Heroin is so passé. Portland-based rock band The Dandy Warhols have been singing this epigram since 1997. But it’s been chanted, albeit in not so catchy a tune, for over a century.
As early as 1886, white whippersnappers reportedly visited dark, sweet smelling dens to smoke opium in Chinatowns throughout Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. The group most addicted to the drug during the late 19th century was middle-aged white women—mostly because they underwent the most surgical procedures.
By the 1890s, media already pegged Chinese immigrants for transposing their opium habits onto white, well-to-do women. In a series of tabloids called “Yellow Menace,” opium was identified as a cultural cancer, spreading from Chinatown to more “respectable” areas of the city. Out of the hype came harsh drug policy that served to restrict the sale and use of opium. Raids ensued, and the dens most frequented by whites were the ones most likely to be busted. Opium soon became passé, the story goes.
Yet here we are, in 2015, and my news aggregator spews the words “heroin” and “epidemic” at me more than a dozen times a day. So it appears that heroin and all its derivatives have gone mainstream—again. And the sleepy narcotic has migrated from the inner city to posh suburbia—again.
Headlines sounding off on “the new face of heroin” are a backhanded, implicitly racist insult to history, ignoring over 200 years of documented opiate use in America. There is nothing new about white people doing heroin. In a scathing 1996 column for Slate, a frustrated Jack Shafer called out the smack happy media. “For the press, smack is always back,” Shafer writes. “It never goes away, but it’s always returning.”
Twenty years later and guess what? It’s back! We’re glued to seahorses on a forever carousel, round and round.
This is the reason why Nietzsche said humanity necessitates forgetting. That we forget is what allows us to save ourselves from history, which is a directionless disaster. Remembering sucks, so it’s my job to remind you.
I’ll remind you in 2015 of what Shafer reminded us in 1996. He cites what he called “the granddaddy of the genre,” the genre of listless reporting, that is. This bit of text is from a 1981 piece from Newsweek called “Middle-Class Junkies”:
[C]hildren of affluence are venturing where once the poor and desperate nodded out. The drug is being retailed at rock clubs, at Hollywood parties, and among lunchtime crowds in predominately white business districts.
Shafer concludes the text reads as fresh as it did in ‘81 as it did in ‘96. Reads pretty dang fresh in 2015 too, doesn’t it? But I’d like to cite my own, more recent “granddaddy of the genre.” A segment aired by 60 Minutes on November 1, 2015, which arguably would’ve read pretty fresh back in ’81:
Bill Whitaker: I'm sitting here looking at you, and you look young and fresh, you're the girl next door. And you were addicted to heroin.
Hannah Morris: I mean, obviously it's very flattering that you say, like, I don't look like a junkie. But even Miss America could be a junkie. I mean, anybody can be a junkie.
60 Minutes’ “Heroin in the Heartland” segment reeks of sympathetic nationalism: no, please, anything but the rural Midwest! It brings back that century old story of heroin labeled a cultural cancer. A goopy black plague oozing across class and geography, enveloping Red America. Killing the children of constituents who have enough resources to annoy a politician or two in need of some votes.
Let’s hope the policy that results isn’t as backward and racist as it’s been for the last century.
If the policies resulting from grassroots family activism are not any “gentler,” then we inherit the exact 1886 outcome—only now we blame Mexican Cartels for the supply as opposed to Chinese immigrants.
You know how else I know heroin has gone mainstream? Because even I used to shoot up.
Yes, your humble, and at this moment irreverent, reporter, an ex-heroin user. A (upper?) middle class Jew from the plastic-surgery-sickened, Mercedes-overdriven Northwest suburbs of Chicago, where the bagels are boiled and the matzo balls are the size of your face.
From this wealthy cesspool I scurried over to the open-air markets on the West Side from 2007 to 2012, which makes the notion that in 2015 heroin is finally being called a public health problem which deserves compassion offensive. One of my best friends died in 2008, along with all those who’ve well before. Where has compassion for them been?
What I’m saying is we’ve all been doing heroin. But only now are people offering the user sympathy, calling for a gentler war on drugs. Only now is naloxone—the lifesaving antidote to opiate overdose—available (almost) everywhere. Only now is Dan Bigg getting recognition for dedicating his life to handing out naloxone for free for over two decades, since John Szyler, his best friend and co-founder of Chicago Recovery Alliance, died in 1996.
Maia Szalavitz, veteran reporter on drugs and neuroscience, also a former heroin user, is too rightly offended by the glut of heroin reportage claiming this to be a new phenomenon. She even wrote an irreverent anti-hype story of her own for the late-Substance.com. “This white, middle-class former heroin addict of the 1980s is outraged—outraged, I tell you.”
She told The Daily Beast that she views the reportage as not only ahistorical but also implicitly racist. “This lousy coverage makes several, racist assumptions. First, that all their readers and viewers are white and only care about addiction if it affects ‘sympathetic,’ ‘white middle class’ people.”
Szalavitz will have you note, “Heroin addiction rates among the poor are triple those among the middle and upper class, the people who are hardest hit are not those who are doing well.”
Where’s their sympathy? They cannot afford the medication I was offered. They don’t have parents sponsoring a saga of rehabs and sober houses. If it weren’t for my parents’ money—and also their compassion—I wouldn’t be writing a damn word today, in twenty freaking fifteen.