Successful drug users
February 18, 2009 9:49 PM   Subscribe

Name Some Names: Successful drug users...

I am looking for names of successful individuals who have used drugs.

This question spawns from a research question: "What percentage of musicians use drugs?" If you can answer that, that too would be great.

P.S - Please discount alcohol as a drug for this question. Please do not count chocolate and caffeine as drugs either. Please refrain from lecturing me on the effects of drugs. I am not interested in any of this; simply interested in successful drug users.
posted by FusiveResonance to Society & Culture (73 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Like, ongoing use throughout their lifetimes? Or "tried it, but left it behind" experimental stuff? And what do you mean by "successful?" Could you come up with one or two examples of the type of person you're looking for? "Mr. X indulged in the laudanum twice a week from the age of thirty till his death, and still wrote fifteen successful monographs on the subject of blah blah..."
posted by Neofelis at 9:53 PM on February 18, 2009

William S. Burroughs did pretty well.

Steve Albini also comes to mind, though I don't know if he still uses and endorses heroin or not...
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:55 PM on February 18, 2009

Successful as in successfully administered themselves the drug? Successful as in the drug helped them achieve their career aims? Or successful as in they succeeded despite drug use? It's unclear. Here are three of the top of my head:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (opium)
Aldous Huxley (peyote, mescaline, LSD)
Hunter S. Thompson (most everything)
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:56 PM on February 18, 2009

Carl Sagan - Pot head
Presidents, Clinton, Bush and Obama have experimented with the demon weed by their own admission
posted by kanemano at 9:58 PM on February 18, 2009

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Music, Virgin Airlines, etc.
posted by furtive at 10:00 PM on February 18, 2009

Best answer: Seconding the importance of "used ever" vs "use(d) regularly." I mean, if nothing else, the most recent 3 Presidents of the USA have been former users of illicit drugs. For that matter, Michael Phelps was just 'revealed' to be a marijuana user.

There's also an unknown and semi-unknowable number of highly successful drug users who we don't know about. We can conjecture, but there's really no way of knowing how many Senators toke up after a long day, or how many high-powered lawyers power themselves with occasional cocaine doses, or how many artists use hallucinogens.

I'd also suggest keeping in mind that success is not the same thing as fame. We can offer names of famous people who're known as drug users - lots of coke and pot among the Hollywood set - but that's not the same thing as, say, the large numbers of fancy-career well-paid lawyers, doctors, and engineers who indulge in the occasional joint, but who aren't known beyond their friends and colleagues.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:03 PM on February 18, 2009

Winston Churchill was an Opium user too.

Barack Obama used pot and cocaine in college.

Micheal Bloomberg said this about marijuana: "You bet I did. And I enjoyed it."

And of course Michal Phelps.
posted by delmoi at 10:03 PM on February 18, 2009

NYC mayor and financial big wig Michael Bloomberg is well known for his "You bet I did, and I enjoyed it." quote when asked if he'd ever smoked pot.
posted by furtive at 10:03 PM on February 18, 2009

People get famous for doing poorly due to drugs, but you're not likely to hear about the successful ones. I doubt you will find anything other than the occasional celebrity who is caught or admits to casual use (usually pot).
posted by spiderskull at 10:05 PM on February 18, 2009

Philip K Dick wrote all of his books published before 1970 high on amphetamines and, somewhat ironically, "A Scanner Darkly" was the first book he wrote sober.
posted by crossoverman at 10:06 PM on February 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think this is a pretty nebulous question. I mean, take almost any "successful" person you care to mention and chances are, at some point, they've used drugs.

I guess you could start with The Good Drugs Guide's "Famous Drug Users".
posted by turgid dahlia at 10:06 PM on February 18, 2009

Noted mathematician Paul Erdős regularly used amphetamines for the last 20 (!) years of his life. Reportedly, after winning a bet with his friend Ron Graham that he couldn't stop using for a month, he chided Ron saying: "You've set mathematics back a month." (See page 8 of this pdf).
posted by mhum at 10:09 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Carl Sagan thought pot wuz kool maaan, and Abe Lincoln smoked his "pipe of sweet hemp", as reddit never tires of informing me.

Original Coca-Cola contained coca, an lots of 19th and ealy 20th Century patent medicines contained that, and hash, so you can probbaly make some case for most Americans of that era.

Coleridge's dope-dream inspired his "Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment".

Baudelaire, Delacroix and the elder Dumas, along with other French literary figures were members of the Parisian Club des Hashischins, duuuude.

Of course, none of these people spent all day smoking up (or thy wouldn't be famous for having done, like, other stuff), and it's difficult or impossible to determine whether they tried these drugs once or a few time, or were regular users, or addicts.
posted by orthogonality at 10:09 PM on February 18, 2009

Kary Mullis, the inventor of the polymerase chain reaction credits LSD for assisting in his discovery. He won the Nobel Prize for PCR.

Dock Ellis, pitched a no-hitter under the influence of LSD.
posted by clearly at 10:10 PM on February 18, 2009

I forgot to mention that Erdős was actually still quite active during those last 20 years of his life, remaining a productive mathematician right up until his death.
posted by mhum at 10:17 PM on February 18, 2009

Best answer: A better question would be what successful persons have not used drugs. Tougher to prove a negative, though.

Some instances that come to mind:

Steve Jobs said his LSD use was one of the most important experiences in his life.

Bob Wallace, one of the original founders of Microsoft, was a big supporter psychedelics.

For that matter, Bill Gates used LSD too.

There are reports that Francis Crick was a devotee of LSD when he discovered the double-helix structure of DNA.

In 1970, Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates while tripping on LSD.

Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was also an advocate of LSD.

Michael Phelps smoked pot, obviously.

This could go on forever...
posted by mikeand1 at 10:21 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

The influential 20th century theorist Walter Benjamin smoked hash and opium and Michel Foucault used amphetamines (and I'm sure more than just that). Lots of "postmodernist" academics and philosophers used drugs, which I guess explains a lot.
posted by nasreddin at 10:35 PM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Hunter S. Thompson: "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me."
posted by amyms at 10:42 PM on February 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

If you've ever asked yourself "What were those guys smoking" when you watched a particularly good effects shot in a movie, the answer was probably "Yes," so you can probably add a number of Oscar-winning VFX supervisors and the like to your list.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:51 PM on February 18, 2009

Robert Downey Jr

Arlo Guthrie

Elton John

Billy Joel
posted by legotech at 10:51 PM on February 18, 2009

Sorry to skirt the actual question here, but plenty of people are prescribed/use amphetamines in order to succeed. Do they count?
posted by sunshinesky at 10:53 PM on February 18, 2009

Steve Albini also comes to mind, though I don't know if he still uses and endorses heroin or not...

That was a joke, you know. I'd doubt heavily that Steve Albini has ever come close to trying it.

This question spawns from a research question: "What percentage of musicians use drugs?" If you can answer that, that too would be great.

This is a very poorly-worded question. Is my uncle, who plays guitar once a month for friends, a "musician?" Do you have to be signed to a label? Not have any other job? To be a "drug user" is it necessary to use them once a week? Once a year? Once in a lifetime? Every waking hour?

You don't define what drug usage is, what makes someone a musician or of what stuff "success" actually consists. You'll get tons of names of "famous drug users" - though a Google search of that phrase would have served you equally well - but I can't imagine is even answerable the way it's phrased.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:54 PM on February 18, 2009

Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman, Cheech and Chong, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Jim Morrison, Mark E. Smith, Kate Moss, Lily Allen, Pete Doherty, Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears, Tim Allen, River Phoenix, Suge Knight, Gladys Knight, Etta James, Billie Holiday, at least two of the Pointer Sisters, all of Lynyrd Skynyrd, all of Motley Crue, Stephen Tyler... I mean, really, dude. If you're talking about influential in a huge way and on drugs until they died? Andy Gibb, Keith Moon, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Sonic Boom... I could go on and on.

If you're talking about those who survived a long battle with drug addiction and maintained success after sobriety, that's a (white) horse of a different color. Like Robert Downey Jr., for example?

There appear to be two relevant studies here and here. Unfortunately, they are not free.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:01 PM on February 18, 2009

John Frusciante did tons of heroin and Anthony Kiedis did everything under the sun from the time he was a preteen up until the 2000s.
posted by zephyr_words at 11:07 PM on February 18, 2009

Vast swathes of the mid-Qing literati and social-political elite.
posted by Abiezer at 11:17 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not a direct answer, but in 1967, before the War on Drugs© charged out in full steam, an organization called Soma put out a full-page ad in the Times of UK calling out for reform of the cannabis drug laws. Signatories include Jonathan Aitken, Francis Crick, Graham Greene, John Lennon, Paul McCartney among other British personalities I'm not sure I recognize. You can see the ad at Imageshack here(1513x2235, 900K, fine print in ad).

Infer from the public endorsement of these personalities what you will.
posted by daksya at 11:19 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

William S. Burroughs did pretty well.

I guess it depends on whether you consider shooting your own wife a criteria for living a successful life; Bon Scott, Janis Joplin, and Hendrix kind of have similar problems for me, since their drugs of choice killed them.

Slash was a notorious heroin user, and it didn't kill them; Stephen King abused booze and cocaine, and Tim Kreider has a cartoon on the very topic.

Part of the issue is gonna be defining 'drug'; many of the examples cited above are from eras when all sorts of things which are now illegal were completely above-board - Arthur Conan Doyle could portray Sherlock Holmes as a cocaine user because it was legal, if disreputable (as were opium dens). Booze is a drug, albeit legal, and I doubt you'd find many people who haven't drunk a bit. Chuck good ol' coffee in there as well and you'd get probably universal coverage.

(You'll also find wildly varying opinions from various artists, in particular, about whether the drugs enhance or fuck up their creativity.)
posted by rodgerd at 11:28 PM on February 18, 2009

Bill Clinton did but he didn't inhale.
posted by Neiltupper at 11:41 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't know of anyone more successful than Russell Brand, and he's an ex-heroin (plus every other drug) addict. (He's not a rock star, but he apparently played one in a movie.)
posted by Mael Oui at 11:44 PM on February 18, 2009

Bill Maher
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:50 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've read that Francis Crick first had the revelation that DNA might be in the shape of a double helix while high on LSD.

According to Google, Kary Mullis is another Nobel Laureate who used LSD for purposes that I would not consider solely recreational.
posted by surenoproblem at 12:08 AM on February 19, 2009

Anthony Bourdain
posted by rhizome at 12:51 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

sigmund freud - Coke
socrates - Hemlock
posted by complience at 1:02 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think the best answer to your question has to be Lemmy Kilmister, the bass player, singer, and lead songwriter from Motorhead. Lemmy has taken one variety of speed or another daily for something like 40 years. He also drinks a lot every day and smokes like a chimney. He has been a successful and extremely influential musician since the early seventies, starting with the band Hawkwind. Lemmy tells a story of going to his doctor after Motorhead was on the top of the UK charts for a few years in the early 80's. He intended to clean up and wanted to get all his blood replaced, like Keith Richards had done to kick heroin a couple times. The doctor took a blood sample and asked Lemmy about his speed and alcohol habits. The doctor, understandably amazed, then checked the results. Lemmy was told that clean blood would probably kill him, as the years of chronic speed abuse had chemically altered his blood, making it "unique." He was told never to donate blood or have a transfusion because it would endanger the other person! He has written songs for Ozzy Osbourne, toured in his own band constantly, played with and/or collaborated with The Damned, The Ramones, Dave Grohl, The MC5, written a book, and will soon be the subject of a biopic on his life. Lemmy is now in his 60's and still going strong. Probably round the clock.
posted by Waldo Jeffers at 1:27 AM on February 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Carl Lewis - cocaine user
posted by zentrification at 2:05 AM on February 19, 2009

Pretty much all of the Beats, right? Not just Burroughs, but Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlenghetti, were famous for being high while writing, even if the Kerouac/typing On the Road in one sitting thing is disputed.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:31 AM on February 19, 2009

Timothy Leary was quite successful. While he was dying of prostate cancer in the early days of the internet, he was posting picture of various ways to ingest pot to help ease the pain.
posted by plinth at 2:58 AM on February 19, 2009

William S. Burroughs did pretty well.

I guess it depends on whether you consider shooting your own wife a criteria for living a successful life;

That was an accident.
Seems to me accidents can happen to anyone, successful or not.
posted by brevator at 3:19 AM on February 19, 2009

I just came here for the Bill Hicks quote:

"If you don't believe drugs have done good things for us, then go home and burn all your records, all your tapes, and all your CDs because every one of those artists who have made brilliant music and enhanced your lives? RrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrEAL fucking high on drugs. The Beatles were so fucking high they let Ringo sing a few songs."
posted by jozxyqk at 4:39 AM on February 19, 2009

Just a small correction: Obama using cocaine is open to question. That's based on speculation from the fact that he spiced up his memoir with a vague reference to someone using it -- he might have been embellishing to write an interesting book, or he might have been referring to someone else. As for Bush, everyone assumes he's used cocaine, but has he really admitted to smoking pot (or using cocaine)? Not that I'm aware of.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:25 AM on February 19, 2009

(Obama has clearly admitted to smoking pot, though.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:26 AM on February 19, 2009

Rick Steves, the PBS travel show guy who also writes travel books. A google search turns up not only pages on his website advocating legalization, including speeches, but a discussion board on how to get it in Europe.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:35 AM on February 19, 2009

Best answer: One of the most successful drug users of all time would have to be William Halsted, often described as "the father of American surgery" and inventor of among other things the radical mastectomy. As a reult of experimenting with cocaine as a local anesthetic he became addicted (many physicians around that time experimented on themselves; this was still going on in the 1920's, when Werner Forsmann performed the first cardiac catheterization on himself). Halsted's addiction nearly ended his career at an early age, but he was able to successfully treat his cocaine addiction-with morphine! He continued to use morphie until his death in 1922, aged 69. The late 1800's were often known as The Great Binge due to the widespread availability of plant-dervied drugs such as morphine and cocaine with little regulation or knowledge of their drawbacks. An example of this is Vin Mariani, wine infused with coca leaves. Among its users were Queen Victoria and Popes Leo XII and Pius X. Toward the end of this period, when the addictive properties of these drugs were more evident, attempts were made to find other tonics to cure addiction. One such attempt was made by the Bayer corporation, which gave us N-acetyl-morphine as a treatment for morphine addiction. You probably know it better by the name Bayer trademarked for it-Heroin.
posted by TedW at 5:36 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Al Gore was quite a pothead, according to his college roommate.
posted by popechunk at 5:52 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pretty much all of the Beats, right? Not just Burroughs, but Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlenghetti, were famous for being high while writing, even if the Kerouac/typing On the Road in one sitting thing is disputed.

Specifically, Kerouac used a lot of benzedrine and ephedrine; Ginsberg smoked a lot of pot; and Burroughs tried pretty much everything under the sun including long-term heroin use and some very adventurous trips on various hallucinogens. However, AFAIK Burroughs was generally sober when he wrote, and was disdainful of the idea of trying to write while high on hallucinogens in particular (despite what you might think from his work and the Naked Lunch film).
posted by Drexen at 5:59 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ben Harper
posted by pmbuko at 6:03 AM on February 19, 2009

One hundred percent of all the musicians I know personally or have known personally use or have used drugs regularly. "Musician" is defined as a person who regularly sings or plays an instrument in front of paying crowds or a person who regularly records and releases music albums. The number of musicians I have known is in the hundreds, including many you probably have heard of. "Drugs" is defined as any substance ingested for recreational purposes, excluding caffeine, alcohol, and sugar.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:27 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

How about Clapton and the whole heroin thing?
posted by jhighmore at 6:41 AM on February 19, 2009

Barry Bonds
Jose Canseco
Alex Rodriguez
Jason Grimsley
Rafael Palmeiro

posted by Midnight Rambler at 6:57 AM on February 19, 2009

Best answer: Radley Balko (Mefi's own) recently had a post on this very topic. Here it is (with 300+ comments adding examples).
posted by AgentRocket at 7:26 AM on February 19, 2009

Off the top of my head: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Jaco Pastorius, Miles Davis, Bud Powell (maybe, he was definitely an alcoholic with "erratic behavior"), Sonny Rollins, Johnny Vidacovich (who may not count as successful), Gil Scott-Heron
posted by giraffe at 7:30 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're counting people who were not lifelong addicts...Will Self used heroin for some years, as did Nick Cave.
posted by mippy at 8:07 AM on February 19, 2009

Dennis Hopper.
posted by adamvasco at 8:22 AM on February 19, 2009

Willie Nelson
posted by found missing at 8:42 AM on February 19, 2009

There is a great book entitled "Cocaine" about that drug's history, written by Dominic Steatfield. He mentions tons of famous and successful drug users, both those who died as a result of the drug and those who succeeded, in part, because of it. His history if the Inca people and their dependence on Cocoa is particularly fascinating. They pretty much built an empire because of the stuff.
posted by junipero at 8:46 AM on February 19, 2009

Richard Pryor

There are so so many....
posted by edmo at 8:47 AM on February 19, 2009

Don't forget Thomas de Quincey.
posted by elmono at 8:54 AM on February 19, 2009

Well all of the classic Romantic poets were basically stoned (on various substances) their entire productive lives. I reckon 300 years of their works being required reading in literature classes qualifies them as successful. 'Course, drug use back then wasnt quite the legal issue it is now.

Anecdotally, Cary Grant was supposed to have been quite the fan of cocaine and later, LSD.
posted by elendil71 at 9:12 AM on February 19, 2009

Alexander Shulgin
Alex Grey
posted by ezekieldas at 9:35 AM on February 19, 2009

This list is far from fair and balanced; let's not forget our right-wing friends; John Wayne admitted to trying marijuana (on a boat in international waters so he wouldn't be breaking the law) but claimed it did nothing to him; Chief Justice Rehnquist was addicted to Placidyl at one time; and of course, we can't forget everyone's favorite Oxycontin addict and Viagra smuggler, Rush Limbaugh.
posted by TedW at 9:59 AM on February 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks a lot for the responses folks. All the answers were great, and I'd love to tag all of them as best, except I won't for the sake of our sanity. I marked a few which caught my eye.

I understand that the questions were poorly worded/defined, for which I apologize.

By drug use, I mean more than just "tried once or twice, or a few times". Prolonged use is really what I'm looking for.
posted by FusiveResonance at 10:18 AM on February 19, 2009

Fatboy Slim
posted by speedo at 10:43 AM on February 19, 2009

David Milch is an incredible television writer, arguably the best dialogue writer the medium has ever seen. For 20-30 years he was a heavy drinker, compulsive gambler and then heroin user; the length of his addiction is a mystery, because as he says, "The answer to a question like that depends upon who you’re lying to.” He taught at Yale and then moved on to write for Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and a few other less successful shows.

His addiction is described as the grounding element of his life, giving it a day-to-day regularity which, he claims, made his work and the several Emmy's they won him possible. He's since quit the hard stuff, though bets on horse races to this day.

I'm pretty sure the whole of Deadwood and John From Cincinnati was written by a sober Milch.
posted by nameleech at 11:46 AM on February 19, 2009

Edna St. Vincent Millay.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:50 AM on February 19, 2009

i feel im pretty successful, and ive tried most drugs and smoke the pot daily. whats successful? i have a home, a car, a nice job, am happily married, go on some pretty sweet vacations, have lots of friends..
posted by fumbducker at 12:12 PM on February 19, 2009

Yves St. Laurent was legendary, both for his design genius and his drug use. He was rumored to have chipped heroin from his very early days in fashion to his death at age 71. And of course, he created this.
posted by thinkpiece at 1:21 PM on February 19, 2009

Peter B. Lewis transformed Progressive Insurance from a small company with 100 employees and $6 million in revenues in 1955 into the fifth largest auto insurance company in the U.S. by 1997, with 14,000 employees with sales of $4.8 billion, making himself a billionaire in the process. He's also been described as a "functioning pot-head" who has contributed millions of dollars to groups seeking to legalize marijuana.
posted by turaho at 1:33 PM on February 19, 2009

William S. Burroughs did pretty well.

I guess it depends on whether you consider shooting your own wife a criteria for living a successful life;

That was an accident.
Seems to me accidents can happen to anyone, successful or not

He got drunk and tried shooting things off his wife's head William Tell style. Accident my arse.

Oh, you could add Hugh Hefner as someone who's sung the praises as a regular viagra user. I don't know about anyone else, but I don't think gobbling enough of the stuff to keep shagging three girlfriends at once counts as anything other than recreational use.
posted by rodgerd at 1:37 PM on February 19, 2009

Jean Cocteau was an opiomane for the greater part of his longish life.
posted by Wolof at 9:59 PM on February 19, 2009

You know, statistically, any person who lived their 20s from the 60s onward has probably done a fair bit of pot. The whole Michael Phelps thing is a joke -- I would have been surprised if he didn't smoke out. I don't smoke, I'm in my 20's, and I'm absolutely the exception to the rule -- just about everyone around me does, and I'd be surprised if they didn't.
posted by spiderskull at 1:15 AM on February 20, 2009

Your question is very subjective as you seem to allow the restricive laws of the land as well as the booze acceptance norm to define what a real drug is.... so your answers will be without validity outside of a very narrow scope.
posted by tarvuz at 4:47 AM on February 20, 2009

Many believe that all of Stephen King's really good novels were written before he quit his drug habit. I certainly cannot vouch for that, but can certainly verify his books since proclaiming he no longer uses are not of the same quality as they once were. Of course, that could also be because of age, economic status, his other medical issue. etc
posted by ymkmkrz at 12:31 PM on April 14, 2009

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