What Do You DoI was a test subject for big tobacco
A paid tobacco experiment participant talks about levers, FMRIs, EKGs, pizza bagels and dolphins on acid, as part of Hopes&Fears' anonymous interview series.
I ANSWERED AN AD IN THE BACK OF ONE OF THOSE ALTERNATIVE PAPERS. One of my buddies tried to do it but he immediately got denied because it turns out they only really wanted you if you did one drug and that was it. It was only nicotine for me, and that worked.
They had a separate one for weed, they had a separate one for ecstasy, they had a separate one for crack, they had a separate one for heroin -- any drug you could imagine. It would go down in pay scale the harder the drug was, so that was kind of fucked.
There was this one girl. We were watching a cake show in the lobby and this girl was laughing her brains out, just laughing so hard. We'd already been through intake -- every day you have to go through a metal detector, and do all this other insane shit. So we're inside, chilling, and she's laughing her brains out at this cake thing. I'm like, "So, what drug are you in here for?" (You'd always be like, "What drug do you use?") She said, "ecstasy." She was a fucking ecstasy addict laughing at this cake show like it was the funniest thing, like the cake show was insane. It was just a woman making a cake, and she was watching it and laughing.
Maria is a Moscow-based illustrator, who has worked with Playboy magazine, and online publications like The Village and Wonderzine
It’s a job
I did it all in Baltimore, and that was my only job for two and a half years. I worked for NIDA, and then once I got in good with NIDA, they passed me on to these other government agencies. When you do the NPRC, there's a mail-in center for psychiatric research, and in the'70s, that's where they used to have dolphins on acid hooked up to tanks at that same spot, so that place is really chill and really fucked up. It all got shut down because of asbestos, but you still see it in movies. The mental home in Silence of the Lambs (1991) is that one. Later in my life, I tried to do ones for bigger pharmaceutical companies, and they treat you like shit, their stuff is horrible, but if you get in with the government ones you're good. You're golden, it's so chill. Government ones are the way to go.
I only lived there a couple of times, and that's the other thing that's different. If you work for a pharmaceutical company, you have to live at the spot for a month and that sucks ass, but for most of the ones I did it was all day studies. You usually get paid about 200 bucks a day. So you roll in, you're just in there for, maybe, twelve hours, and then you're back out.
They had a weed study where you would live there for a month and they would inject THC into you and if you didn't feel high enough you could ask them to do it again. You would just be living there, just constantly getting high. But that was only 1,200 dollars. Meanwhile, I could show up six times at 200 dollars a pop and not have to live there. Tobacco's the way to go.
It was weird. I'd be flush with cash, you'd be think I'd be like living life after that, but it was just so weird. Also, it was really fucked how I would treat it like a real job. It was like I wasn't working for real but at the same time, I was, because I'd have to get up at 6:00am and go to this fucked-up place and do all this shit, but it didn't really make any sense. I might as well just work a regular job, my life would have been a million times chiller. But it was kind of like a super fucked job.
In the '70s, that's where they used to have dolphins on acid
hooked up to tanks.
It’s always different
They were all different, that's the other thing. You knew what you were going to get into though: they would sit you down, they'd have a bunch of forms, and you'd go through the forms, and part of the reason they kept asking me to come back over and over again is because I'd always ask questions, so they'd be like, "We'll have you do it first and we'll see how it goes." After a while, they just ended up liking me and having me come back for all these tobacco studies. Eventually I became a control for the deeper, darker ones, like the ones they did for heroin. They'd have me do it first, and see how a nicotine-addicted person deals with these problems that they're going to give to heroin people later.
So you never knew really what it was going to be until you go into it, and then you'd be doing the same thing over and over again for two or three weeks. It would be every other day, or sometimes it would be every day, it just kind of depended. But you'd always get paid in cash, too, that was the other sick thing about it. If they did write you a check, it would be from a fake entertainment company in a suite in a hotel in the middle of Nowhere, Maryland. That would be where the check was addressed from. Because the government can't really pay people that are addicts, even though my addiction's legal; they're doing the same thing for heroin addicts, so it's like the government's embracing these people's heroin addiction. That's why it all has to be in cash.
They had me hooked up to this machine where you pulled a lever and you could smoke a drag of a cigarette, but the amount of pulls you had to do would increase by a power of two each time. So the first time would be two, and then four, and then eight, and then sixteen, until you were just pulling the thing for like an hour to try to get another drag off a cigarette. You could do it for as long as you wanted to but once you stopped pulling it you just had to sit there in silence. The first day I pulled it the whole time, the whole three hours I just kept pulling the lever. The second day I did it for half an hour and then just passed out. I just fell asleep in there.
They had a monkey named "Brian," and they told me this halfway through the study that they were going to kill the monkey named Brian and look at its brain once we were done. I was just like, "Are you fucking joking? That's insane. Why are you telling me that there's a monkey you've been jokingly calling Brian that you're going to murder at the end of this thing?" It was this one researcher that just dropped all that info on me, like, "Hey, we're going to kill this monkey." Because they would do this weird salon day where it took two hours and they put an EKG on my head, like 128 connections, and then that guy would get super real with me about all the weird, twisted shit they were doing in the basement. Like with the monkeys and shit, they'd be like, "Yeah, that monkey pulling that lever was fucked up. He just fucking pulled that lever for hours."
It was really fucked
how I would treat it
like a real job.
They had another one that was super fucked up. This one was the most brutal when I try to tell people about it. Most of these took place in an MRI machine. You get your head strapped into this cushion that fills up with foam, and it's really warm and your head's stuck into this thing. This machine makes all the water molecules in your brain move slightly because the magnet's twelve times more powerful than the Earth's magnetic core, so it makes all your brain's water molecules move and they can see a map of your brain.
One time I was in there, and they were showing me photos of cats, photos of a broom, or a chair with a random word attached. The word for kittens would be "apple," or broom would be "desk." But they also had super-brutal murder pictures in there as well, like a woman dead on the side of the road, and then that would say "silver" next to it or whatever. And then after that they brought me into a room and were like, "How many of these words can you match up with these insane images we showed you?" The murder images were super graphic. It was super fucked.
The nicotine injections were fucking awesome. It was so good. I was in one of those MRI machines and you're strapped in. It's like being on a rocketship or something, because they roll your whole body into this massive machine, and you're completely stuck there and you have a little escape button, but that's it. They pump the nicotine into your vein and it's super intense, like your whole body's shaking, and you're screaming, "Oh my god!" as the nicotine goes in. You feel so insane, but then afterwards they drip in saline and it feels like angels are playing harps. It just feels so good. Saline gets you so hydrated, that'll always be the best part about these things.
I was on these fucked up pills, Chantix, for a month, and they made me gain forty pounds. They're a quit smoking pill, and they make it so every time you smoke a cigarette you feel really, really sick, and it's awful. But I still smoked through it, I was like, "Fuck this," I was going to see where this goes. I had really fucked up dreams because your dreams get really vivid. Also, the minute I would drink any alcohol I would get super wasted. One beer would send me into a blackout. It's fucked. One of the dreams I had, I was trying to hook up with Gwen Stefani and all my roommates kept coming into the room. I'd be like, "Get out of here, get out of here!" but all the walls in my room looked like Olive Garden, and that was fucked. But the second one, the most brutal one, was I woke up in this weird hotel room that we got, and my dad was there, and all these people were shining flashlights on my dad, and my dad kept going, "What you're doing right now is killing me. What you're doing right now is killing me." I was just like, "This is so dark! What's happening?" But all those things happened because of the pill.
They would feed me these elaborate, bizarre meals. They had a company kitchen scenario, where they would make these ham and pineapple panini sandwiches for me every time I went in. They were so big, I got fat off these ham and pineapple paninis. And they made pizza bagels too, that was also sick, they'd make the most banging, little-kid, fat-kid lunch for me every time I went in. It was so chill. Pizza bagels are so sick. Not really something I'd fuck with, like on a regular basis, but when somebody's like, "Do you wanna get a pizza bagel?" You're like, "Well, fuck yes!" Who the fuck even makes that as a option you can get? Only your mom would make that fucking weird-ass shit. I keep fantasizing about getting a fancy New York bagel and turning it into a pizza bagel. I'm surprised there's not some kind of fancy, yuppie, pizza bagel hookup.
They pump the nicotine into your vein and it's super intense, like your whole body is shaking, and you're screaming, "Oh my god!"
The BB gun
One time I drove myself to the National Institute of Health, and I had a BB gun in the backseat. I forgot that I had this BB gun. I forgot when you go to these insane government things they search your car every time to make sure you're not carrying any weapons, and they found the BB gun. They were like, "You cannot have this here." So I was like, "Well, can you hold it for me?" and they said no, so I had to drive to the woods outside of this thing and throw it in the woods, and fucking go in and do my study and then drive back and look for it. If anybody had seen me do that, it would look so insane. "He just drove up and threw a gun in the woods!" I was so sure that I was gonna go to jail for what I'd done, for throwing this gun in the woods. That was twisted. That, and the smoking ladies. The injection. The dead people.
I kept doing it up until I moved to New York, so I guess I didn't really stop until I moved. And even then, I would still get royalties off of this one study, I got five-dollar McDonald's cards mailed to my old address for a year. So they sent me these "arches" cards like once a month. That was like my reward. You could get paid in Wal-Mart gift cards too, they really wanted to do that for heroin addicts, so instead of giving them cash they could give them a Wal-Mart gift card so they wouldn't spend the money on heroin. I could have gotten that in some other format but I lived up here then, so I didn't want to have to go back just to collect my like fifty dollars at the end of the year. I'd rather have my arches cards mailed to my old house.
I did do one study when I came to New York. I did one where they tested my air, my CO2 readings, immediately upon moving here. And I got an extra 700 bucks for that. But then I stopped, because it was too much of a hassle. And I've just been working a regular job.
I've used my knowledge as a nicotine tester to start my own line of electronic cigarettes. They talked about a lot about alternative nicotine intake methods in the studies, and it's something that I’ve only now gotten into because I've quit smoking. They ask you if you ever did all these random things, which a lot of them I've never heard of, but now I use all the time. They brought up e-cigarettes to me like six years ago, and they were like, "Have you ever used this or heard of this?" and I'd be like, "No, I have no idea what that is." They brought up snuff to me too which is also really sick. Snuff is like nicotine that you snort. I've got this shit from Germany that's really good. But the e-cigarette thing was really something I'd never heard of before then.
One of the ladies from the center was there when they were doing the dolphins on LSD shit in the '70s, and she was talking about it, she said, "It was so sick, it was so chill what we were doing with the dolphins." The researcher’s name was John C. Lilly. They would have a guy in an isolation tank on acid, then have a dolphin in an isolation tank on acid, and both of them would be hooked up with EKG machines, and they were trying to get them to talk mentally, like back and forth. It just makes no sense. But it's cool, for two years I got to be part of that history, but in the weird tobacco world.
I was so sure that I was gonna go to jail for what I'd done, for throwing this gun in the woods.