"Sarah," a former white-collar worker at a major Peninsula employer, recalls stopping by an after-hours party not long ago to sober up. Collapsing on a large coach with some friends and acquaintances, she looked around and saw just how prevalent cocaine was in the Charleston party scene.
"Each person on the sofa had their own bag of coke," she says.
In June, local millionaire developer and recently-elected State Treasurer Thomas Ravenel was indicted on charges that he distributed cocaine to his friends. It would be tragic if it wasn't so darn familiar. Ravenel's story mirrors a cocaine bust involving three Charleston attorneys in 2004 that was bizarrely linked to accusations of cocaine use by Charleston professionals more than 15 years earlier.
Coke in Charleston isn't exclusively a white-collar problem, but they're the more elusive users, says Charleston Police spokesman Charles Francis.
"It's hard to find who they are," he says. "They aren't going to go on the street corner to buy it. They have a friend of a friend with a connection."
Though he has pled not guilty, Ravenel's indictment led to his resignation last week and an admission of "personal mistakes I've made in my life." Stories on Ravenel's legal troubles have spotlighted his single status and his affinity for the Charleston bar-hopping scene. Federal prosecutors have kept the details of Ravenel's bust under wraps, citing an ongoing investigation, leaving many a socialite to speculate who among Charleston's elite will be the next guest at a resort/rehab clinic.
Three years ago, Assistant Solicitor Damon Cook and defense lawyers Tara Anderson Thompson and Todd Anthony Strich pleaded guilty to cocaine distribution. Like Ravenel, the three lawyers were not accused of selling the drug, just passing it around, putting them somewhere between dealers and philanthropists. They each received probation for the offense, but Thompson is serving five years in prison for her role in an unrelated drug trafficking case.
This wasn't Thompson's first time in the news regarding the local drug scene. In 1988, she accused Circuit Judge Larry Richter of offering her cocaine at a party. Richter has denied the allegations and was never charged with a crime.
In 2005, Thompson told the Post and Courier that, "after practicing law for 17 years, what I've seen and the criminals I've represented ... I realized it was commonplace, and it was commonplace in Charleston."
A veteran of the Charleston social circuit, Sarah, who asked that we not use her real name, spots the drug at parties and in friends' homes, and she says it's much more prevalent than other drugs. While she's been offered cocaine again and again, "I can't remember the last time I saw pot," she says.
Admitting he's not a sociologist, Dr. Robert Malcolm with MUSC's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences says the stories of coke parties aren't as common among his patients these days.
"I'd say it's less of a problem locally and nationally than it once was — particularly nasal use," he says. But Malcolm can only speak for those who seek treatment.
If most of Charleston's cocaine users are like "Adam," a Peninsula executive, it goes a long way toward explaining why Malcolm hasn't seen them. Adam's been doing cocaine recreationally for more than a decade, starting just as he was beginning the corporate climb. Unlike the junkies we watch destroy their lives on TV, Adam doesn't count the hours or days between bumps. He can't remember ever doing the drug alone and often does it socially with friends before heading out on the weekend.
"People go out and party and stay out all night and they're fine by Monday," he says.
But Ravenel's story is a cautionary tale and recreational users are paying attention. Adam's paranoia about getting caught has risen with each promotion.
"I'm extremely hesitant about who I do it with and who knows," he says.
But that hesitation hasn't reached abolition. Adam's still doing cocaine, telling himself that the cops are more concerned about other drugs and high-profile cases like Ravenel's.
"I don't think people are killing each other over marijuana and coke," he says.
Considering Ravenel likely wouldn't have sought treatment had he not been busted, and he was only busted after his co-defendant from a middle-class family got caught, white-collar coke users won't get caught and won't get help. They'll just party on.
While Ravenel is getting help from luxury treatment centers out West, MUSC also provides local treatment options, including 12-step, cognitive, and pharmacological models, along with individual and group therapies.
Though there's no FDA-approved medication for cocaine addiction, MUSC is researching potential drug treatments. One is a food supplement that increases a chemical in animals' brains which helps prevent a relapse into cocaine abuse. The other, modafinil, is primarily a treatment for narcolepsy and sleep apnea that doesn't provide the same stimulant as cocaine, but does seem to decrease use. More information on the studies can be obtained by calling 792-2727.