Heroin History 1900s—Part 2
While organized crime kept heroin flowing into Europe throughout the 1950s, 1960s and the early 1970s, opium cultivation in the Golden Triangle—Thailand, Burma (Myanmar) and Laos—continued to grow. The US and France supplied Golden Triangle drug lords with ammunition, arms and air transport as a way of funding the fight against communism that was occurring in that area.
But this strategy backfired. Not only were the millions of American soldiers—and those of their allies—exposed to an abundance of heroin while in Southeast Asia, there was a huge supply of the drug to send to the US. This influx of heroin hit the West Coast hardest. In cities like Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, heroin would still be a major drug problem in the next millennium.
By the mid-1960s, the presence of US troops in Vietnam was being blamed for the increase in heroin on the streets. Some troops became addicted to heroin and brought the habit home, and others saw heroin trafficking as a way to make money. Some high-profile deaths started being seen as a result. Like Janis Joplin, who died in Hollywood in 1970 of a heroin overdose.
The early 1970s saw several major shifts take place in the supply and law enforcement arenas. President Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973 and declared war on drug trafficking in the US. Then in 1975, Saigon fell, cutting off the regular channels of heroin trafficking. Mexico and its poppy fields in the Sierra Madre suddenly became more important in keeping American appetites supplied.
Nixon’s war on drugs soon led American agencies to begin eradicating opium fields in Mexico, using the Agent Orange that was used as a defoliant in Vietnam. This anti-drug push opened up opportunities for drug manufacturing in the Golden Crescent—Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Afghanistan became the biggest supplier to Europe and the US.
The Emphasis Shifts to Recovery
In much of the Twentieth Century, the primary emphasis was on trying to arrest the problem out of existence. Law enforcement went after the whole chain of possession and trafficking, from those moving major shipments to the addict. Those on drug charges accounted for half to three-quarters of the populations of some federal penitentiaries. But as lives began to be lost in great numbers and as heroin abuse provided a vector for new and old diseases, this emphasis began to shift.
New York City was always a major stronghold of heroin trafficking organizations. As hypodermic needles were usually used to administer the drug, the use of unsterilized needles enabled the spread of malaria, hepatitis, bacterial endocarditis and other diseases. The average age of a person in New York City who died due to heroin abuse—either directly from overdose or indirectly, from disease—was 27 years between 1950 and 1967.
New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller expanded the emphasis on treatment. The solution selected was the administration of methadone, a synthetic opiate that would prevent the dopesickness that addicts would suffer if they stopped using heroin. In 1960, about 200 people received methadone as treatment, but by 1974, this number grew to 30,000. In the next decade, the HIV epidemic would arrive in the United States, making it even more important that injecting drug users have a method of treatment that would prevent the spread of disease.
Meanwhile, high-profile deaths due to heroin abuse were still hitting the newspapers. Heroin contributed to the deaths of comedian John Belushi, actor River Phoenix and comedian Chris Farley between 1984 and 1997. In 1994, singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide after many years of heroin addiction.
Between the 1960s and 1990s, the purity of heroin being brought into the US increased greatly. One report showed average purity in New York City in 1983 at less than 10% but it soared to more than 60% by 1993. When heroin is purer, it can be snorted or smoked, broadening its appeal. Many people who would never inject drugs could then take it in one of these new ways. While this did reduce the transmission of disease, it also caused more people to become addicted to the drug. More affluent heroin users began to be found, no longer from the inner cities but from the suburbs.
With the advent of strong prescription opiates, the line between abuse of street opiates like heroin and prescription drugs like oxycodone of hydrocodone became blurred. OxyContin was approved for relief of severe pain in 1995. By 2003, nearly 14 million people had abused this drug for its heroin-like effects. When an OxyContin addict could not get pills, he could get heroin and vice versa. Both drugs were equally addictive.
By 2010, a new heroin problem was making its way across the American landscape: black tar heroin. A new group of Mexican drug manufacturers and traffickers with new methods were bringing this dark-colored, sticky form of heroin to American cities, circumventing the usual heroin-trafficking routes. Overdose deaths in the cities targeted by this new group began to rise.
Any examination of heroin’s history shows that drug abuse is a dead end activity. It will always have one of three outcomes: sobriety, incarceration or death. With heroin’s deadly effect on one’s breathing and heart rate, it is far too easy to attempt to achieve euphoria but instead achieves the end of one’s life.
The Narconon network of drug rehab facilities has been helping heroin addicts achieve sober, enjoyable lives since 1966. From Moscow to Los Angeles and from Taiwan to Colombia, addicts of heroin and many other drugs find that they can learn how to build a new sober life to replace the one destroyed by addiction.
For more in our series on Heroin: