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Spike Up the Band: Danny Boyle's "Trainspotting" takes an unexpectedly comical look at heroin addiction. The controversial, non-judgmental film stars Kevin McKidd (left) and Ewen Bremner.

If you think the heroin lifestyle portrayed in 'Trainspotting' is a hoot, these drug experts say you ain't seen nuthin' yet

By David Templeton


Metro Santa Cruz writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in a quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he accompanies renowned San Francisco drug activists Michael and Michelle Aldrich to see the giddy Scottish heroin film Trainspotting, now showing at the Santa Cruz Cinema 9.

At first glance, the gray-haired gentleman in the back of the theater and the casually attired woman sitting beside him look a bit like people who've wandered into the wrong movie by mistake. Surrounded by multi-pierced twenty-somethings and kids in grunge T-shirts, they are watching the opening credits of Trainspotting, a controversial, stylishly filmed tale of four hapless heroin addicts scuffling through the "shooting galleries" of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Within moments, it becomes clear that the conspicuously mature twosome are definitely in the right theater. In fact, they are laughing at jokes that no one else is getting.

Michael Aldrich is the curator of the legendary Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library, considered to be the biggest and best privately owned collection of drug-related literature, with books, posters and ephemera dating back to the 17th century. Though currently warehoused and inaccessible to the public, the Ludlow Library was a San Francisco landmark in the late '70s and early '80s. With a Ph.D. in English literature (his doctoral thesis was on "Cannabis Myths and Folklore," earning him the nickname of "Dr. Dope"), Michael is the program director of the Institute for Community Health Outreach in San Francisco, training workers in AIDS prevention on the streets.

Michelle, a long-time activist in her own right, is currently vice president of the Drug Abuse Advisory Board of the City and County of San Francisco. She has co-authored health and drug legislation, including several that would decriminalize marijuana and other drugs.

Together, the Aldrichs have helped develop San Francisco's needle exchange program, considered to be a national model for AIDS prevention among heroin users.

"I only wish the film had gone into the needle exchange program in Scotland," Michelle comments after the film. "They dealt with HIV a little bit, but I'd have liked to see more."

"It really wasn't an anti-AIDS movie, was it?" Michael agrees. "I think it was the first heroin comedy I've ever seen. What's audacious about this film is that it's so funny. The life of a junkie is not supposed to be depicted as a comedy--even a dark one.

"I see a lot of dope movies," Michael adds, with a laugh. "As curator of the Ludlow Library. I feel it's my duty. There's a huge element of William Burroughs in Trainspotting. Hugely, hugely important. In books like Junkie and then in Naked Lunch in the 1950s, Burroughs was at Harvard writing these incredible books that turned stuff like The Man with the Golden Arm, from 1940, inside out.

"What do I mean by that?" he asks. "Instead of an outsider saying 'Once a junkie always a junkie,' Burroughs is the junkie insider viewpoint, saying, 'The world is extremely screwed up. I'm not the one that is screwed up here.' There's no finger shaking or moral judgement."

And what about the brouhaha surrounding Trainspotting's supposed "glorification" of heroin use?

Michael and Michelle laugh at the notion.

"Total bull," Michael shrugs. "Seeing a movie is not what makes an addict. And I don't think it paints the lives of junkies as particularly pleasant, do you?" With nightmarish withdrawal sequences, traitorous betrayals between friends, dead babies that crawl across the ceiling and a plunge into a muck-infested toilet, this is hardly a recruiting film for heroin.

"American addicts must see movies like this and look with envy on the addicts of Great Britain," Michael says. "When these guys get arrested and taken into the station, they weren't treated the way American junkies are treated in jail, which is horrendous." "They are treated as people with a health problem," Michelle interjects, "not as criminals. Look at Newcastle's needle exchange program. You walk in, put your dirty needles in one box and over there are the clean ones. That's it."

"One guy sitting at a table reading a book who doesn't look up when you come in and doesn't care who you are," Michael adds. "That's the philosophy of needle exchange in England. That's what works.

"I have sense," Michael continues, "that the War on Drugs is passé, and the people promulgating the war don't even know it yet. I think that drugs are going to change so significantly in the early part of the 21st century that all of our concerns with 19th-century drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana--and even 20th-century psychedelics--are going to be blown apart. Drugs are going to be so much more powerful and dangerous and 'good,' in terms of their action. There will be drugs for performance enhancement, IQ enhancement, memory enhancement. You want happytalk today and you have to have an interview with your boss? Here--take X. You want to go out and dance your nuts off--take Y.

"I don't think they'll be very socially acceptable ... at first," he says. "But what happens is, if your kid wants to go to Harvard and every other kid going to Harvard is taking Y or Z for intelligence enhancement that boosts their intelligence just enough to get an 800 score on the SAT, then Johnny better get that drug! That's the quandary of the 21st century. It's not about a bunch of marginal weirdoes on heroin in Glasgow."

He pauses, as the couple share another laugh.

"Interesting perspective," smiles Michelle. "Isn't it?"

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From the August 8-14, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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