Heroin Boys by Jeff Goldberg & Doug Latimer

BOMB 2 Winter 1982
002 Fall 1982
Bomb 2 Heroinboys 1
There has developed a distinct class of heroin addicts, with a certain amount of freemasonry and cooperation among themselves. These latter are necessary to make it easy for users to procure heroin and to safeguard one another in the indulgence of a practice strictly forbidden by law. As a result, heroin addicts exist in large groups, the individuals of which know and help each other; in this way the habit is not only maintained but spreads rapidly. The majority of the present takers are boys and young men whose easy sociability has been developed in the gangs who later flock together in leisure hours at the dance halls, the movies and at that form of entertainment which they all seem to like best, vaudeville. For a long time the boys remain for the most part in good health, and all along they possess a fair degree of intelligence. Some examined by the Simon Benet test show mental defects, but the majority are not materially defective in intellectual qualities. Like most adolescents with social tendencies, they lack individual initiative, are imitative and easily led; they fall into the habit easily and—this is the tragic part of it—ignorantly and innocently. Once the habit is established, they lose interest in work, become late and irregular, throw up their jobs easily. Many are good workmen, but will only work for the purpose of getting money with which to buy heroin.

… Among the frequent misdemeanors charged against the heroin boys besides those directly concerned with the use or possession of the drug, are stealing and destruction of property. The customs entailed by the habit and the effects on character of the drug itself are doubtless potent factors in forming and holding together that criminal class which certain idealists do not seem to believe exists.

By these signs ye shall know them. This was the portrait of the heroin addict in 1916, offered by New York neuropsychiatrist Dr. Pearce Bailey in The New Republic: “They are generally healthy and able to work, and are fairly intelligent. Many are of engaging personality but, as often happens with personalities who are engaging, they are unstable, suggestible and easily led.” Bailey’s sketch is the first intensive study of heroin addicts on record, eminently accurate and compassionate: mainly poor urban immigrant youths scrambling for a living in an insecure and uncongenial job market, fleshing out their income with occasional petty larceny, drawn by necessity into neighborhood gangs which at once intensified their antisocial behavior and gave it a special romantic flavor of adventure and camaraderie. Italian, Jewish, Irish, Scandinavian: they were the original second–generation ethnics.

Heroin itself, Bailey duly concluded, was only a predictable, subsidiary adjunct of a culture so bitterly inescapable: “It would almost seem that their desire for something to brighten life up is at the bottom of their trouble and that heroin is but a means; and that if this means failed them, they would turn to something which might be worse.” The idea of “curing” such individuals, addict by addict, was obviously foredoomed, without some broad program to refurbish and render tolerable a culture in which addiction (and things worse) were fostered. Urban America, though, looked thoroughly irredeemable to Bailey: “It would be a happy philanthropy which would make farming attractive to this class.”

Philanthropy, though, was no more to be expected in connection with drug addicts in 1916 than it has been ever since. Heroin addiction was quite a new thing in the year Dr. Bailey was writing; new statistics just published by Bellevue Hospital showed that in just the last two years, the admission rate for heroin addicts seeking detoxification had soared from naught to nearly 1000 per year. Over the same two-year period, the admission rate for morphine addicts had plummeted from nearly 1000 per annum to zero. Since 1913, thanks to a landslide of federal and state legislation restricting the availability of morphine, heroin had entirely supplanted it, with a notable surplus, as the drug of choice among the urban netherworld.

The exclusion of heroin from the Harrison Narcotics Act is only explicable in view of the ignorance of the self-interested reformers and legislators who bullied it through Congress in March of 1914. Hamilton Wright and Albert Knox of the State Department, IRS Commissioner Daniel Roper, and their collaborators on Capital Hill, who’d engineered the move to replace doctors with federal agents as proprietors of the nation’s “addictive” drugs and drug “addicts,” simply were unaware of the fact that heroin is exactly as seductive and habit-forming as morphine; and rather easier to self-administer. They actually believed, along with quite a few practicing physicians, that heroin was a mild, non-addictive bromide useful in the treatment of respiratory ailments, and a promising adjunct for curing morphinists.

If they’d bothered to investigate, they would certainly have been a good deal more interested in heroin. It was admittedly a much newer drug than morphine, less than 20 years in use, having been developed in 1898 at Freidrich Bayer’s Elberfeld Farberifabrik works in Germany, as a sort of mega-aspirin. In fact it was developed there by Heinrich Dresser, who in the 1880s had confected aspirin himself—acetylsalicylic acid—as an alternative to sodium salicylate, a previously used analgesic which was, unfortunately, highly corrosive to the stomach. Substituting an acetyl molecular group for a sodium group turned out to be so stunningly effective that Dreser concluded he could do no wrong with acetyls. So in 1898 he took morphine, and inserted two tiny strings of acetyls between its great big matching alcohol and phenyl hydroxyl groups. The result, diacetylmorphine, was tested out on 60 patients at an Elberfeld dyeworks, and seen to be much more than a mere headache remedy: cough, catarrh, bronchitis, emphysema, asthma, and even tuberculosis responded most marvelously to this new drug. Dreser’s research team was stunned at the virtual absence of common morphine side effects like nausea, anorexia, or constipation, and confidently therefore assumed that addiction would present no problem either.

The Bayers accordingly dubbed it “Heroin,” an ovation of a brand name—from the German heroish, connoting a lot of power in a little unit—and flogged it as proudly and assiduously as aspirin. Period newspaper ads for Bayer Heroin grandiosely sang its virtues right alongside ads for menstrual and dyspepsia nostrums.

The recommended cough suppressant dose was tiny, only three to five milligrams. Codeine was the opiate in commonest use as a cough nostrum, and considering the relatively higher doses that were needed to quell coughing, it was roughly ten times easier to overdose on codeine then on Heroin, and this was Bayers’s main selling point. But for only a little while. Within a few years after it went on the market, doctors everywhere were reporting some phenomenal side effects.

A single dose of it lasted only a few hours. For a person with a bad cold, then, as many as four doses a day might be needed for a couple of days running, after which the patient would typically report some dreadful sensations: cramps, headaches, soggy sniffles, profound anxiety and depression, lasting for a couple of days more. If the patient had any remaining Bayer Heroin in the medicine chest, he or she was all too likely to take it, and then take some more. It was the same pattern that had been seen with morphine for generations, except, whereas it took weeks and months to build up an addiction to morphine, one could pick up a full-fledged heroin habit in just two weeks.

By 1902, then, a Heroin Debate had commenced in the pages of medical journals. Physicians who’d experimented with heroin as a morphine step-down cure, reported that it produced abstinence symptoms that were as bad as those arising from morphine addiction, if not worse, and accusing their colleagues of creating “heroinists.” Counter-claims, while conceding that heroin produced rapid tolerance, argued that abstinence symptoms were significantly less intense, and emphasized that heroin was superior to morphine for treating respiratory diseases, which it was. “Bringing charges against heroin,” J. D. Trawick, a Kentucky physician, opined in 1915, “is almost like questioning the fidelity of a good friend.”

The heroin debate was hot enough, though, to convince Bayer to soft-pedal its Heroin campaign, distributing it mainly to wholesale chemical companies to sell under various patented labels of their own.1 Most effectively, the company ceased sending ad flyers around to physicians. Doctors then as now derived virtually all their pharmacological know-how from drug-company ads, and in the absence of a Heroin ad campaign, most forgot, or never learned, that such a drug existed.

2 Heroinboys 25 Body

At the turn of the century, when all this was happening, addicts mainly bought morphine on prescription or in patent medicines. After 1910, as Ham Wright, the State Department, International Reform Bureau, and Northern Republican congressman succeeded in promulgating anti-morphine laws, quite naturally morphine became harder to come by, with the natural result that users discovered heroin’s superior virtues.

Some were introduced to it by doctors. In the wake of Dreser’s original findings, there were scattered reports that heroin was a capital step-down cure for morphine-addicts. Physicians who considered the five-day hyoscyamine “cure”—the most common detoxification procedure of the day—to be inconveniently messy and prolonged, were particularly keen on the two-day heroin cure as significantly tidier. Addicts tended not to go into hysterics or make messes when they were given diminishing doses of heroin; and when they left, they tended not to come back again very soon, which confirmed the idea that heroin was the detoxification for morphine. Such claims ceased abruptly after 1905, but not before the philanthropic St. James Society had been persuaded to mount a massive campaign to supply morphine addicts who wanted to give up their habit with free samples of heroin, through the mail.

Those addicts who attempted to detoxify with heroin learned, of course, that they could get just as high on heroin as on morphine, heroin was still available everywhereThe Journal of the American Medical Association ran these remarks in 1913, the year a New York State law—the Boylan Act—banned all other commercial opiates:

Dope users who found that police surveillance made it very difficult to secure opium, morphine and cocaine, soon learned that heroin could be easily obtained. No prescription is necessary. As a result they began using this drug, and the habit grew by leaps and bounds.

Even in places where local ordinances banned it (and long after the Congress belatedly banned it), heroin was a popular item with black market peddlers, since its undistinguished greyish color makes it much easier to cut, with a wider variety of agents, than pure white morphine.

Cases of heroin addiction among people who’d never been addicted to morphine were reported as early as 1903. An alarming number of these new addicts—at least the ones who showed up at Public Health Service detoxification clinics—were young, aged 15 to 25. In 1916, when Pearce Baily wrote his article about them, the “heroin boys” constituted about one-third of the known addicts in Manhattan. For the most part they’d started out as chippers, occasional users, snorting heroin with their friends, understandably unaware of its addictive properties. The fact that heroin was sniffable—requiring none of the messy and fearful hypodermic apparatus of morphine—considerably enhanced its recreational appeal.

“Anyone with the price could go into nearly any drugstore and buy a packet of the pure drug,” the anonymous “Leroy Street,” a young addict of the period recalled in his melodramatic memoir, I Was A Drug Addict. Until around 1910, says Street, he was a supremely typical white youth in Greenwich Village, living happily with Dad and Mum and Little Brother, a dedicated baseball player—until, at age 15, “low associates” among his chums introduced him to his first “blow” of 100 percent pure heroin. The next dozen years were hell, he righteously assures us, a succession of cold-turkey cares in the Tombs every time he got busted, and a few voluntary detoxification attempts which even included the horrible hyoscyamine treatment.

In between bouts with the law, though—always for heroin possession—Street’s experiences within the New York City drug milieu make for fairly agreeable reading. The folks around him were pretty much as Dr. Pearce Bailey described them, young men and women of respectable intelligence and decidedly appealing personalities, who used heroin pretty much for all the reasons Bailey presents—urban blight, boredom, peer pressure—and then some. “Respectable society” was, at the time, remorselessly fragmented and stratified, supremely rife with racial prejudices and insufferably stiff necked. Recreational drug use was not merely an escape from it, but a fundamentally affirmative rebellion against it. And this underlying factor, perhaps more than any other, influenced the evolving myth of the “heroin boys.”

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In 1916, as today, the number of occasional heroin users who didn’t get hooked far exceeded those who did.2 Even 100 percent USP grade heroin, used only on a Saturday night will not turn you into an addict; but it does have a way of climbing on you, like the proverbial monkey. Of course, getting hooked wasn’t the worst thing in the world as long as heroin was legal and available; in blighted urban America, it even appeared in some ways entirely appropriate, until after Pearce Bailey discovered this sub-class of white kids on drugs. Dehumanized beyond redemption, and distorted into something supremely distressing, they were from then on destined to star in the next wave of anti-drug lobbying. Improving horror stories increasingly linked heroin to youth gangs, crime, and the threat of incipient rebellion. New York City Narcotics Commissioner Herrick reported with alarm that police raids of “cocaine orgies” were also turning up heroin—a drug, he assured everyone, that had the same fiend-producing powers as cocaine. Heroin, he asserted, caused youngsters to run amok like so many cocaine-crazed southern Negroes. And since nobody at the time really knew anything about what heroin was or did, everybody believed him.

There were mitigating circumstances: these were uncertain times, peculiarly susceptible to the most paranoid fancies. America was mobilizing for war, and the scourge of heroinmania among the nation’s draft-age young men was a subject of considerable worry. Rep. Henry Rainey, later to head the Treasury Department’s Special Committee on Narcotics Traffic, was boisterously flogging heroin as “that German invention”—sentencing the addict to “sure death in less than ten years”—insidiously perpetrated in America for the express purpose of winnowing the ranks of her fighting men. According to Congressman Rainey, some 80,000 draftees had been rejected because of heroin addiction. (Later records put the figure at about 3,000.)

After the war, between 1918 and 1921, the country was shaken by a rash of Bolshevik bombings, violent labor strikes, and IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) agitation. No doubt, the most openly radical three years of American history since the Revolutionary War itself. And opium—in the form of diacetylmorphine—found a unique place in this scheme of things, in a way that would have had Marx spinning in his grave, for it was not the thing that allegedly kept the “people” down, but what kept them marching, bombing, and agitating. In 1919 in New York City, the Mayor’s Committee on Public Safety strongly implicated heroin in a series of political bombings, and elsewhere the drug was condemned as the tool of the left in coercing young people into sedition. Even Pearce Bailey, having served a time as the Army’s chief neuropsychiatrist, abandoned his originally sympathetic stance to echo this alarm. He theorized that insecure, imitative, and easily led teenagers were seduced into radical doctrines for the same reasons they were seduced into the heroin habit.

It is in them that mental contagion which spreads up to hysterical mass movements, spreads with the greatest rapidity, and in their minds sedition finds an easier route than realism… suggestible, they easily become the tools of designing propagandists in spreading seditious doctrines, or in the commission of acts in defiance of law and order.

A like-minded law and order reformer boldly warned parents to beware lest their offspring take up heroin sniffing and “awaken to find that he has become a Bolshevik or an IWW.”

Such grievous admonitions were inflated by Rep. Rainey’s oft-quoted estimate that there were one million addicts in America in 1919. That figure, of course, was completely bogus—the only reliable estimate from this period, compiled by Public Health Service physicians Lawrence Kolb and A. G. DeMez in 1924, put the actual count at about 150,000—but it was taken quite seriously by law makers, newspapermen, and the public at large, and the spectre of one million Bolshevik teenage junkies sweeping into the heartland caused much alarm.

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After World War I, a massive crackdown on doctors, pharmacists, and narcotics addicts was launched by the Treasury Department, with predictable results: the expansion of black-marketeering in heroin and morphine selling at grossly inflated prices, and the creation of a whole new criminal class, composed of a few addicts who, denied maintenance opiates by doctors, were forced to steal to purchase the black market product. And many more addicts who’d simply committed the “crime” of taking opiates habitually. Naturally the number of narcotic criminals in jails went sky high; by 1928, fully one third of the prisoners in federal penitentiaries were Harrison Act violators, for the most part addicts doing long, hard time. Enforcement officials were quick to cite the sudden influx of addicts into prisons as evidence that a heroin induced “crime wave” had swept the nation, in addition to everything else. The chief propagandist for this clever statistical fiction was Col. Richmond T. Hobson, Spanish-American war hero and arch prohibitionist, who’d turned his energies, after the passage of the Volstead Act, to the heroin problem. Thanks to heroin—a drug he swore most certainly caused “degeneration of the upper brain… in a few months” and turned white kids’ brains into negroes’ brains—the nation’s crime rate had soared 900 percent! It was the nature of this perfidious substance, he blathered, to “change a misdemeanant into a desperado of the most vicious type.” In light of this Col. Hobson warned young mothers to periodically check the food their children and, and he also recommended:

In using any brand of face powder regularly, it is a wise precaution to have a sample analyzed for heroin.

Hobson was echoed by a host of civic minded Americans. An article in Current Historymagazine, The Menace of the Drug Addict, charges: “Heroin… is the most insidious and crime-inspiring of all drugs,” and the American Legion Weekly published an article titled “Youth + Drugs = Crime” which characterized “insane daring, utter merciless and vicious cruelty” as the modus operandi of teenage criminal drug fiends, of whom the American Legion said there were two million abroad in the land.

There were a few dissenters: Kolb and DuMez disputed the claim that heroin had claimed millions of casualties, a smattering of writers pointed out that outlawing opiates, not the drugs themselves, was a spur to petty crime and expanded prison populations, and a few doctors still held that the fact that heroin didn’t cause nausea and was incredibly effective for respiratory ailments made it an invaluable therapeutic. But heroin apologists were far-flung then, and have been ever since. As early as 1920, the AMA House of Delegates forthrightly resolved

that heroin be eliminated from all medicinal preparations and that it should not be administered, prescribed, nor dispensed; and that the importation, manufacture, and sale of heroin should be prohibited in the United States.

This, of course, is precisely what did happen in 1924 when Rep. Stephen Porter, with the help of the Treasury Department, pushed a bill through Congress banning heroin, and plugging up the Harrison Act loophole airtight, and for good.

Once heroin was banned, statistics indicate that the numbers of youthful chippers and addicts declined drastically, as did the entire US population. (When the Federal Bureau of Narcotics checked up in 1952 there were exactly 1,743 addicts under the age of 20 in America.) It took time—whole decades—for organized crime to build the illicit drug trade into an efficient, thriving big business. But, given the sheer economics of it, it was inevitable that they would.

In the remote jungles of Burma, where much of the opium for illicit heroin comes from, a kilo of crude opium sells for 25 dollars. That same kilo will be 3.5 to 4.5 percent heroin by the time it reaches the streets of New York, and it will be worth more than $200,000. A cash turn over like that has, quite naturally, attracted a host of implacably ruthless businessmen.

Even so, the heroin trade remains a difficult, inefficient, and risky business. Raw opium must be purchased in the jungles and hills where it is grown, converted to heroin, and smuggled into the States on a regular basis—despite the efforts of Customs and narcotics agents—for the operation to work. After the Harrison Law was passed, it took organized crime 40 years to make the drug trade viable, but today these heroin barons reap great profits.

From all indications, the first organized mobster to amass a fortune from illicit narcotics was Vito Genovese, whose territory during the 1950s included most of Manhattan. As Genovese built his heroin empire, Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was devoting most of his time to a propaganda campaign accusing Communist China of being responsible for the rising amounts of heroin on the streets, he did so in collaboration with Senator Joseph McCarthy, while all the while supplying McCarthy—who was himself a morphine addict—with pharmaceutical narcotics.

The FBN during the three decades (1930–60) that Anslinger ran it never once indicted or, it would appear, even investigated organized crime and the drug trade. Instead Anslinger limited the Bureau’s operations to the arrest and harassment of street-addicts and street-pushers. “Missionary work,” he called it. In the end, it was organized crime itself that finally brought down Genovese and his heroin business.

Shortly after the ill fated Appalachian Conference which Genovese had organized in 1957, (police raided the meeting of 60 of America’s most powerful syndicate leaders at a quiet farmhouse in upstate New York), a rather inauspicious street heroin peddler named Nelson Cantellops claimed to have been a courier for “Big John” Ormento, an important Genovese lieutenant, and that he had been present in a car when Genovese personally gave orders for his men to take over narcotics distribution in the east Bronx. Though there was no solid proof of Cantellops’s story, it was finely detailed, well informed and superbly rehearsed with the help, it is said, of underworld boss Frank Costello who wanted Genovese out of the picture. It worked: Genovese was convicted of narcotics smuggling and jailed for 15 years.

Genovese’s arrest, of course, did not stop the drug trade. Other less careless mobsters just picked up where he left off and by the late ’50s the American addict population had doubled, from an all time low following World War II of 40 thousand to some one hundred thousand.

Narcotics laws have not only benefited organized crime and criminalized addicts, they have also bred corruption in the ranks of those entrusted to enforce them. The very first narcotics commissioner, Col. Levi G. Nutt, was promptly retired after a federal grand jury disclosed in 1929 that his son, Rolland Nutt, a lawyer, had been working for Arnold Rothstein, an underworld figure who, even before Genovese, was enriching himself on the illegal drug trade. The grand jury also heard allegations that narcotics agents had routinely taken bribes, lost evidence in important cases, and padded their accounts by adding narcotics arrests made by local enforcement agents to their own record in an effort to secure more federal funding. However, even in the face of the most blatant evidence that the law and order approach to addictive drugs and drug addicts was not working, the grand jury recommended that the FBN be given more money, and that penalties for drug addiction be stiffened. This was done, with predictably disastrous results.

Attempts to legislate drug addiction out of existence have resulted only in more addiction, more profits for organized crime, and more police corruption. In 1970 the Knapp Commission convened in New York City under United States District Court Judge Whitman Knapp to study allegations made by police officer Frank Serpico, concluded in part:

Corruption in narcotics law enforcement has grown in recent years to the point where high ranking police officials acknowledge it to be the most serious problem facing the Department. In the course of its investigation, the commission became familiar with… corrupt patterns including:
  • Keeping money and/or narcotics confiscated at the time of an arrest or raid
  • Selling narcotics to addict informants in exchange for stolen goods
  • Passing on confiscated drugs to police informants for sale to addicts
  • “Flaking,” or planting narcotics on an arrested person in order to have evidence of law violation…
  • Storing narcotics, needles and other drug paraphernalia in police lockers…
  • Accepting money or narcotics from suspected narcotics law violators as payment for the disclosure of official information
  • Financing heroin transactions.

Yet, even as the Knapp Commission was issuing these grim findings, President Richard M. Nixon was declaring a new “War on Drugs,” and allocating unprecedented amounts of money for narcotics control. Ironically, it was the American involvement in Vietnam that was substantially to blame for a surge in the availability of illicit heroin during this period. The successive South Vietnamese governments of Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Cao Ky had supplemented their war chests with profits from opium, which had been widely used in Vietnam since the mid-19th century when French colonialists established an opium monopoly there. From 1965 to approximately 1970, then, to aid our allies, the American Central Intelligence Agency set up a charter airline—Air America—to transport raw opium from growing regions in the highlands of Burma and Laos to Saigon.3 Of course, not all that opium stayed in Saigon. Much of it was transported to Marseille by Corsican gangsters to be refined into heroin and shipped to America by way of the famous French connection. The result was a full fledged heroin epidemic. The United States addict population swelled to 750,000, and there was a proportional jump in addiction related crime, accompanied by more overcrowding in prisons, more stagnation in the courts, and more hepatitis and overdose deaths.

The epidemic subsided with the fall of Saigon, as heroin smugglers searched for a new source of raw opium. By the mid-‘70s, they had found it in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, and “Mexican Mud” substantially replaced “China White” heroin in the illicit street trade. This situation prevailed until 1978, when a program was instituted by the United States and Mexican governments to spray poppy fields with the defoliant Agent Orange. The eradication program has been termed a huge success, resulting in a substantial decrease in the amount of Mexican Mud on the illicit market; the costs in terms of environmental damage and the Agent Orange’s effect on the health of the people living near the poppy fields has yet to be calculated.

No sooner, though, had the Mexicans begun eradicating the poppy than there was a new upsurge of Southeast Asian heroin: when that source dried up as a result of severe drought in 1978, the heroin barons found ample new supplies of opium in the Golden Crescent (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan), where political upheaval had removed any previous restraints on poppy cultivation.

All this was the inevitable result of unsound legislation. When one source of opiates dries up, another replaces it; when one trafficker is arrested, a successor is always at hand. And so it goes, to the point where some law enforcement officials privately admit that there’s simply no hope of ever containing, much less dismantling, traffic in narcotics. For some enforcement officials, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Superintendent David Hodson of the Hong Kong Narcotics Bureau:

The question you’re really left is, which is the best approach—to disorganize organized drug trafficking, or to leave it organized and try to minimize it… Because whatever happens, you’re gonna have drug trafficking. As long as you’ve got drug addicts, you’re going to have drug traffickers… Of course the danger if you leave it organized and minimize it, is the problem of (police) corruption… But if you disorganize it, you end up with probably a worse problem than you had in the first place, because it’s much more difficult to control, to police disorganized drug trafficking than it is organized drug trafficking.

There are others, however, like Detective Sergeant William Gillespie of the New York City police narcotics division who, after considering the inevitable outcome of the current approach, wonder frankly if “maybe we should just give addicts heroin.”

That, of course, would mean not only the loss of millions of dollars in profits to organized crime, but millions of dollars in enforcement agency budgets, so it is not an opinion very often voiced in law enforcement circles. Drug enforcement, after all, is also a big business.

And what does the American taxpayer get for all this money? At the present time, officials of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)4 admit its agents are able to intercept only about five percent of the illegal heroin coming into America. To their credit, the pressure narcotics enforcers bring to bear on smugglers tends to keep the quality of heroin low and the price high5which certainly deters a few people from trying the drug and insures that addicts are not likely to overdose in alarming numbers. But such observations fall far short even of the goal of “minimizing” narcotics use in America. The seeming futility of enforcement in this area was summarized aptly in the title of a 1979 Government Accounting Office report critical of the DEA: “Gains made in controlling illegal drugs, yet still the drug trade flourishes.”

In addition to the millions of dollars spent on narcotics enforcement, with minimal results, millions more are spent on cures that don’t work and education and prevention programs that are blatantly ineffective. In fact, from 1969 to 1979 America spent $52 billion on drug control. Of this amount, only $222 million went to those foreign places where poppies are lanced and squeezed of their juice; where the juice is dried in the sun to opium gum, where the gum is filtered through cheesecloth into morphine base, and the base carried to jungle labs where it’s synthesized into heroin. Disrupt this laborious process at any point, and the whole rickety money train is derailed; and the poppy peasants migrate before they can plant a new crop. It would not cost much to do this—more than $222 million, but nothing like $52 billion. Instead, though, the heroin always gets manufactured, and the rest of the money is spent, as it were, trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

The remaining $51,000,775,000 in that lump of taxpayers’ revenue was carved up in the ’70s by various domestic enforcement and treatment personnel, and now those people depend on it. This is the very height of bureaucratic incompetence: a multi-billion dollar business, ostensibly created to stop people from taking opiates, which is positively dependent on opiates and opiate users for its survival. Meanwhile, the heroin is synthesized, shipped and distributed by modern day robber barons, and everyone profits amain.

—New York City, March 1981


1 Early on, when non-Bayer brands of acetylsalicylic acid were being peddled in the US, as “aspirin,” Bayer sued for copyright violation, The Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the claim, ruling that Bayer had over-advertised the analgesic to the point that “aspirin’’ was now a household word. Bayer has never sued anyone for appropriating its brand name for daceylnorphine.

2 In 1976, the National Council on Drug Abuse estimated that there were seven million occasional consumers of heroin in America, at a time when there were some 700,000 addicts.

3 The CIA with funds from USAID also helped Laotian General Vang Pao set up his own Opium-moving airline, Xieng Khouang Air Transport.

4 The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was reorganized in 1960, after Harry Anslinger’s retirement, into the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), which was in turn reorganized following disclosures of corrupt practices into the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1971.

5 By the DEA’s accounting, heroin street purity nationwide is currently only 3.5 percent, and is selling at $31.60 per 20 milligrams, an average addict’s dose.

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Originally published in

BOMB 2, Winter 1982

Tim Burns & Jim Jarmusch, ABC No Rio, Charles Ludlam & Christopher Scott, Jacki Ochs, Michael Smith, Mirielle Cervenka, Gary Indiana, Sonia Delauney, and Phillipe Demontaut.

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002 Fall 1982