Rick Wershe is a former drug dealer and police informant who was convicted in 1988, at the age of 17, of possessing 17 pounds of cocaine. Now 46 and a father of three, Wershe is the only inmate in Michigan behind bars who was sentenced to life as a minor under a mandatory minimum that has since been repealed.
The Crack Smoking Crime Reporter Who Covered America’s Crack Epidemic
25 years ago, crack use was exploding across America. Cheap and readily accessible, the drug’s place in the national folklore was assured when President George H. W. Bush brandished a bag of crack rocks in an address from the Oval Office in 1989, opining: “It’s as innocent-looking as candy, but it’s turning our cities into battlezones, and it’s murdering our children.”
About four months later, Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry was busted by the feds. They caught him (on tape) smoking crack in a hotel room—where he famously muttered “Bitch set me up!” in reference to the former girlfriend who cooperated with the FBI to bring him down. That same night, Ruben Castaneda, a recently-hired crime reporter for the Washington Post who was lucky enough to be on the scene at the Vista Hotel, got high on crack in a room paid for by the newspaper. He was an addict, and with his blood racing from having seen the most popular politician in the city go down—and no one at the hotel giving up any dirt on the bust he could use for a story—the temptation was too great to resist.
Before his Post editors helped him get clean and kick the habit, Castaneda led a complicated existence—reporting stories on one hand and surreptitiously scoring crack on the other. His new book about those years, S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in DC, recalls David Simon’s beloved HBO show The Wire with its vivid, textured portrait of urban life and territorial gang warfare. The key difference, as Castaneda likes to point out, is that it’s all true (even if Simon’s own time as a crime reporter gave his show plenty of realism).
I called Castaneda up to ask him about experiencing the crack epidemic first hand, and how he pulled off such an incredible double life.
VICE: You were a reporter in your hometown of LA at the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner before being hired by the Post. Do you remember when you first heard about crack cocaine?
Ruben Castaneda: It’s hard to pinpoint, but I probably read an article in the LA Times or the New York Times about the impact crack was having in DC and in other cities around 1987 or 1988. Basically, that it was this incredibly powerful, addictive drug that was being sold in some of the tougher neighborhoods in the cities.
Tell me about your first experience with crack and what you think brought you to the drug.
I was on a reporting assignment on the western edge of downtown LA in a pretty tough neighborhood. This very, very attractive young woman caught my eye. She gestured for me to come over, so I put the reporting aside for a moment and went over to flirt with her. Now, I was already, at this time, drinking heavily. In fact, I had already gotten pretty toasted that afternoon at Corky’s—a dive bar—so I was pretty impaired in judgment. So when she offered me, very quickly into our conversation, a hit of crack, I was 27—old enough to know better but young enough to feel invincible. I was intrigued by the idea of experiencing something that I had read so much about. I’d read that crack cocaine produced this incredible high. In that moment, I dismissed any thoughts that this would throw me into addiction.
"Strawberry" was a term I hadn’t heard outside of rap lyrics before reading the book. Can you explain it to our readers?
A strawberry is a woman who trades sex for drugs. Crack usually, though I suppose it could be other drugs. I was introduced to crack by a young woman who turned out to be a strawberry—Raven—in Los Angeles. Getting a strawberry to make the buy for me very quickly became part of my addiction or compulsion. And it added to the excitement. At least initially, the sex was otherwordly. But there was another component to it in that by handing money to the strawberry—Raven in LA, Champagne or Carrie in DC—and letting them make the buy, I was insulating myself from any police activity. It was a way of protecting myself.
But by the last month or so, I didn’t even care about that. All I wanted was to get drugs—I made the buys directly. Didn’t care about strawberries, just needed more crack.
Sex was wrapped up in your crack use from the start, though. Did you have qualms about exploitation of these women working the street?
At the time that I was caught up in it, I did not reflect on that very much. The women who I was picking up for crack and sex seemed to be very much in control of their own destinies. We didn’t talk about our respective lives—these were transactional encounters. Now, later on, I did start to reflect on the fact that I was playing a role in their own addictions. I think it was June of 1991 when there was a story on the front-page of the Post about a group of women who had worked the streets. I saw a picture of a woman I had picked up to make crack buys for me. Up until that moment, I think I had mentally compartmentalized what I was doing as relatively benign.
The Sad Demise of Nancy Lee, One of Britain’s Young Ketamine Casualties
Ketamine is that crazy wobbly-leg drug. The wacky-student drug, the post-club chill-out aid, the new-gen LSD that gives users the power to become—according to 1970s K-hole explorer and dolphin whisperer John C. Lilly—“peeping toms at the keyhole of eternity.” But its reputation as a popular recreational drug, since filtering into the mainstream via the gay-clubbing and free-party scenes in the 2000s, does not tell the whole story of what’s going on in modern British K-land.
Apart from a brief paragraph in the Brighton Argus’s obituary column, Nancy Lee’s drug death went unreported. There was no shock factor: She hadn’t collapsed in public from a toxic reaction to a pill or a line of powder in a club. Instead, at the age of 23, Nancy had died slowly over seven years, her body trashed by a steady diet of ketamine.
Nancy started using ketamine at age 16 when she made new friends. Most teenagers getting high in the local Brighton park were necking cider and smoking skunk, but Nancy and her group of indie-kid outsiders used the open spaces to take ketamine. It was cheap, at 12 grams for about $150, and, important for Nancy, it transported her away from real life.
“She was sensitive and very caring, but Nancy was a misfit,” her father Jim, a college lecturer, told me. “She was bullied at school because of a bad squint and for being a tomboy. She had a victim mentality, a feeling that the world was against her.” It’s just that Nancy ended up finding solace in ketamine. “If someone were to design the perfect drug for a teenager who is depressed and doesn’t have much money, this would be it,” Jim said.
One Version of ‘One Version of Terence McKenna’s Life,’ by Tao Lin
The public story of Terence McKenna’s life—in my view, and by my estimates—is a ~450-page book, which could be titled One Version of Terence McKenna’s Life. It’s composed of Terence’s memoir, True Hallucinations (1993), his essays “I Understand Philip K. Dick” and “Among Ayahuasqueros,” certain sentences and anecdotes in dozens of his interviews and talks, and ~15% of The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss - My Life with Terence McKenna (2012) by Dennis McKenna, Terence’s younger brother by four years.
In a lecture called “Surfing Finnegan’s Wake,” Terence referred to a book of literary criticism that told James Joyce’s 656-page novel, Finnegans Wake (1939), in a one-page version, a ten-page version, and a 200-page version. The following biography (which to some degree presupposes knowledge of Terence McKenna’s Memes) is my eight-page, fractal-inflected, short-story-esque version of One Version of Terence McKenna’s Life.
The world which we perceive is a tiny fraction of the world which we canperceive, which is a tiny fraction of the perceivable world. – Terence McKenna, 1987. [“Understanding and Imagination in the Light of Nature”]
1. Paonia, Colorado (1946-1962)
Terence Kemp McKenna was born on November 16, 1946, in “a Colorado cattle and coal-mining town of 1,500 people named Paonia,” he said in an interview in 1993. He elaborated:
They wanted to name it Peony but didn’t know how to spell it. In your last year of high school, you got your girlfriend pregnant, married her, and went to work in the coalmines. An intellectual was someone who read TIME.
Sarah Shoenfeld Makes Art by Dropping Drugs onto Film Negatives
That big photo in the middle is a sample of speed. It was mixed with water and then dropped from a pipette onto an exposed film negative. It was then allowed to react with the light sensitive silver halide particles to create a visual impression of its own chemical make-up. These almost photos were made by the Berlin artist Sarah Schoenfeld, who says she’s been interested in depicting the undepictable since she was a child. “First I wanted to be a musician,” she told me over the phone. “But then I became more interested in how things look. Now I’m always looking for ways to make the internal, visual.”
These are lofty words, but then how do you render a narcotic event visually, without resorting to tacky drawings? Looking at it this way, her drug series All You Can Feel, nails the line between artistic depiction and scientific analysis, while somehow capturing something of the drug’s psychological effect. So I called Sarah up to say well done, and ask how she got the feelings so right.
VICE: Hi Sarah, that image of speed somehow looks the way speed feels. How did you do that?
Sarah Shoenfeld: Well, I didn’t think that when I first produced the work, but after I published the book (also called All You Can Feel) a lot of people said yes, this is how it feels. And what was really interesting is that I got a call from a drug rehabilitation center and they said that they had run their own little experiment. Without explaining the images, they had shown the book to their patients and asked them to pick a favorite. Every single one of them chose their drug of dependence, with 100 percent accuracy. Even the secretary who only ever drank coffee chose caffeine.
Wow. So how do you explain that?
Well if I had to say, maybe it’s that our understanding of reality is already shaped by our technology. We have these feelings, but don’t realize that they’re created by the things around us. So we think our feelings are our own, but here we recognize where those feelings came from. But I don’t know. I also like the idea that it’s not explainable.
Do you get asked to explain that a lot? Your answer felt suspiciously accurate.
No, most media people just ask where I got the drugs. And it’s like come on. I live in Berlin, I just buy them. Do we need to talk about it? Because you know, LSD was legal until everyone started talking about it.
The Dutch capital is a compact museum city being sunk into its canals by rich Americans staring at Rembrandts and the revolving cast of perverts and drug addicts who infest the red light district. Here’s how to not be awful in Amsterdam.
Jump to sections by using the index below:
– WHERE TO PARTY
– WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH DRUGS?
– POLITICS, PROTESTS, AND JUST HOW RACIST IS EVERYONE HERE?
Screw in the Park but Don’t Wear Soccer Cleats | Protests? What Protests? |Immigration
– WHERE TO EAT
– WHAT DO LOCALS EAT?
– LGBT AMSTERDAM
– WHERE TO DRINK
– WHERE TO STAY
– WHERE TO HANG OUT WHEN YOU’RE SOBER
– HOW TO AVOID GETTING RIPPED OFF AND BEATEN UP
– HOW NOT TO BE A SHITTY TOURIST
– PEOPLE AND PLACES TO AVOID
– TIPPING AND HANDY PHRASES
– A YOUTUBE PLAYLIST OF QUESTIONABLE LOCAL MUSIC
– VICE CITY MAP
The War on Kids – Weediquette
This is the story of Jesse Snodgrass, a kid with Asperger’s syndrome who was arrested by an undercover cop posing as a student at Jesse’s high school. This is the story of how the war on drugs preys on the most vulnerable.
More Photos of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch
Although Michael Jackson’s body shut down from a suspicious drug overdose five years and a week ago, worldwide interest in the misunderstood—and by all accounts, creepy—pop superstar’s legacy is still alive and thriving, as exemplified by the interest in last week’s interview about urban exploring Neverland Ranch. We got a number of requests to release the rest of the photos taken by our crack team of photographers, and we were like Sure, why not? So here they are. Keep a look out for the blue robot. You can’t make it out, but the inscription on the robot reads, “HI KIDS! MY NAME IS ZORD. I WANT TO BE YOUR FRIEND. I HAVE A SPECIAL SURPRISE PICKED JUST FOR YOU. THANK YOU AND BE GOOD!”
I guess we’ll never know what Zord’s “special surprise” was.
The Tao of Terence: Beyond “Existentialism”
I learned of Terence McKenna (1946-2000) on September 14, 2012, when I was 29 years old. It was the day after I had completed the main final draft of Taipei, my first book to include psychedelics and which ends with a scene in which a character wonders if he has died after eating psilocybin mushrooms. I was in my room, zombielike and depressed after a period of time embodying a “whatever it takes” attitude regarding amphetamine use and completing my book. I had somewhat randomly clicked a YouTube video in which Joe Rogan (whom I was vaguely aware of as the host of Fear Factor, the TV show, a long time ago) was aggressively, excitedly talking about DMT, a neurotransmitter-like, illegal, psychedelic compound found in human (and other animal) brains and in at least ~50 species of plants worldwide. I did not have firsthand experience with DMT at the time, and had only read about it online.
At one point Joe Rogan began referencing someone in a “if you think I sound crazy, listen to this other guy” manner. He was talking about Terence McKenna, a person who would smoke DMT and, after ~15 seconds, without fail, find himself in an “unanticipated dimension” infested with “self-transforming machine elves”—also called “fractal elves,” “self-dribbling jeweled basketballs,” or “little self-transforming tykes”—that spoke English and a kind of visible language while jumping into and out of his body, “running around chirping and singing.” These entities, which McKenna described in a word as “zany,” were maybe either “dead people” in “an ecology of souls,” “human beings from the distant future,” or things with their own hopes, fears, problems that inhabit a parallel universe.