How the Media Cooked-Up a New Heroin Epidemic

New York Press
October 21, 2009

HE WEARS A black hoodie to protect himself from the cold rain. The baby-faced guy is Dominican, probably in his early twenties. He rushes by me at the Graham Avenue L train entrance, pauses and asks, “Matt?” I nod. He leads me down the stairs, examines me silently. Once he’s satisfied that I’m not a threat, he takes $30 from my left hand and pushes a sealed bag of Cheez Doodles into my right jacket pocket. Without another word, he splits for the opposite staircase and races back above ground. I check my watch. It’s 6:30 on a Saturday night under a busy Williamsburg intersection, and I’ve just scored three bags of “Nike” heroin, all hidden inside a re-sealed bag of chips.

Nike is the highest quality brand of heroin going around Williamsburg, according to Rob (not his real name), a scruffy 27-year-old I know from my junkie past. Rob admits to sometimes using as much as 16 bags a day. He lives in an apartment near the Graham L stop filled with piles of empty glassine bags and orange syringe caps. The handoff, which Rob set up after a few minutes and a couple of texts while at his parents’ house in Connecticut, was the culmination of months of research that was spurred on by a spate of recent media reports claiming that America—and especially the New York metro area—is suffering from a terrifying new heroin epidemic. Curious, I decided to revisit a world that had once held me in its clutches for so long. This time around, I brought along a notebook and a clear head.

The Sunday, Oct. 3 cover of Newsday read “Heroin Hits Main Street.” Under slightly less-lurid headlines, several recent New York Times features have promoted similar concerns. A Sept. 27 Sunday Metro cover story, “Young and Suburban, and Falling for Heroin,” chronicled the rise of a new kind of young, middleclass addict, a development “especially worrisome” to Suffolk County authorities. Reporter Cara Buckley used the example of a 17-year-old girl from Suffolk County whose low self-esteem catapulted her from pot to skag to rehab.

Heroin, Buckley quoted a rehab doctor as saying, “is becoming cooler.” In a long sidebar the same writer reported that the heroin available in urban centers today is much purer, and therefore much more potent, than the street skag of 10 or even 20 years ago. Buckley quotes a prosecutor who claims that the purity level has increased from “less than 5 percent” in the heroin-blighted 1970s to “as high as 20 percent” now. In case readers don’t get the hint in the main article, the sidebar explicitly states that “younger, more educated people are getting hooked.” Taken together, the two pieces—reporting an uptick in middle-class demand and better quality supply—warn the typical Times reader: Hide your kids!

Not so fast. Haven’t we read this all before? Yes. In fact, 13 years ago, a Sept. 8, 1996, Times article outlined the same dual trend in a remarkably similar story headlined, “Heroin Moves In On a New Generation.” Back in the glory days of heroin chic, it was an anonymous girl from Connecticut who conveniently fleshed out the epidemic, which began: “She started taking drugs when she was 15.” The author of the 1996 piece cites a source to maintain, “While the supply is on the rise, so too is the purity of the heroin.” It’s as if the past 13 years never happened.

Actually, the Times’ latest wave of reporting on the rise of heroin use among young people began again back in a Jan. 13, 2008 article that asserted the phenomenon was nationwide but focused on the New York City metro area: “Experts say that more high-quality heroin is being put on the streets of the New York City suburbs than ever before, and at what are considered historically lower prices.” According to this story, suburban teens can now purchase heroin in amounts of “a 10-gram ‘deck,’ which can cost as little as $7 on the street.”

As anyone with experience with the drug will tell you, this is a laughably low figure. While it has fluctuated in quality, heroin in New York has fetched roughly the same price since the early 1980s: $10 for a bag containing 1/10 of a gram of powder, about the size of a line of coke. (Typically one bag will get someone without a habit stoned for a few hours.) In other words, the Times was off by a factor of 10. More recently, on May 29 of this year, the Gray Lady warned readers of “a powerful form of heroin” called “black tar” moving through the Mideastern hinterlands. Even straights in good standing, if they’ve read the Times long enough, can tell you that there is nothing new about black tar. On Sept. 13,1986, the paper’s Peter Kerr reported, “A powerful new type of heroin, black tar, has appeared” in Chicago and points west. Black tar is not pure; it is highly cut with sticky chemical additives—as legions of West Coast junkies can attest. A 36-year-old former addict who spent many years in San Francisco explained to me, “that shit is so nasty, it’s like syrup.” Revealing several scars from healed abscesses on his arm, he adds, “It just destroyed my veins.”

But should we be surprised? This sort of media-inflated dope hysteria dates back to the early 1950s when pulps with titles like The Pusher and Dope Doll included illustrations of cartoonish, middle-class fiends strung out by hustlers. The politically moderate urban sociologist Eric Schneider, in his comprehensive history of domestic heroin use, Smack: Heroin and the American City, argues forcefully that a fear of the suburbanization of an opiate epidemic, although dating back to Eisenhower-era anxieties, reached a fevered pitch in the post-hippie 1970s. Around every decade or so, the press uncovers something both ominous and familiar under the floorboards: white, affluent heroin users.

Given that heroin has existed for so long in the city, is it any wonder middle-class whites have long gotten their hands on the stuff? During periods of economic growth, they scrape by without causing trouble. In periods of economic decline, however, the consequences of hard drug use become more prevalent. The financial motivation to deal increases, coupled with an attempt to reach new clients. Prescription opiate painkillers, more expensive than heroin on the black market, and favored by most suburban users, can also become more difficult to obtain for many in bad times as well. In any event, as new users get in over their head, social ills such as shoplifting and overdoses begin to rise. That’s when junkies begin to be noticed and editors assign their heroin stories and reporters try to craft a nightmare scenario for a new generation.

It’s a sunny Friday morning, and a crew-cut
white kid struts into a near-empty Tompkins Square Park. He impatiently
asks two homeless crust punks rinsing their dreadlocks at the water
fountain to please move. He fills a syringe with water and sits down on
a nearby green wooden bench. Balancing the rig beside him, he guides a
plastic cap and a small, square unstamped glassine bag of skag out of
his striped shorts. He pours the bag’s contents into the cap, sprays
water into it, shakes up the solution and draws it back up into the
syringe through a cotton ball. Licking his lips while he brings the
syringe to his forearm, he gets distracted as I eye him from the bench
across the blacktop.

going to do that right in the open?” I ask. The young junkie answers by
sticking the needle into his flesh and pushing the heroin into a vein.
Smiling stupidly, he gathers his works and hurries off. Two minutes
later, he’s back with a sullen look on his face and a bearded crust
punk in tow. They are a mix-matched pair—one clean cut, the other
filthy. Sitting down on the same bench after getting water from the
fountain, they each unfurl works and prepare their shots. Emboldened by
a partner, Crew Cut sardonically asks me, “Be our eyes?” After getting
his second hit of the morning, Crew Cut looks more relaxed, his eyelids
droop. He pockets his syringe and stands up. Under the wave of
sedation, his knees buckle a bit and he nods off. Then he shakes
himself awake and lopes away. Meanwhile, waiting to feel the dope’s
flash, the bearded crust punk gazes straight ahead. Finally he says,
“This shit I just copped isn’t very good.”

Nodding sympathetically, I ask the him a few questions.

name is George, and he’s from northern New Jersey. At 28, he’s homeless
and has been using H since he was 18, about the age his crew-cut pal is
now. His body shows the results: jaundiced skin, yellowing eyes and a
frail posture—symptomatic of hepatitis C—combine to make him look much
older. Topped by a black Yankees cap, his yellow face—tattooed with
small designs—is haunting. His eyes flash a wary knowledge of his own
decrepitude. Despite his rough appearance, he’s friendly and eager to

As his
medical wristbands—which he wears while begging for money—prove, George
has been hospitalized four times in the last two weeks for overdoses
and seizures. Store managers will not let him use their bathrooms, so
he gets off in the park. George ticks off his list of ailments:
addiction, alcoholism, hepatitis C and pancreatitis. He claims to have
two kids somewhere. Adding to George’s sordid fate, his wakeup bag
didn’t even tighten him up. He’s been trying to get into a city detox
so he can lower his tolerance, but he doesn’t have any I.D. “Basically,
I’m fucked, I have a year to live,” he mutters. “Can you buy me a
beer?” To people who only know Manhattan in its boom-era incarnation,
the existence of George and his junkie pals is something new. While,
sitting at the Sidewalk Café on East Sixth Street, a 27-year-old blond
Web writer told some friends about a bust she had seen in Tompkins
Square Park. There were syringes on the ground and everything. “Do
people even do heroin anymore?” she wondered aloud. The question was
more than rhetorical; she was about to sign a lease in the neighborhood
and she was nervous about walking through the park at night.

right to wonder. Although patterns of use and supply change, these
changes typically develop underground, only triggering warning signals
in the mass media when they discover

waves of drug use when it fits other priorities—to generate buzz or
stress the need for law and order. To find out what’s going on in the
Land of Nod, you need to scratch the surface and go beyond canned
quotes from suburban teens in treatment and D.A.s. Do that, and you’ll
realize that junkies, even white middle-class ones, never went anywhere.

the one hand, the recent experiences of some people I spoke with who are involved in buying and selling smack say that there has been a recent uptick in street-level supply. As to the question of quality, however, most of them say purity levels vary greatly over short periods of time. Take Jennifer (not her real name), an attractive 23-year-old redhead from a Chicago suburb, who now lives in Bay Ridge with her boyfriend. Jennifer admits she spends a lot of time keeping up appearances, because, in her words she’s “very fucking vain” and, with the exception of the small track marks on her wrist—which she covers with makeup—she could easily pass as for a fashionable college student. But unlike most college kids, her main source of income is shoplifting from high-end stores like Apple. She and her boyfriend got a windfall a couple of months ago when his parents sent a check to buy books for Fordham University, where he’s enrolled in grad school.

While relating her heroin stories, Jennifer frequently starts crying. She would be the perfect source for a newspaper reporter to latch onto to write a story about a new epidemic. Except for the fact that she’s been using since she was 18, when she moved to the city on a whim to attend Hunter College. A new user, she is not.

On the question of purity, she sides with those who claim it’s gotten better recently. “Back in March, we were always complaining about the material. But then it got a lot better,” she says, adding, “People were just, like, ‘Thank God.’” Dick LaVine, who was a counselor at the city’s first medical detox program, which was established at Beth Israel Hospital in 1961, says that purity levels have always been in flux. “That’s not an unfamiliar story. There were periods when everything was ‘pure’ and people would overdose,” LaVine explains. “Then it went the other way, they were getting garbage and would be sick.”

Chris, a 47-year-old heroin sniffer from an upper-middle class family, lives on Ridge Street in the Lower East
Side. He says he’s been surprised at the number of “stamps” (different “brands” of dope used by dealers to market dope) found on his block lately. Sitting Indian-style on his bed and chopping beige powder into lines on a CD jewel case, Chris, who says he’s also physically addicted to Oxycontin and morphine—which are prescribed to him for an old back injury—names five dealers he knows on his block. Unable to mask his excitement, he says, “That’s more than were here when I lived here in the ‘80s.”

I speak to a middle-aged dealer who has stayed in the game since the mid-1990s when he ran his corner on East 15th and First Avenue. Not a user himself, he explains that he delivers to primarily white, middle-class customers across Manhattan. The dealer says in the past few weeks he’s been able to find good stuff for the first time in years. Standing in a dark tenement doorway in an East Village block, he rubs his fingers together. “But they make you pay full price, you know?” he says, referring to dealers who have dynamite product.

While dope can be found in neighborhoods as far removed as the West Village and the South Bronx, the most popular copping center for addicts right now—especially for young, middle-class ones—is Williamsburg, which displaced the Lower

East Side and East Village earlier this decade as the major location for members of the creative class. While working on this story, I saw “Nike,” “King of New York,” “Monster,” “Scorpion King” and “Dead on Arrival” stamps being peddled in Williamsburg, while most bags in downtown Manhattan are usually unstamped.

Champ, a hardened white addict with a deeply creased, suntanned face waits for his girlfriend near the shimmering mesh skin of the New Museum on the Bowery. When she finally appears, she has two unstamped sealed glassine bags in hand. She lays one of Champ. “You wanna laugh real hard?” he asks in his gravel-pit voice. He answers himself: “The shit comes right from this block.” Champ’s girlfriend had just run up the stairs of the Sunshine Hotel—a flophouse near the main entrance—where she copped her smack in plain view as European tourists milling around the front of the museum.

Even if heroin dealing and consumption is more out in the open during the current recession, addicts across the city would laugh if you tell them that H is five times stronger than in the 1970s, a claim made by the city’s special narcotics prosecutor, Bridget G. Brennan, in Buckley’s Times piece. Ask enough dope fiends when junk was at its purest and, depending on
the junkie’s age, you get a wide range of answers. There is one common thread, however: The strongest shit they ever did was back when they first started, but the really good stuff—well, that was back in the
day, before they were even using.

Another young white junkie, sitting on a bicycle in Tompkins Square Park, explains why he recently hooked up with a methadone clinic: “Nothing out here is getting me high.” Anecdotally at least, some clinics claim to have recently seen an increase in population. A tall man in his late forties who refrained from giving his name because of societal stigma, claims that his methadone clinic went from 200 to 800 clients in the last year. Most of the new clients, he adds, are young and white.

Tom Daly, a head counselor at the Greenwich House program located off Cooper Square, wouldn’t deny a recent dramatic spike in patients. “In the last six to seven months, there has been a rise,” he admits. “But they’re coming from Rikers and detox programs. It’s not like they’re brand new to the scene.”

The truth is, from the South Bronx to Williamsburg to the Lower East Side, junkies have been around since at least the early 1950s, when junk swept through the predominately black New York street gangs, sapping their power and creating a permanent underclass. In Claude Brown’s autobiographical novel, Manchild in the Promised Land, he describes the devastation that heroin brought down on Harlem, a “shit plague” that, he writes, peaked in 1955. Some low-level Mafiosi, who were breaking their organization’s rules, also got hooked, says LaVine. “Before that, it was either you got straight, or you were shivering on the cement,” he explains.

LaVine, a septuagenarian with chiseled features and thick tousled black hair, hands over several documents from his two-decade tour at the Beth Israel treatment facility on Avenue A. One of them is a letter, dated Aug. 1967, from Dr. Vincent P. Dole, the founder of methadone maintenance, where LaVine transferred to when maintenance started that year. The letter begins in part, “So many addicts have volunteered for treatment—and everyday brings more applications—that we already have a year’s accumulation on the waiting list.” The system was ballooning with inner city heroin addicts, “mostly from Harlem,” LaVine says.

Stacked beneath the letter is slightly yellowed pamphlet titled “The Attack on narcotic addiction and drug abuse.” Published in December of 1967 by New York State, its cover is taken up by two stories about drug use
encroaching into the lives of white teens in places like Ithaca. While it focuses on LSD and marijuana as well as opiates, the alarmed tone of the piece would not be unfamiliar to readers of the big dailies today.
One can only marvel at why the state-sponsored editors deemed them more cover worthy than the stories inside, which present health care professionals and state employees with information on battling acute inner-city hard drug use. Heroin use—and its frightening aura of an inner-city other—was an easy bogeyman to resurrect to alarm skittish middle-class parents. But despite the terrifying headlines, and all the efforts to combat the street drugs, the junkies are here to stay.