When I began taking cocaine in the late 1970s a gram cost between £60 and £80. The sixty-quid stuff was flogged by patchouli-smelling proto-goths in black Lycra who wormed about in the ’burbs. It was a dusty concoction of mannitol (a sugar alcohol with many therapeutic uses, including relieving constipated babies), procaine (cocaine’s anaesthetising but non-euphoric cousin), and possibly a small amount of actual cocaine hydrochloride – although probably just the far cheaper and more readily available stimulant amphetamine sulphate. In other words, it was barely cocaine at all. The eighty-quid coke, however, was the real deal: a silky pearlescent substance – not powdery but crystalline and scalar. When you snorted it the taste and the effects fused in a single cokey quale. That’s the thing about intoxicants: because they alter the consciousness that assays them, they blur the boundaries between primary and secondary qualities, between essences and attributes.
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