Behind the romance and nostalgia of the city of Paris, the metropolis hides darker sides to its grand boulevards, endless terraces and lively canals.
Often regarded as chic and stunning, many forget that Paris is also known as the capital of decadence.
At night, The City of Lights becomes a terrain for excess, but the French, no matter their age, inherited this from their ancestors.
Paris, The City of Love for many, also hides a heavy drug-related past and present.
I remember the exhaustive analysis and the counting of alexandrines from Charles Baudelaire’s poems for my French literature exams.
Despite his work, I remember thinking that there was something special about the poet. Yes, he knew the secrets and codes of the French language, but his writings would somehow leave me bewildered by his changing emotions and moods.
The explanation then came, like many poets and writers from the second-half of the 19th century; Baudelaire was an opium and hashish user.
“Opium magnifies that which is limitless,
Lengthens the unlimited,
Makes time deeper, hollows out voluptuousness,
And with dark, gloomy pleasures
Fills the soul beyond its capacity”
Poison, Les fleurs du mal (1857), Baudelaire
Translation: William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
Inspired by Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) by Thomas de Quincey, Les Paradis Artificiels, (Artificial Paradises) was fully published in 1860.
In this book Baudelaire shared the state of being under the influence of opium and hashish, which led him to discuss the way drugs enable mankind to reach what he called ‘ideal’ world.
Romanticism, the prevalent literature movement at the time, largely influenced the poet.
Like many writers, poets or painters from the movement, Baudelaire joined the ‘Club de Hachichins’ (Hashish Club) where Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Delacroix, Victor Hugo and many others, used to meet at the Pimodan House (Hotel Lauzun) situated on the Ile de St. Louis, central Paris, to swallow large doses of hashish after a meal.
Théophile Gautier, a famous novelist and journalist at the time, created the Club after meeting Dr Jean Jacques de Moreau, who started to develop interest in hashish for its medical benefits.
According to Mike Jay’s essay Opium and the Symphonie Fantastique, in the nineteenth century opium was uncontroversial and often used as a form of anaesthetic or as a physical remedy against gastric illnesses like cholera.
More than a medical remedy; both opium and hashish — considered as drugs today, were both part of Parisian lifestyle at the time. Debauchery and decadence was commonplace in the French capital.
“Among the drugs most efficient in creating what I call the artificial ideal, the most convenient and the most handy are hashish and opium”
Heavy drinking, radical politics and sexual freedom — with the presence of cabarets and brothels, were part of many writers’ lifestyles. “You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it” as Baudelaire once wrote.
As we know today, the side effects of hashish and opium on the Romantics were often translated into brilliant writings, with some regarded as masterpieces of literature today and still taught in school.
With its first poems written at the Pimodan House, the volume of poetry Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) by Baudelaire, or A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud, are believed to have been produced under the influence of drugs, particularly opium.
“Among the drugs most efficient in creating what I call the artificial ideal, the most convenient and the most handy are hashish and opium” wrote Baudelaire while largely under the effect of hashish.
However, the connection between drugs and creativity isn’t just applicable to Baudelaire’s era. In more recent years, artists of our times have also been using drugs on a regular basis, from methadone to cocaine, heroin or LSD.
Billie Holliday, Jackson Pollock, Nan Goldin, Jean Michel Basquiat, Stephen King or David Bowie, are just a few examples of the contemporary artists who used drugs.
Whether we like them or not, the writers from the 19th century and the artists from the previous and current centuries have one thing in common: their use of drugs, if not addiction to them.
However today, the drugs have changed; the opium poppy has been turn into heroin, a much stronger form of the substance and its accessibility has never been so widespread.
Known to be expensive, heroin, a form of opiate, is a highly addictive drug which can rapidly get people hooked. There are many ways to take heroin but the most common way is to intravenously inject the drug in its liquid form.
Apart from being one of the most destructive drugs, the catch is that many heroin users share injecting equipment which often result of catching or spreading a virus.
This is what happened in the Paris. Between the 1970s and 1990s, the use of heroin was so common that it almost became ordinary to find used syringes in public places.
The banlieues of Paris were also meeting points for dealers and for consumers, making business and bringing the drug to the city.
It is estimated that 30,000 people died between 1983 and 1995, known as “les annees sida”, or the “AIDS years”, 24 per cent of these deaths from the disease were directly related to drug injections.
“The thousands of deaths from AIDS have drastically changed the conceptions of healthcare assistants. The situation has progressed in a good way thanks to the risk reductions as well as the development of treatment of substitution,” Aurélie Wellenstein and Dr. Mario Blaise, Head of the Marmottan Hospital told us.
In 1970 a new Bill gave drug addicts basic rights to be voluntarily, anonymously treated and free of charge. The government at the time asked Dr Claude Olievenstein to open an establishment for the needs and treatment of addicts as a result of a public movement following the deaths of young people due to overdoses.
Popularly known as the “shrink for addicts”, the psychiatrist was a pioneer in the fight against drug addiction and opened the Marmottan Hospital in 1971, a time when addicts were still considered as parasites, damaged and rejected by the society.
The result was a large decline of contamination and overdose rates in France following the “AIDS years”; a report published by the French National Public Health Agency in 1999 said deadly overdoses has been reduced by 80 per cent.
However, the use of heroin and class ‘A’ drugs is still very significant in the capital and it’s also easy to find.
Charles, 33-year-old, former addict, told us: “It’s very easy to find heroin in Paris, certainly less that in the 80s but in the neighbourhood of the Goutte d’Or, especially in Chateau Rouge or in Barbès, it’s easy to get some straight from the street.”
“Almost ten years ago, when we first told our ‘regulars’ about opening a self-injection room, they all said that they wouldn’t be going. However, on the first day in service, one of them came. Today we have an average of 200 people coming on a daily basis,” says Céline Debaulieu, coordinator of the self-injection room in Paris.
In 2015, over 120,000 syringes and almost 27,000 crack kits were distributed only in the region of Paris.
The room popularly known as the “shooting gallery” opened in the French capital in October 2016, a project run by GAIA Paris.
The charity, created by Doctors of the World, has been around since 1989 in order to socially and physically help addicts.
Since 1998, GAIA Paris has been taking a van around the areas most affected by drug taking in order to distribute sterile syringes and crack kits, as well as a mental and social support.
In 2015, more than 120,000 syringes and almost 27,000 crack kits were distributed in Paris.
However, the opening of the room has led to many controversies and debates amongst the charity, residents and politicians whom claim it is “encouraging drug addiction.”
A woman on a Facebook post sarcastically wrote: “Well done! We are now going to have professional drug addicts around!”
The self-injection room is located in the Laribroisière Hospital, situated right in the middle of Gare du Nord and Barbès, areas both known for their high crime rates and drug-related issues.
It’s only a few miles from the notorious Seine Saint Denis banlieue, where many young people died in 80s and 90s from overdoses.
“We’ve been in the area for about ten years now because we know that this is where most users come to buy heroin and consume it so it was logical for us to settle our centre here,” explains Debaulieu.
The centre wasn’t hard to find, across the street from the building was a banner hanging from someone’s balcony stating: “Petition sur change.org/ Non a la salle de shoot” (“Petition on change.org/ No to the shooting gallery”).
Despite such opposition, the project gained support from the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hildago and the local council.
When I met her at the centre, Debaulieu explained that the room’s first aim is not to stop addicts from using drugs but instead to guide them medically and socially and provide them with support.
“They need to be their own trigger. It’s for them to say ‘ok I am ready to stop’ and wish to do it. We are here to provide them with a balance and guide them through a process of re-appropriation of themselves.”
The centre includes a smoking room where crack smokers can smoke and an injection room where addicts can stay for up to twenty minutes to consume heroin.
A nurse and two doctors are always present on site in case something goes wrong but they do not intervene with the injection process.
All the room’s attendees are addicts, some for a very long time, Debaulieu explains that the staff already knew most faces from the van.
The sterile syringes and injecting equipment is free of charge and provided by the centre, in this way the transmission of HIV and contamination is massively reduced.
One rule: the addicts must come with their own drugs, the centre does not provide any substances.
The consumers can spend as much time as they wish in the “resting room” where books, pencils, or the Internet are available as well as a kitchen for them to use.
A psychologist is often on site and addicts can openly talk to the professional if they need social help.
“Most users have lost everything, they do not have a job, a place to stay or even someone to rely on, so a lot of them live off begging from the streets. Our objective is to be the bridge between the street and healthcare,” Debaulieu explained.
Open seven days a week from 1.30pm to 8.30pm, the self-injection room, is a place where addicts can create links – an important task for people whom usually suffer from social exclusion.
“Public opinion regarding drug addiction varies depending on the actual drug […] Globally in Paris, drug addiction is stigmatised and it’s clearly excluding,” Charles told us.
He knows the domain, he smoked his first joint at the age of ten, took heroin until he realised that it was becoming uncontrollable and became addicted to crack.
In a series of fifteen podcasts broadcasted for ARTE Radio, an online radio platform created by the national broadcasting public television company ARTE, Charles talks about the infamous underworld of the drugs business in Paris.
Crackopolis is an autobiographic series of podcasts which teaches the audience how to behave, love or get by with crack and the overall addiction of drugs.
From the ‘Club des Hachichins’ to the ‘shooting gallery’, the use of drugs in the French capital has a long, romantic and creative past but a debatable present.
In both cases, the users are looking to enter the ‘ideal’ world where the sadness and boredom of reality do not exist.
From this era or from the past ones, some of most the respected and talented writers, painters, artists, musicians or singers were taking drugs.
“Globally in Paris, drug addiction is stigmatized and it’s clearly excluding”
Opium provided the Romantics with dreams which they would then use to write their masterpieces. Cocaine or heroin provides current artists with an overall blissful feeling.
Many people ask themselves if there was a link between creativity and the use of drugs. In Western societies today, popular artists, writers, actors or painters have stereotypically accentuated the use of drugs and its relation to creativity.
Despite the fact that drugs, particularly opiates, make the consumer enter a world of ‘fantasias’, as described by the Romantics, and have been used to improve artistic techniques and enhance creativity, no scientific explanation has supported the statement.
In 2014, in an interview for VICE News, Dr Alain Dagher, neurologist at the Montreal Neurologist Institute and Hospital, explained: “Part of creativity is being original. So drugs like cocaine, and perhaps heroin, have that ability to make you have original thoughts.”
The original physical, psychological and emotional experiences that drugs offer, provide the consumers with original thoughts, which can then be translated and reproduced in an art form.
Dr Dagher believes that originality is one of the keys to art; perhaps the use of drugs is a tip for creativity but it is certainly not its trigger. Drugs remain deadly and can easily set apart users from reality and society.
As Baudelaire himself explained: “Wine makes men happy and sociable; hashish isolates them. Wine exalts the will; hashish annihilates it.”
Since 1986, 90 self-injecting rooms have opened in nine different countries including Germany, Spain or Canada.
Featured image by Zoltan Voros, Flickr CC