essays

Mar 1, 1978

Geraldo and the Prohibition Agents

“Geraldo visited two laboratories where government-sponsored studies of cocaine were being carried out.”

Geraldo Rivera comes highly recommended. Ron Powers of the Chicago Sun-Times, the only TV critic ever to win the Pulitzer Prize, calls him “a journalist of considerable ability” who has earned his “renown for tough reporting”. He’s also won more than a hundred awards for his “excellence” and his “humanitarian services” as a reporter. And if you’re still not convinced, he’ll tell you himself:

“One of the reasons I dropped out of show business,” he told Gallery magazine last June, “is because no one was mentioning anymore that I am a lawyer or that I am a newsman with a hundred journalism awards. Suddenly they were talking about what a cute ass I’ve got, or my hair style”.

Geraldo’s venture into show business lasted from 1972, when he produced his Peabody Award-winning documentary on the conditions at the Willowbrook State School for the Mentally Retarded in Staten Island, New York, to 1975, when he moved from his local news job on WABC-TV in New York to his present ABC Network news position. During those three years, Geraldo spent much of his time emceeing benefit rock concerts to raise money for the mentally retarded. But for the past three years, he’s been back at his chores as a tough reporter, “smoldering with ill-contained outrage,” as Ron Powers puts it, “on behalf of the downtrodden common man,” exposing the evils of motorcycle gangs, venereal disease, seasonal farm work, and, most recently, cocaine.

Geraldo’s five-part series on cocaine was broadcast one week in December as part of the ABC “Evening News” with Barbara Walters (Harry Reasoner was on vacation). It got underway one wintry Monday evening, with Walters’s declaration that “seven million Americans have tried cocaine and one million now use it regularly”.*

“Yet,” said Geraldo, who was now on camera, walking the streets of Harlem, “cocaine is almost as dangerous as heroin, and costs even more!”

In fact, Geraldo continued, cocaine was being used more and more by junkies, who needed a substitute for the poor quality heroin they were getting for their money these days. The Drug Enforcement Administration had so cut the inflow of heroin to this country, you see, that the smugglers and pushers had to make what little they did get through go a long way. So they had to cut it practically to nothing, and sell their junkies a white powder that was about 5 percent heroin and about 95 percent something else. Of course this enervated product did next to nothing to slake the heroin addict’s insatiable craving for dope, and he was forced to turn to other drugs, notably cocaine, in his frenzied quest for relief and escape.

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Geraldo visited a couple of junkies who were mumbling incoherently and shooting up coke-. He visited a party where coke was being snorted through soda straws. He visited a discotheque where people were dancing energetically and snorting coke in restrooms. He commented that most of these cocaine users believed the drug was not addictive like heroin. But how did they explain, he wondered, “the terrible desperation of the junkie’s craving for another shot of ‘snow’?”

To underscore this point, Geraldo talked with a young man who allowed as how he’d do most nearly anything for cocaine, “though,” he added after a second’s thought, “I doubt I’d kill for it.” Next time, Geraldo promised, he’d show us where cocaine comes from.

And he did. But before going on, let us dwell a few moments on what we learned in part one of Geraldo’s series. We learned that there are a million regular cocaine users in America; and, by implication, since they received the lion’s share of the time devoted to the subject, that heroin addicts account for a significant portion of this million. In fact they do not. Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar of the Harvard Medical School assessed the available evidence a little more than a year ago, and concluded that “the use of cocaine by opiate addicts is a very small corner of the contemporary scene anywhere in the world.”

The studies cited by Grinspoon and Bakalar would support the contention that about 20 percent of all junkies are also regular cocaine users. The D.E.A. claims there are about half-a-million junkies in the United States, which would seem to mean that no more than about 100,000, or 10 percent, of those one million regular cocaine users could possibly be junkies.

And those who are junkies are not using cocaine as a substitute for heroin. Richard Ashley, in his 1975 book, Cocaine: Its History, Uses and Effects, flatly denies that any such substitution is possible:

Cocaine is a Central Nervous System stimulant, heroin a Central Nervous System depressant. They have opposite effects and one cannot be the substitute for the other. To belabor the point: if coke was a substitute for heroin, an addict could stave off the pains of withdrawal with cocaine, as he can with methadone. But he can’t.

This latter point is confirmed by William Burroughs, in his “Letter From a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs,” published more than twenty years ago in the British Journal of Addiction. Burroughs states unequivocally that cocaine “produces a state of nervousness for which [heroin] is the physiological answer,” so that for any junkie whose heroin supply is adequate, “the use of cocaine … always leads to larger and more frequent injections of [heroin].” Any attempt to substitute cocaine for heroin, then, would only intensify the addict’s craving for junk.

And as for the junkie’s “desperate craving for another shot of snow,” Burroughs writes:

The desire for cocaine can be intense. I have spent whole days walking from one drug store to another to fill a cocaine prescription. You may want cocaine intensely, but you don’t have any metabolic need for it. If you can’t get cocaine you eat, you go to sleep and forget it. I have talked with people who used cocaine for years, then were suddenly cut off from their supply. None of the experienced any withdrawal symptoms.

This finding is, as far as I have been able to discern, universal in the literature on cocaine. And I have been able to find only one book on the subject which speaks of junkies using cocaine as a substitute for heroin—Marc Olden’s Cocaine (Lancer Books, 1973), which is admittedly based almost entirely on interviews with Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

Why would the D.E.A. seek to associate cocaine with heroin in the public mind, even try to create the impression that they are interchangeable drugs? Well, as Richard Ashley has observed, in discussing the federal government’s misclassification of cocaine as a “narcotic”: “By calling cocaine a narcotic the government anti-cocaine propagandists reaped the advantage of having all the drug-innocent citizens associate these frightening stories of narcotic addiction with cocaine as well as with the opiates which the stories, in fact, usually were about.” Clearly, if the Drug Enforcement Administration can get “the populace at large to identify cocaine with … drugs such as heroin and the reams of adverse publicity received by these drugs,” the Drug Enforcement Administration can also get funding from the populace at large to stamp out the cocaine menace. As Thomas M. Coffey observes in his recent book, The Long Thirst: Prohibition in America 1920-1933 (Norton, 1975), “the parallels between our current narcotics [sic] prohibitions and the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s are too striking to ignore”: … the agencies responsible for stopping the drug traffic … like the liquor enforcement officers in the ’20s, have big stakes in the continuation of the narcotics prohibition. The honest officers have only their jobs to protect. The others would also lose great chunks of clandestine income if the system were changed.

Of course, all this has implications for the reporter, especially for the “tough” reporter. H.L. Mencken explored them, with characteristic directness, in the July 1925 issue of The American Mercury:

Who, ordinarily, would believe a Prohibition agent? Perhaps a Federal judge in his robes of office; I can think of no one else. Yet the newspapers are filled every day with the dreadful boasts and threats of such frauds; they are set before the people, not as lies, but as news. What is the purpose of such bilge? Its purpose, obviously, is to make it appear that the authors are actually enforcing Prohibition—in other words, to make them secure in their jobs. Every newspaperman in America knows that Prohibition is not being enforced—and yet it is rarely that an American newspaper comes out in these days without a gaudy story on its first page, rehearsing all the old lies under new and blacker headlines.

The average, even the above average broadcast journalist of today is less generally educated and less informed about current events than the average newsman of 50 years ago. Today, he reads almost nothing but newspapers, newsmagazines, and bestsellers.

Today the headlines are spoken, not printed (“Biggest Cocaine Bust in U.S. History—Film at Eleven”), but the rest of the story is the same … or almost the same. As I have observed before in these pages, the average, even the above average, broadcast journalist of the 1970s is less generally educated and less informed about current events than the average newspaperman of fifty years ago. The average broadcast journalist of today reads almost nothing, or nothing but newspapers, newsmagazines and bestsellers. And he will never read in any of these places that the heroin Prohibition isn’t being enforced either: that despite the occasional sensationally publicized bust, the drug remains readily available; that the evidence suggests it is being used by more and more Americans with each passing year; that, in fact, its users have grown more numerous in every year since the drug was first prohibited, setting their greatest growth records in precisely those years when the most money was poured into the “war on drugs”. The average broadcast journalist of today will never read anywhere that street heroin has been only five to six percent pure for the past thirty years. And therefore, when the D.E.A. tells him it has brought the purity of street heroin down to five percent, he will not know that he is listening to a con—a con desigend to get more money out of those who, in the end, keep the D.E.A. in business: the taxpayers. The average broadcast journalist of today will never read anywhere that heroin and cocaine are not interchangeable or even similar drugs, and therefore, when the D.E.A. tells him they are, he won’t be suspicious.

I have to suppose that this tendency of the contemporary broadcast journalist to be unlettered explains the inaccuracy of Geraldo’s first report on cocaine, and, for that matter, of the other four as well. I have to suppose, for example, that Geraldo hasn’t ever read (even during the research he surely must have done for his nationally televised reports) Cocaine: A Drug and Its Social Evolution by Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar (Basic Books, 1976). This book, as close to a definitive study of cocaine as has yet seen print, contains several pages of revealing information on the attitudes toward cocaine which prevail south of the U.S. border—information which might have enabled Geraldo to place the facts he brought out in his second report in some kind of perspective.

Geraldo’s second report was from South America, where he visited an open air market in the Andes and saw bunches of dried coca leaves being openly, legally traded. From there he travelled to Lima and to Bogota, where he accompanied city police on a coke bust at the home of a major trafficker—a man who (allegedly) refined cocaine from coca leaves in his own lab, then exported his product to the United States.

Geraldo reported that coca-leaf chewing is legal in South America and is looked upon by the people there as coffee drinking is by the people of this country. Cocaine is illegal, however, and South American police have been intensifying their efforts to stop the manufacture and sale of the drug, motivated by some monetary grants and some diplomatic pressure from the United States. “But mostly,” Geraldo reported ruefully, “they’re catching young Americans, many of whom had hoped to finance a trip south by bringing back an ounce or two of coke. Instead they wound up in jail, in countries where the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply.” The major traffickers, meanwhile, have remained free, and have built such a business that Colombia exported more dollars worth of cocaine last year than coffee.

There are no factual errors here, mind you—just a curious failure to see the pattern behind the facts (or to do the research which would have cast that pattern into high relief, made it too obvious to ignore). Grinspoon and Bakalar quote an unidentified U.S. diplomat as saying of South America: “These countries don’t have a drug problem themselves. There’s no mutual interest to work with.” They comment: What this means is not that South Americans do not use cocaine but that they do not regard it (or cannabis) with the horror that North American drug enforcement officials consider appropriate. It is hard for them to take the menace of cocaine seriously while the coca leaf serves as the ordinary daily drug of millions in Peru and Bolivia—even if they are poor and often despised Indians. (It is the same with opiates in Southeast Asia.) Cocaine itself has always been relatively easy to buy, too.

Moreover,

Most of the people who deal in cocaine, … like illicit alcohol refiners, use the drug they sell. The game of evading the cocaine laws is like the game of evading income taxes commonly played in many countries, or like the methods once adopted in the United States in the face of alcohol prohibition.

Many South American government officials have been unmasked as cocaine traffickers themselves, Grinspoon and Bakalar write, and those who aren’t in the business are understandably reluctant to prosecute those who are; as Geraldo’s own figures indicate, cocaine is important to the economies of the countries in which it’s produced. Little wonder, then, that when the gringos come south with their grants and their demands for arrests, the South Americans arrest not their own countrymen (who are, in their eyes, merely persecuted businessmen) but other gringos. This is not, needless to say, the version of things endorsed by the Drug Enforcement Administration. And by the time he’d reached the end of part two, with forty percent of his series behind him, Geraldo had cited a single source for every fact he had referred to: the D.E.A.

In part three, Geraldo talked with coke users about their bad experiences. One stock broker said his habit had cost him $500 a week until he’d kicked it. A Beverly Hills High School student said he’d had to have his stomach pumped after loading up on quaaludes, Tylenol and coke.

In part four, Geraldo talked perfunctorily with the editor of the drug abuser’s magazine, High Times, and the Massachusetts judge who threw out cocaine possession charges against a Boston man last year on the grounds that the laws prohibiting cocaine possession were unconstitutional. The editor snorted some coke on camera and said he thought it was a good high and harmless in moderation. The judge said coke was less harmful than tobacco and alcohol, and laws forbidding its possession for personal use therefore constituted an unreasonable invasion of privacy. Then Geraldo talked, a little more lengthily, with the D.E.A.

And finally, in part five, Geraldo visited two laboratories where government-sponsored studies of cocaine were being carried out. He revealed that scientists at one of the labs had given monkeys the wherewithal to supply themselves with cocaine at will. And, lo!, the monkeys liked coke so much they supplied themselves incessantly, like people who chain-smoke cigarettes. Geraldo looked grave as he revealed this, and I wondered if maybe it was because he was running out of time and hadn’t mentioned whether the constant ingestion of cocaine was harming the monkeys in any way. But then Barbara Walters was back on camera with a warning that cocaine was a menace not only to monkeys, but also to humans.

“The federal government has told ABC News,” she intoned breathlessly in that inimitable voice of hers, her every vowel grating like a rusty hinge, “that 1500 cocaine users have been injured in the past year after using cocaine. And there have been nine deaths in the past year in incidents directly related to cocaine use.” And with a brief reminder that cocaine possession was a serious crime, she was into the next story of the evening. Geraldo’s cocaine series was over!

But what had it revealed? That the Drug Enforcement Administration has done its job so well where heroin is concerned that the junkies and pushers have turned to cocaine and created a brand new problem? That South American police just happen, by sheer bad luck, to apprehend more penny ante North American smugglers than large scale South American smugglers? That black market drugs are expensive? That taking three or four different drugs in large doses simultaneously may lead to the stomach pump? That monkeys like cocaine?

Did Geraldo think those accident and death figures proved cocaine is dangerous? Nearly 1500 people are injured every year after using bicycles. And a great many more than nine are killed in incidents directly related to bicycle use.

Why did Geraldo turn to one authority and one authority only—the government and its hirelings—for all his “facts”? Why did he give the only pro-cocaine speakers on the program significantly less time to explain themselves than his anti-cocaine speakers?

Why did ABC send Geraldo to South America and Washington and Boston, when they could have produced exactly the same program in New York by hiring a script written around D.E.A. propaganda leaflets and hiring a few actors to play the parts of the South Americans? It would have been equally factual in the end.

I can only suppose Geraldo did it the way he did it because he’s too uninformed on the subject of drugs to doubt the Prohibition agent’s veracity. Otherwise I may be forced to admit that George Bernard Shaw was right about journalists when he said that the archetypal reporter is

a cheerful, affable young man who is disabled for ordinary business pursuits by a congenital erroneousness which renders him incapable of describing accurately anything he sees, or understanding or reporting accurately anything he hears. As the only employment in which these defects do not matter is journalism… , he has perforce become a journalist… .

Perhaps it’s true. GBS was right about so many things.


Jeff Riggenbach teaches broadcast journalism at Pierce College in Los Angeles, and practices it, as a writer and anchorman, at KFWB all-news radio in that city. He writes regularly for Libertarian Review.


*Statements attributed in this article to Barbara Walters and Geraldo Rivera, including those enclosed in quotation marks, are reproduced from handwritten notes.