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A Brief History of Drugs


On May 19, 2011, the Drug Enforcement Agency blew through the Aspen area and rounded up some of the first alleged major drug dealers to be busted here in years. The agency charged that the group, a kind of Team Cocaine, brought 200 kilos of the drug into the Roaring Fork Valley over the past fifteen years. Most of those said to be involved are longtime locals, and five are in their 60s. Team Cocaine was apparently also Team Cocoon. (Remember that movie?) Knowledgeable locals noted that 200 kilos wasn’t a drop in the grinder of this town over the past fifteen years, let alone the past 130. Aspen, it seems, has always been a drug haven.

Why is that?

The mining camps of the West in the second half of the 1800s were precursors of the brutally dehumanizing Industrial Age, inflicting huge new demands and stresses on people. Not only did men work long, hard hours, but they needed to unwind afterward, and their wives had to put up with it all. Mining camps’ high ratio of men to women generated business bonanzas for saloons, whorehouses, opium dens, drugstores, and snake-oil salesmen.

Finding ways to cope with all the pressures of a rapidly growing country led to a patent-medicine boom of elixirs containing either opium, the feel-good painkiller of its day, or cocaine dissolved in cola, the original Five Hour Energy Drink. Neither drug was controlled at a federal level, but attempts to discourage their use locally included prohibiting opium in Aspen, as well as the Chinese thought to be responsible for it.

When silver mining began in Aspen in 1879, the prudish Victorian Age’s refinement was abroad in the land and the wildness of mining camps was frowned on as many people feared that alcohol, drugs, and prostitution would lead to a collapse of morals in society at large.

Nevertheless, from 1883 on you could find all kinds of drugs and loose behavior in Aspen by visiting any of the scores of gambling halls, saloons, or “sporting houses,” as the brothels were known. Or just by stopping at the Al S. Lamb drugstore downtown to stock up on any number of mind-altering substances: chloral hydrate, a hypnotic-class sleep aid; Indian hemp, sold over the counter in one-ounce packets and in Brown’s Sedative tablets for insomnia and headaches; and a variety of medicines, lozenges, and powders containing belladonna, cocaine, and opium. For those alarmed at the current numbers of medical-marijuana shops in the valley, Aspen in the 1880s would have seemed like a back alley in Gomorrah.

Laudanum, a tincture of opium prescribed for everything from sore throats to meningitis, was the rage, especially for women with cramps or the “vapors,” the term of the day for female depression/hysteria. The drug was generally 10 percent opium, 70 percent alcohol and was readily available from doctors and over the counter. Much fancied by society and the literati (Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge among them), it was also considered a working-class drug because even though it contained enough alcohol for a buzz it wasn’t taxed as liquor, so it was cheaper than gin or wine.  

Aspenites actually had legitimate excuses to use laudanum for coughs caused by the sulfurous air pollution from town’s coal-burning stoves and huge mineral smelters. And Glenwood Springs, with its hot springs and vapor caves, was a well-known health sanatorium where people such as Doc Holliday came to try to cure or slow their “consumption” (tuberculosis), one of the diseases for which laudanum was heavily prescribed.

Many of the drug-laced patent medicines were advertised widely in local newspapers. Other ads specifically stated that their cough medicines didn’t contain opium and wouldn’t create “baby morphine fiends.” But before long, there were enough drug problems in the valley that the Keeley Institute of Aspen began advertising “For the Treatment of the Liquor, Opium, Chloral and Cocaine Habits, Nervous Diseases and Tobacco Habit.” Ladies were treated in their homes, and all correspondence was “strictly confidential.” Did they give patients temperance lectures or a twelve-step program? No. They sold them more drugs, in this case Dr. Leslie E. Keeley’s Chloride of Gold Remedies. The ads continued into the 1900s, long after the collapse of silver, indicating that drug problems persisted as well.
Aspen-area newspapers also carried sensational accounts of drug-related mayhem and depravity in the rest of the country, along with warnings that the nation was becoming one of fiends of all kinds. But being naturally boosterish, the papers didn’t run as many stories about Aspen’s drug issues—they didn’t portray the family-friendly image town wanted to promote. (Some things never change: When rampant cocaine abuse and several drug-related murders became unavoidably newsworthy in Aspen in the 1980s, the biggest concern was about how it might impact tourism. But by then coke had been in the valley for a hundred years.)
Reports of cocaine problems date back to at least 1885, including deaths from overdoses, the addling of local lecturers who took it, and the drug’s being, according to a June 1886 Aspen Times Weekly story, “more seductive than any other drug of that character known,” which “should be driven out of use before it secures any deeper hold on society.” That worked well: newspaper reports of local cocaine usage continued through the time it was classified a narcotic by the Harrison Act of 1914 right up until today.

Is it the thin air that creates a
natural high and serves as a kind of gateway drug
for the rest?

Opium figured even more prominently in the papers. A “News + Nuggets” item from an 1885 edition of the Aspen Daily Times sarcastically related: “It is said there are only two opium smokers in the city (give them a medal).” In February 1887, an enterprising Aspen Times Weekly journalist wrote about finding a “hop joint” down a dark alley in Aspen where he not only witnessed opium being smoked but partook himself. He “detected a subtle odor in the atmosphere that resembled the smell of burnt molasses. A faint yet penetrating odor like that one gets in the ruins of a drug store after a fire.” The reporter didn’t get high and said he felt like he “had been caught robbing his grandmother’s grave.”

The Aspen Daily Times on January 1, 1888, ran the banner headline: “Pulled A Joint/Marshall McEvoy Raids an Opium Den and Arrests Its Inmates.” When a man and woman were caught smoking “O” in a room in town, it was “the first capture of the kind ever made in Aspen,” according to the front-page story that went on to say, “It is evident from the countenances of many people in Aspen that they are in the habit of ‘hitting the pipe’ too often for their own good.”

In fact, there aren’t many periods in Aspen’s history when you wouldn’t have noticed people in town who seemed to be abusing one substance or another. Is it the thin air that creates a natural high anyway and serves as a kind of gateway drug for the rest? Does the remoteness induce depression and then create few other options to treat it than self-medication? Is it because the town has always attracted risk-takers—miners and mountain climbers and skiers—for whom extreme behavior is the norm, as well as bright, creative people who are more inclined than most to getting high? Or has it just always been an outlaw community, where people come to do what they want and are mostly allowed to as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else?

There’s evidence for all of these influences in Aspen’s history. Miners worked long hours at high altitude with little oxygen, sometimes surviving solely on coffee and fever. On their off hours, lacking women they were predisposed by their environment to hang out in cathouses (Aspen had twenty-five by 1893) and saloons (forty-three).  

Pressed by a reporter for the Aspen Weekly Chronicle in September 1889 about who the opium smokers in town were, an officer interviewed for the article said, “They belong to almost every class,” then mentioned gamblers, courtesans, all-night rounders, and actors specifically. “The show performers get there [the opium dens] with due regularity if they have learned the art which produces dreamy paradise and homeless oblivion. I don’t think there was ever a performer who has spent a few months on the Pacific coast that don’t smoke opium.”

“What is the serious objection to these people smoking opium?” the reporter asked. The officer responded with an age-old message: “It would be all right for them to smoke if it were not a demoralizing influence upon others to do the same thing. Some young fool comes along and meets a courtesan or a performer. There is a peculiar infatuation and the innocent victim is nine times out of ten taught to smoke opium.”

Colorado’s rates of
marijuana and cocaine use, alcohol consumption, and binge drinking
are far higher than the national average.

If Aspen seemed distant from the world and above the law in the mining heyday, imagine how isolated and subject to its own morality it was for the fifty years after silver went bust. Throughout the long lull between the silver and resort booms, locals kept partying, as the old saying went, “to keep their spirit levels high.” The gatherings that had become a staple in the mining town of 12,000 people became more personal and more important in a town of 700. When there was a holiday bash or barn dance, everyone went and got their minds off the hard times.

When money for substances wasn’t plentiful, people turned to less expensive options like Sterno and paint thinners. Even during Prohibition, bathtub gin was usually available and laudanum was still cheap. Some old-timers insist that many of the bright orange poppies growing around Aspen in the years between the World Wars were left over from miners who grew their own opium and that they were still being harvested during the lean years.

As Aspen’s post–World War II renaissance began to take hold, bringing more society people and money back to town, more drugs followed. With the arrival of musicians, movie stars, artists, skiers, surfers-turned-skiers, the international set, and the beat generation—many of them the same kind of West Coast druggies the Victorian-era cop warned about—the fashionable intoxicant was marijuana.

By 1963, John F. Kennedy was convening a White House Conference on Drug Abuse, and amphetamines, popularly known as “pep pills,” were becoming a national obsession. Then 1967’s Summer of Love arrived in Aspen with hippies and flower children bearing LSD, mescaline, and the rest of the psychotropics. Sometimes it wasn’t just about taking drugs but about making an intellectual, political, and moral statement: you didn’t accept the government, its laws, or its wars.
On that front, returning GIs from Vietnam were bringing opiates back to widespread usage across the nation, not in the form of laudanum but as powerful Asian heroin that was bought by actors, models, rock stars, and trust-funders. Aspen had all of those. But stimulants were generally more popular here as the cost of living soared and nearly everyone had to work two jobs. Lots of locals discovered they could do so more easily with some speed or coke in them, and that they could still have fun, too.

Fun has long been a primary pursuit in resort towns, for locals as well as visitors, and many felt that drugs helped you have even more of it. You could work all day, party like a maniac all night, and then go skiing in the morning. The fact that the drugs were illegal only made them more intriguing, while their ready availability reduced the legal risks for consumers.

Doing drugs in Aspen in the ’70s and ’80s was glamorous and exciting: Miami Vice in the mountains—sexy, insiderish, and dangerous. It made people feel important, and that always goes over big here. By 1977, President Carter was calling for the decriminalization of possession of less than an ounce of pot. And the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office had adopted an official policy favoring education and rehabilitation versus incarceration for recreational drug offenders that exists to this day.

By the end of the decade, coke had become such a big deal in town that the head of the Denver DEA described Aspen as “the cocaine capital of the world.” This had to come as a surprise to cities such as Bogotá, Medellín, and Miami, but the point was made: Aspen was a sizable coke hub. It wasn’t just that local appetites were superhuman, as exhibited by Hunter Thompson and other notorious residents. Not all of the drugs were staying here. The Aspen area had become a major transshipping point, especially for marijuana and cocaine, in part because a number of big-time importers and dealers had chosen to live here. “They liked the location, the lifestyle, and the people,” notes a former player, “as well as the local approach to law enforcement.”

But the human wreckage from hard drugs was becoming more evident than ever before. It was emotional, financial, and physical, and included two violent murders tied to cocaine that brought more bad press and attention from the federal government. Over time, many of the big dealers went to jail or left the country.

The wildness of mining camps was frowned on as many people
feared that alcohol, drugs, and prostitution
would lead to a collapse of morals in society at large.

When George H. W. Bush declared the War on Drugs in 1989, Aspen was squarely in the crosshairs. The country’s first federal drug czar, William Bennett, spent a week at the Aspen Institute discussing the undertaking and telling reporters that if Aspen had a drug problem, “this is exactly where I should be.” A few days later, a federal task force began investigating a report from acting Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Norton in Denver that “several major narcotics distributors” owned at least seventy-five properties in Aspen, Vail, and other Colorado resort towns.

Some of the drug money was literally homegrown. By the end of the ’70s, a flourishing marijuana-cultivating trade had developed within an hour and a half of Aspen. In 2006, longtime attorney, local political activist, and former county commissioner Joe Edwards wrote in favor of a medical marijuana ballot initiative: “A drug user seeking pleasure in his home does no harm to others. … If Colorado voters act rationally in November, we can begin to stop imprisoning citizens for harmless marijuana use.” Today, with the advent of medical marijuana, there are more pot shops than liquor stores in the valley. You’d think they were selling caffeine and nicotine.

A survey by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released in July 2011 showed that Colorado’s rates of marijuana and cocaine use, alcohol consumption, and binge drinking are far higher than the national average. At least part of that is thought to be because mountain communities are isolated from potential care facilities and face serious funding challenges for behavioral services. The pleasure-seeking nature of resorts wasn’t cited.

Just a glance at local police reports today reveals that drugs such as cocaine, crystal meth, and OxyContin are common in the valley, as they are in many places. Psilocybin and ecstasy are popular party drugs, and Ritalin, Adderall, and GHB also have their fans. In an era of quasilegal designer drugs, performance-enhancing blood doping, and chemical IQ boosting, some wonder if the valley’s latest posterboy for drug use isn’t resident cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Humans have been doing drugs for a very long time. The beautiful, highly toxic red and white Amanita muscaria mushrooms that grow on local mountainsides are thought to be the oldest recreational drug in humankind’s pharmacopeia, dating back thousands of years. From its beginning, Aspen has fostered, attracted, and been hospitable to drug-loving personalities, whether in the form of hardrock miners, depressed hookers and traveling entertainers, or skiers, artists, and rich partiers. For better or worse, that seems unlikely to change.

Jan 12, 2013 10:38 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I was living in Aspen in the late 70's. One Christmas while attending the City Holiday party the mayor was given a T-shirt, by his staff, that read "Cocaine Capital Chairman". That was so funny and so true.

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