-hour I’d leave the pub and cross Oxford Street to get to a payphone so I could call him and check whether he’d arrived home. I’d typically wait a couple of hours before deciding to give up, trip out of the pub, and make it back home: the 380 bus to Central and then a train to McDonaldtown or Stanmore station. I was usually three-quarters pissed; the alcohol anaesthetised me at the same time as it increased my desire for the drug. Failure to get it – and the alcohol streaming out of my system – pushed me into a depressive crash.

But deal failures were not uncommon; street deals almost always failed in one way or another. One crash stands out in my mind as being somehow representative. Jodie and I were well drunk, winding back from The Bank Hotel in Newtown, along Enmore Road, when we noticed a Koori guy in his late teens keeping pace with us, about a metre ahead. Without looking directly at either of us, he half-turned his head and made a rapid-fire inquiry: ‘Want some Buddha sticks? Skanky shit – fucken skunk. That’s it, bra.’ He led us to a block of flats off Enmore Road and left us at the entrance. I’d tried to be smart about it, to appear wily, to argue the terms of the sale, asked to go with him; but each time I demurred he shot back ‘No way – forget it,’ and headed to the curb, as if to cross the road and walk off into the night. I later reflected on just how good his strategy was – that he never pleaded, showed us that he gave no shits about me being his customer, that others would soon utilise the service. He took $50 and disappeared into a block of units. The moment he took the cash I knew it was gone. Still, we waited half-an-hour, sitting in the gutter. Then we left. It’s not as though I’d never stolen anything; I lifted drugs whenever I thought I could get away with it, especially at parties, where people were so out of it that they didn’t realise what had happened until later. I’d stash buds or tablets in underwear or socks. At base, he wasn’t doing anything I hadn’t. Even so, at times like this, I felt degraded, an exploitee waiting to be done over. I wondered often – but never more intensely than at these times – about what compelled me to do this, how it was I’d become so mesmerised by getting out of it, become someone we were warned about in primary school, imprisoned by some idée fixe that had, in turn, become me.

Drugs are, of course, chemical agents that have physiological effects – and, as such, they insult some of the more idealist fantasies produced in the social sciences which seem to have little time for the reality of objects. But they are as much metaphysical objects as material ones; and ideas, too, can possess considerable physiological punch. For most long-term users, a substantial part of the high usually precedes the intake and uptake of drugs. Setting up the deal or, better, having the drugs in one’s possession, produces a high sometimes more substantial than that produced by the drugs themselves. Watching junkies set up a score is to witness a shift in behaviour and temperament much more obviously euphoric than what appears to come over them post-injection. Some of my most animated, passionately contested conversations were with friends walking or driving with me to dealers’ houses.

Riding back along Oxford Street on the 378 bus, I’d zip open my shoulder-bag a little and peek at the drugs, like a child staring through clear plastic at a new toy, forced to wait until he gets home to unwrap it. I’d repeat this numerous times, often checking that the bag was still there. A hint of the smell of the hydro would get through the sealed plastic and get puffed out as I closed the backpack. Knowing I had the drugs, I’d feel charitable, broad-minded, ambitious. My thoughts were clear. Even streetlights looked soft and beautiful. And I was straight. Nothing had happened. What was odd was that it took me a very long time to figure this pattern out; perhaps even odder was that when I did work it out it made not the slightest impact on how much dope I was smoking. The very promise of drugs was what got me, a rapturous anticipation whose effects were arguably no less bodily, no less physical, than those experienced while stoned. The pre-drug euphoria addressed a kind of crisis of imagination in me, I think. At some point in my mid-twenties I realised that I’d somehow, somewhere, lost or forgotten the capacity for reverie, for projection, for any kind of pleasurable dissociation or fantasy. As the drugs grew more tiresome and their effects on my body more stultifying, the anticipation of being high became the real narcotic – and the usual subject of my pleasurable fantasy while high became the prospect of kicking drugs. I never possessed more resolve to quit than I did just before using – or just after.

Although I lived this pre-drug high repeatedly, I didn’t really reflect on it until I saw the same thing in a flatmate. After lining up a deal, Annie became animated, almost manic: talkative, reflective, cerebral, frenetic. She actually deferred getting the drugs until the last possible moment, as if she were sitting with this first high before moving to the next. Other people I knew would take almost half-an-hour to roll a joint, pack a cone, or fix up. A friend would cut the buds so finely the dope was almost vapour; he’d repeatedly halt the procedure to offer forceful views on a startling range of topics, from time signatures in jazz to chilli, Nikola Tesla, and cell regeneration. At another level, this deferral functioned as an advertisement of not being addicted, of being contrary to addictive desperation. In others at least, it seemed to me that the behaviour signified precisely the opposite: I found Annie’s pre-drug mania infuriating – evidence of weakness, a testament to her enslavement to drugs. Worst of all, for me at least, was that it slowed down actually getting stoned.

In myself, the pre-drug euphoria eventually suggested something else: ultimately, the drugs themselves aren’t necessary. It was a nice insight, hampered by an intractable paradox: the pre-score high was “natural” at the same time that it was predicated on scoring actual drugs. Trying to get that natural high without the drugs seemed no more possible than trying to perform a magic trick and then believe in the illusion produced. The ongoing proof of this was that the pre-drug high would crash horribly if the deal fell through at the last moment. The good news was that both highs were real; the bad news was that the natural one needed the chemicals to come into effect. I was stuck with the drugs – for the time, at least.

Position, Position, Position

Ed’s place was situated on a narrow lane just off Oxford Street, on the second floor of a two-story building. For dealing, it was perfect. Being a flat with a common entrance meant that no one could tell where people were going when they entered the building or where they were exiting from when they left. Opposite it, on the other side of the lane, was a graffiti-stained, windowless wall – the side of a shop which had its entrance on the main road. This was also perfect for business: since it faced no other residences, no one could look into Ed’s place, and no one could be legitimately given to wonder about the number of people coming and going. Barely ten metres out of the house, buyers seamlessly blended into bustling Oxford Street, perhaps only their grins marking them out as being suspect.

Thinking about dealer’s houses has left a permanent or semi-permanent mark on my thinking; even now, I regularly assess houses for their dealing potential. But not all dealers have places like Ed’s. For about a year I scored drugs from a dealer in Bankstown who had an ‘open door’ policy. No appointments were necessary. Whenever I got there, there was always a steady flow of people coming and going, customers lining up single-file on one side of a lounge room which was bisected by an enormous picture of Mary and Jesus. We would wait, one by one, to be ushered into the kitchen by an elederly woman, where ziplock bags would be taken from the freezer. The narrow, two-story residence and the houses that flanked it faced directly onto an imposing array of apartment blocks, separated from them only by a walking path. I thought Malik and his wife were prime candidates for getting busted; and once I thought I was going to get busted with them. Two police officers showed up while I was buying. There were a couple of guys in line behind me. Malik paused the transaction and chatted to the officers in a corner of the lounge room. After a few minutes the police left and Malik asked me how much I wanted. I hesitated, wondering if the police would be sitting in their car outside; then I bought a fifty. A month or so later I turned up and the front door was closed. I tried knocking a couple of times before someone came to the door and yelled through it, with a thick Lebanese accent: ‘Sorry. All closed. Business closed.’ Other than that, Malik and his wife were very reliable – and uncharacteristically pleasant.

Even though he wasn’t reliable, Ed cultivated an image of being even less reliable than he actually was. Despite his demands to hurry, he never appeared to be actually going anywhere. And staying where he was, wasn’t a bad deal: heifer-sized leather lounges, a television which monopolised a wall, deafening A4-sized speakers as thin as greeting cards, sparkling steel appliances, and huge canvasses of contemporary Aboriginal art. He often had people at his place who looked like they could have walked off the set of Zoolander – guests, as well as people who had gone to his house to score and then got stuck to the couches. He mostly sold cocaine and ecstasy; pot was a small side-business. I never much liked being there and so tended to try to push the transaction along as quickly as I could without seeming impolite. Although unfailingly brusque to me on the phone – and sometimes even when greeting me at the door – once I was inside, in front of others, Ed would treat me like a great friend, and spruik me as a brilliant musician and a great mind. Agonising exchanges would sometimes follow about what I was doing at university. People earnestly pretended they were interested and I earnestly pretended to believe them. Ed would offer me drinks and on-site drugs and I’d usually decline – although a few times I stayed and smoked crack, a drug that I’d previously only known through American reality cop shows and films by Spike Lee.

Most of the dealers I came across couldn’t accept that the deal was simply a transaction – illegal, but somehow still as beautifully impersonal and efficient as any other form of modern capitalist exchange. Illegal drug transactions are caught awkwardly between normal market exchange and what anthropologists call a ‘gift economy’. Where a gift economy binds all forms of exchange to social relations and implicates interlocutors in various ties and obligations, market exchange is anonymous and ostensibly relies only on civility and the rule of law; the monetary transaction leaves buyers and sellers with no further social obligations. But many drug deals are a different matter, (black) market exchanges which have to be disguised as something else – perhaps a kind of barter between friends? – for them to run smoothly. The only time I recall this violated was hooking up with a dealer in an adult book store in Kogarah; he plopped the bagged drugs on the counter like the place was a deli, smiled, and then tried to interest me in buying some videos.

I saw others who would, like me, try to push the transaction on, but Ed would have none of it, especially if he was high, demanding that his visitors were at least potential collaborators in one of his artistic visions. He owned a recording and rehearsal studio near Central Station, where he would eventually begin rehearsals for his huge musical. The precise nature of Ed’s musical was never really specified, except that it was going to be about drugs and that it was absolutely fucking hilarious. I was offered – on numerous occasions – the role of guitarist in the production. Scared of offending him, I always answered by deferring my judgement, equivocated, changed the topic, joked, told him I’d get back to him. I said that the concept was great, that it sounded fantastic, funny – but that I was really busy but that he should let me know when it went into rehearsals. As far as I can remember, there never were any rehearsals. There were parties, however; and invitations to them usually involved some announcement about the musical as well – like musicians involved in ‘the musical’ were going to jam at the party. I always said I’d try to make it but I never did.

I tended to turn up at other places.