What Rick James Taught Me About Drugs

The basement rec room of the mini-mansion was dim and narrow. Colored light filtered through a stained glass window, illuminating the dust motes in the air, which smelled of sandalwood and something medicinal, like ether.

Descending the stairs as directed, I called out tentatively. I knew from experience he didn't like to be surprised:

Rick? You here?

"Who askin'?"

His voice was so familiar. Gravelly, phlegm-tinged, stuffy-nosed—like a country preacher with allergies. We'd talked a lot on the phone.

"What'd you bring?" asked Rick James, a.k.a. Super Freak.

We'd met first at Folsom State Prison, when I was writing about him for Rolling Stone. He'd served two years, convicted of assaulting two women while under the influence of crack. He'd been released in 1996. This was a couple of years after that. Somehow I'd become his phone pal. He'd call me late at night. Once from his hospital bed after his hip replacement. Another time after his stroke. I even know the two women he was partying with the night he died in his sleep from heart failure at the age of 56 in August 2004. One of them is an accomplished designer. (She points out that Rick never uttered the catchphrase "I'm Rick James, bitch!" until after it was made popular on Chappelle's Show. After that, he said it all the time. He was tickled by the coinage.)

Stepping further into the room, I produced from my sock a plastic sandwich baggie, knotted at the top. Rick was sitting at one end of the sofa, wearing short dreads strung with decorative beads that framed his face, which seemed bloated. His infamous come-fuck-me eyes were bloodshot, the lids half-mast. He tore open the baggie with his teeth and emptied into his large leathery palm a chunk of freebase cocaine, white and crystalline like an aquarium stone. He nicked it with the edge of his long, manicured thumbnail. The rock was hard and crisp and shimmery white, clearly not purchased on the corner. Street crack is piss yellow and full of holes like a moldered piece of Swiss cheese; it crumbles like sandstone. This was more like tumbled marble—an antique from the early 1980s, before the advent of "blowup," which dealers started adding to the mix to increase the weight. The high has never been the same.

Rick raised his eyebrows. He was, of course, a connoisseur. During his heyday, he had a guy on staff who cooked his coke for him. Later, Rick cooked it himself, usually in his bedroom in a soup ladle or a serving spoon.

"Where you get this shit at?" he asked, smiling appreciatively.


I'd come to visit Rick in person because I was working on a novel called Deviant Behavior about a young father suffering his own Dante-esque run of post-partum depression. I told Rick about my themes: Prohibition. Control. Denial of the human urge.

"Idle hands are the devil's playground and whatnot," he said, catching the drift. "I got my PhD in that shit. What you wanna know?"

"It seems like everything pleasurable anymore is considered evil or life-threatening," I said, offering my thesis. "Fat, sugar, carbs, cigarettes, sex, marijuana. If everything is bad, if we have no hedonistic outlets, where does that leave us?"

"You mean like priests?" he laughed, musical and gravelly at once. "Look here. It's unhealthy to hold that shit in."

Rick retrieved a glass ashtray from the arm of the sofa and transferred it to the coffee table. He placed my rock in the tray and sawed into it with his thumbnail, extracting a wedge-like chunk.

"Sounds like you got plenty of theories," he said. "What do you need me for?"

He picked up the chunk, dropped it into the bowl of his water pipe. Parting his lips to accept the stem, he raised a butane lighter—a metallic click, the whoosh of pressurized gas, an ice blue cone of flame. Then he abruptly stopped. He lowered the lighter thoughtfully.

"It ain't only humans who get high, you know. Coke was discovered when the people in the Andes Mountains noticed they llamas were eating it—man just followed they lead." Like an eccentric professor, he waved his pipe for emphasis. "Elephants in the wild have been observed eating fermented fruit until they fall over drunk. Same with birds and other species—been observed flying into trees, stumbling off cliffs, all kinds of crazy shit. There's this scientist at UCLA who wrote a book about it. He says that getting high is a natural urge.

"People would rather blame the devil than look in the mirror," he chuckled, raising the bowl again.


I've been thinking about Rick because I just read A New Leaf by Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian. From what I can tell it's the most up-to-date assessment of the confusing and rapidly changing landscape of marijuana policy in this country—a place where 49.5 percent of all drug arrests made last year were for pot and 87 percent of those were for possession only.

Today, medical cannabis is legal in 20 states, with more than one million registered patients. It's well documented that marijuana has medical uses. As a person with chronic spinal problems, I can personally attest to its efficacy. But I didn't have any medical issues at age 12 when I bought my first manila envelope of shake in a bathroom stall on the second floor of my Sunday school.

Now, at 57, I have a medical prescription that was signed by a doctor who must have been 90. He had a hard time separating the several pages of my medical questionnaire in order to find the place to sign; his signature was an endless tortured exercise of shaky strokes. I mean, really. What a charade. But at least I'm supposedly legal. I've written too many stories about the drug war not to know that crazy shit can happen to somebody who gets caught with a little weed. Right now, theoretically, that piece of paper stands between me and a possession charge. Not that I'm giving anybody any probable cause if I can help it. (Unless you count writing this column.)

In January, laws took effect in Colorado legalizing the production and sale of cannabis for social use. There's been a lot of attention to the story; most of it sniggering personal-interest stuff, one long Cheech-and-Chong joke. But what's significant about Colorado is they dropped the whole pot-as-medicine discussion and just went ahead and made it available, without moral judgment, to those of age. Yes, marijuana contains ingredients that have healing and palliative properties for some. Yes, hemp is a God plant from which you can make almost anything. But the reason most people smoke pot is to get high, to take the edge off and chill.

By taking the medical bit out of the pot debate, we are left with the notion of marijuana as a product used for recreational consumption, a.k.a. purposeful self-intoxication—exactly like alcohol. Doctors recommend a glass of red wine every day for good health, sure, but that's not why most people drink. We drink to catch a buzz. We drink to unwind. We drink to follow our natural urge toward pleasure. And yes, a lot of people keep drinking until they are sloppy alcoholics and ruin everything around them. But hey, the shit's legally available on every corner.

Maybe if Rick had chosen pot instead of crack I'd still be talking to him on the phone. I'm pretty sure he'd have drunk himself to death by now if he'd chosen otherwise. That's kind of where he was headed when he stopped crack for a while.

I have this huge young friend who went away to college on an athletic scholarship. He used to smoke pot, but before he left for school he gave it up; there were pee tests in his immediate future, zero tolerance, the whole nine. He likes to have fun, but he's also risen before dawn every morning for the past decade or so to work out. No way was he going to screw it up.

With gusto he joined the team and did what kids do on campuses these days—he drank heavily. It's only natural. It's even expected. People need an outlet, right? Like Rick James said, "It's unhealthy to hold that shit in."

James is right. From movie stars to humming birds, everyone needs to get high, to take the edge off our difficult and busy lives. (And, of course, the college pee tests includes other drugs as well.)So why not hunker down with the fellas and drink a couple of cases. A couple of fifths. It's legal. What's the harm?

One night my young friend drank so much he blacked out on his feet. He fell dead forward like a mighty tree and hit his face on a rock.

Thankfully, there was no important damage, just this big scar on his nose. Yet every time I see him, I can't help but think: Somewhere between prohibition and Rick James, there's got to be a thoughtful middle path.


To read more by Mike Sager and The Sager Group, please see www.MikeSager.com or www.TheSagerGroup.net.

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