Richard Pryor's Tragic Accident Spotlights a Dangerous Drug Craze: Freebasing

updated 06/30/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/30/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

His struggle for life was heroic—and agonizing. Several times a day doctors and staff at the Sherman Oaks Community Hospital Burn Center in Los Angeles moved Richard Pryor into a whirlpool bath, where hot water and antiseptics washed over his body. After the bath they painted the third-degree burns covering his torso with a silver sulfa cream to fight infection. Twice a day, for up to two hours at a time, they slid the injured comedian into a "hyperbaric chamber"—a cylinder that can triple the normal atmospheric pressure and force pure oxygen into the body to help speed healing. Last Tuesday they operated to remove dead tissue from his body and fluid from his lungs. When the doctors had done all they could, they hoped. Pryor suffered one heart attack in 1977; another could be catastrophic. The chance of infection remained high. Then last week, almost inevitably, pneumonia set in—and the tragedy deepened.

So did the mystery of what had happened to Pryor. Los Angeles police say he was burned by an explosion while "freebasing" cocaine. Although Pryor's lawyer denies the report, claiming the injuries were caused by burning rum, the accident has focused nationwide attention on this hazardous new pastime of the drug culture.

Since the late 1970s hard drug users have increasingly turned to freebasing—or "baseballing," as it is also known—for greater kicks. The name derives from a process of using ether to "free" the alkaloid cocaine (or "base") from the additives and impurities that characterize drugs bought on the street. The powdery cocaine is dissolved in ether to separate extraneous matter. Then users apply a heat source—a butane or propane torch—to the pure cocaine and inhale the vapors. They invite disaster when they get an open flame near highly volatile ether, but they seem ready to take the chance. Just last week San Francisco police reported that a commercial freebase laboratory located in a two-story residence in that city had exploded and left its operator with burns over 40 percent of his body. "It took something like Pryor to bring all this out in the open," says Los Angeles drug counselor Steve Sorokin. "Now the freebase story has broken loose."

It is astonishing that the story has remained hidden so long. One expert, UCLA research psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel, suggests that as many as one million Americans have tried freebasing. How-to kits can be found in head shops from Miami to San Francisco for $15 to $20 apiece. The number of regular freebasers is of course much smaller—and narcotics police in Chicago, New York, Nashville and Houston say they are only vaguely aware of the trend. "Freebasing is more prevalent in the West," one Nashville cocaine dealer explains. "In California it is the accepted way of getting high." That is an exaggeration; cost alone keeps many coke users from dabbling in free-base, never mind the danger. Siegel, who is preparing a paper on freebasing for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, estimates that some users consume up to 30 grams of cocaine—at a street value of $2,500—in a single day of freebasing. "It's not unusual for people to spend $250,000 a year on it," Siegel says.

At those prices freebasing is predictably most popular among Hollywood's show business elite. Siegel says that 80 percent of the basers he sees are "celebrities more conspicuous than Richard Pryor." A few months ago Sly Stone went public with his habit, proclaiming that freebasing was superior to the old method of snorting cocaine. One Grammy-winning singer reportedly has a butane lighter built into a coffee table to make the procedure more convenient. For these stars the attraction of freebase is not its purity but the sensation it produces—a 30-second rush, followed by a two-minute "euphoric high." "Free-base gets into the brain and produces a maximal high, and that is what's so compelling about it," UCLA's Dr. Sidney Cohen, a clinical professor of psychiatry, explains.

The high is soon followed by a crash—and an insatiable desire to repeat the experience. One San Francisco photographer recalls a Thanksgiving dinner party followed by a freebasing session: "We all gathered around the pipe and started taking hits. The urge to have more grows stronger and stronger the more you smoke. It ended up with everybody screaming, 'We want more. We want more.' You really get strung out on it." After repeated use, freebase can cause critical changes in consciousness such as paranoia or schizophrenic psychosis. "Some people think they're more creative when they freebase," Dr. Cohen says. "Certainly they get ideas in their heads that they normally wouldn't. As one becomes a chronic user, he can become delusional." Siegel tells of seeing one chronic freebaser who complained that white snakes were crawling out of his arms; the man had actually been peeling off small strips of skin during his delirium.

The personality effects of regular use can be shattering. The high is frequently followed by depression and nervousness—and many users take Quaaludes or Valium while some smoke Persian brown heroin to soften the crash. The drug can quickly become psychologically addictive. As one freebasing actress found, "The sensuality of the high leaves you and all you want is to get high again. You don't even want sex anymore. It takes your sex drive away. All you want is that pipe. The greed for it is a killer." Another danger is psychosis, with delusions of grandeur and hallucinations. Dr. Cohen reports that some chronic freebasers start carrying weapons—"thinking everyone is out to do them in." Unlike marijuana and snorted cocaine, which are casually shared, Siegel warns that "freebase is a loner drug." It can drive a wedge between the closest couple. A love affair between a prominent Hollywood musician and his actress girlfriend was reportedly destroyed by base—and now, laments a friend, "they're destroying themselves." One Los Angeles cocaine dealer states the case bluntly: "Every person I know who's ever gotten into freebase is in the toilet. Millionaires are reduced to rubble."

The physical damage from freebasing is still unclear. No deaths due to "base" overdose have been reported (although injecting coke, a comparable high, can kill), but explosions, fires, injuries and first-degree burns from freebasing accidents are not uncommon. Siegel saw a patient with glass splinters driven into his eye by an explosion. One result of the drug—male impotence—seems fairly well documented. Persistent use presumably could cause massive lung damage. But as one Los Angeles journalist who was hooked on base for three years says, "A lot of people are willing to accept the dangers because they feel more powerful." As Dr. Siegel concedes: "There really isn't a higher euphoria available."

Some users try to withdraw from freebasing. Officials of Narconon, a Los Angeles drug clinic, have reported "incredible results" with their detoxification program of saunas, exercise and physical rehabilitation. Siegel recommends LSD—"that's long, slow, distance running"—following seven to 10 days of detoxification, along with supportive psychotherapy. Both therapies are experimental—and admittedly uncertain. As Narconon's spokesman Mario Davis says, "Neither the medical nor psychiatric profession has a surefire technique that can handle these people." The tragedy of Richard Pryor may have one positive result—convincing people to avoid freebasing in the first place. "Freebase," says Siegel, "is a drug that fits the '80s in America. What these baseballers don't realize is that this is one game where you keep getting hits—and strike out permanently."

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