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Opium is the opium of the masses.

Punch cartoon, late 1960s, parodying the crack Karl Marx made in 1844 about religion


Blackie and Whitey gradually became friends. They didn't talk about it, to each other or anyone else, but if they had they might have pointed out their shared background up north and their mutual tastes in music, sports and intoxicants. They wouldn't have copped to the similarities in their screwed-up families. The accepted caricatures were that one had a loving mother but no money and the other had been comfortably off but motherless, while an equally important reality was that both had been horrendously lonely and terrorized by the men who ruled their households, albeit in very different ways. The most important things they had in common were too private to mention.

Especially the fact that sex was raising its gorgeous head. Homosexual activity between consenting adult men was legalized in Britain in the mid-sixties, after a century of state repression (which women had not suffered, since Queen [sic] Victoria refused to believe that ladies would do such a thing and therefore that it need be prohibited; she provoked a constitutional crisis by refusing to sign the bill until the reference to females was removed) but the general attitude was, at best, one of tolerance to the unfortunate. The burgeoning counter-culture wasn't much of an exception.

Whitey had fucked a number of older guys for quick cash, but then economic necessities had led him down a lot of dark alleys (so to speak); he'd also taken full advantage of the scrubbers who came as perks of the music biz. Blackie's sexual experience was limited to frustrating fumbles and the occasional feel with appropriate females his father knew, a pair of joyless back-seat couplings, and a short and surprisingly unsatisfactory relationship with one of his fellow students whose principal result had been to establish his credentials as one of the lads since he'd stayed all night. Either of them would have force-fed you a knuckle sandwich if you tried to call them queer.

They weren't, of course, they were bi and closeted so deep they thought everyone hung around with their noses in the overcoats. It took two years and an accident of business before they acknowledged what any self-respecting faggot could have told them a month after they met. As business boomed in the exciting times leading up to what some copywriter called the Summer of Love (Owsley should have trademarked the term), they evolved to dealing in weights – buying, and later selling, by the pound – and then keys, and then occasionally serious quantity, which brought them into closer contact with the original exporters. One of the Afghans visited London and, when the business was concluded, made a pass at Whitey, who accepted as a professional courtesy and later admitted he'd enjoyed it, as Blackie admitted he was jealous. Several long, fat joints, some discussion and a lot of mostly companionable not-talking later, they took each other to bed for the first time. They both had women after that, and occasionally men, but they accepted that their own partnership was primary. This was still in the days before Gay Lib, though; they kept it ambiguous. 'None of your business' was the watchword, which conveniently meant they didn't have to think about it.

Privacy, moreover, went hand in hand with secrecy, which they did have to keep in mind. Those were the days when the legend who inspired Private Eye's archetype Knacker of the Yard roamed the land in search of fame and promotion by way of hauling in pop stars. The English fuzz, as Keef later complained, wouldn't stay bought, which may have had something to do with their ill-deserved reputation for honesty. They cultivated the motto "if you want to know the time, ask a policeman" as an indicator of how safe you were with the British bobby and carefully concealed the phrase's origin in the Victorian copper's habit of rolling drunks for their watches to supplement his meager income. The Vice Squad had a series of cozy arrangements with the Soho pros, disrupted by occasional forays from upper management but generally satisfactory to all parties. This new milieu of semi-professional dope dealing, on the other hand, was both a menace and an opportunity. There were no substantial pay-offs to be had from part-timers not doing much more than covering their own consumption, but there were headlines and commendations for the taking if you collared them.

Acid was legal as the game got going, and so in effect was smack, which any doctor could prescribe and many did. Coke was in one of its periodic declines – its usage peaked in the 1890s, the 1920s and the 1980s – although diet pills and other uppers were distributed, often legally, widely enough that everyone knew what the Stones meant by 'Mother's Little Helper.' The big crackdown, then, was on the least dangerous of all the psychotropic substances, poor old cannabis. Grass was not generally available, since it was so much more efficient to transport the less voluminous pressed resin, this being in the days before the California scientists devoted their attention to the generation of modern sinsemilla. This led to the biggest health risk in smoking, other than those attendant upon incarceration (psychological trauma, beatings, rape, impoverishment, vitamin deficiencies and so on; Keef again: "I don't have a problem with drugs, I have a problem with policemen"), namely nicotine addiction, since Britons commonly mixed their hash with tobacco to make it easier to smoke. Cigarettes, however, were not yet considered a social problem.

Whitey's time as an aspiring pop star couldn't long survive the new television bias against miming (later revived under the fancier label lip-synching), especially when it was combined with a prejudice in favor of technical ability that lasted a good ten years. He pulled in the occasional gig as a model, flogged the comps he conned out of record companies and anything else he could quietly liberate, and took the odd job as a roadie, which was a bit too much like work for his taste, but soon realized that dealing was his true calling.

Blackie staggered through all three years of his economics course, motivated by the monthly bank drafts from his septuagenarian sire, now clearly more dotty than doting, whose sense of duty combined with his offspring's sense of convenience to overcome enough of their mutual antipathy to avoid severing relations completely. The brief ritual visits that punctuated each of the three annual university vacations were characterized by communal bouts of almost silent drunkenness. The older heirs, thirty-five going on dead, clearly regarded the afterthought as an unfortunate dilution of their expectations. When the old bastard finally croaked, they bought young Len out with alacrity. The funeral coincided with finals but he didn't bother explaining to his siblings so the last he heard from them was a stiff letter and modest check from the solicitor. It was an obvious rip-off but worth it to keep them off his back. "Cheap at half the price," he explained quizzically.

A few years later, Blackie might have turned his inheritance into part of the down payment on a new Rolls for Bhagwan, and who's to say everyone wouldn't have been better off, but in the legendary summer of '67 there were career opportunities aplenty servicing the hippie market, or more precisely the legions who had read about Haight-Ashbury in the influential series in the Evening Standard and been inspired to turn on and tune in as long as they didn't really have to drop out. Given the capital to take care of the cash-flow crises that are endemic to start-ups, even in the labor-intensive service sector, how could the partnership pass up the chance to expand?

Street-level distributors were usually part-timers using accidental contacts to help out their mates, and most of them were happy to stay that way; there was nothing like a dealing bust to bugger up your chances of a straight career. Out of that came the legend of the amateur who just happened to stick a couple of keys in his pocket on the way home from his holidays in Lebanon or wherever and got his friends off as a public service. Sure. And the Avon Lady had a little cosmetics factory in her backyard.

Getting high was a social statement, maybe even a political one, and it certainly was fun, especially if you were into music (and those were the days when the music was important), but supply was a business matter, baby. This was rock'n'roll – striking it rich was part of the point. Style did count, which used to confuse the accountants and the New Left, neither of whom understood Lennon's psychedelic Rolls Royce. Hard-faced men in dark suits with bulges under the armpit were exploitative pigs, no matter what their merchandise, while beautiful people in Paisley jackets were underground heroes, no matter what their profits. Life ain't fair, signor. You gotta understand your customers.

Whitey set up the meet, and Blackie cut the deal. Essentially, they stuck to the youth market, negotiated their own agreements with importers from an approved roster and paid a franchise fee that guaranteed non-interference from the multi-nationals and provided some limited insurance against hassles from the constabulary. There were also optional provisions for legitimizing the income (what, after Watergate, everyone would call laundering) but not for vacation pay or pension plans. For those, individual initiative was recommended.

Any doubts they had about turning pro were swept aside in the rush of secret stardom. They knew just how hip they were and anyone who didn't know didn't count and who cared. The legal alternatives all seemed to involve selling or making shoddy crap that no one needed and everyone had to be bribed to want with visions of impossible dystopias they were supposed to desire. Dealing dope involved giving people what they wanted and seemed to need. Compared to the conventional alternative, as J. P. Donleavy remarked in a somewhat different context, it was so much less of a sin