When I arrived at college in the early 1980s, drugs were cool, music was cool, and drug-music was especially cool. The coolest of the...

When I arrived at college in the early 1980s, drugs were cool, music was cool, and drug-music was especially cool. The coolest of the cool drug-music bands was The Velvet Underground. They were from the mean streets of New York City (The Doors were from the soft parade of L.A….); they hung out with Andy Warhol (The Beatles hung out with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi…); they had a female drummer (The Grateful Dead had two drummers, but that still didn’t help…); and, of course, they did heroin. Or at least they wrote a famous song about it. We did not do heroin, but we thought that those who did–like Lou Reed and the rest–were hipper than hip. I imagine we would have done it if there had been any around (thank God for small favors).

We thought we had discovered something new. But as Eric C. Schneider points out in his marvelous Smack: Heroin and the American City (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), the conjunction of music, heroin, and cool was hardly an invention of my generation. The three came together in the 1940s, when smack-using bebop players (think Charlie Parker) taught the “Beat Generation” that heroin was hip. Neither was my generation the last to succumb to a heroin fad. The triad of music, heroin, and cool united again in the 1990s, when drug-addled pop-culture icons such as Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), and Calvin Klein (of “heroin chic” fame) taught “Generation X” the same lesson. History, or at least the history of heroin, repeats itself.

For white, middle-class folks like me heroin chic was an episode, a rebellious moment in an otherwise “normal” American life. But as Schneider makes clear, the passage of heroin from cultural elites to the population at large was not always so benign, particularly in the declining inner-cities of the 1960s and 1970s. Here heroin had nothing to do with being cool and everything to do with earning a living and escaping reality. For millions of impoverished, hopeless, urban-dwelling hispanics and blacks, heroin was a paycheck and a checkout. The drug helped destroy the people in the inner-city, and thus the inner-city itself.

In response to the “heroin epidemic” of the 1960s and 1970s, the government launched the first war on drugs, focusing its energy on “pushers.” But there were no “pushers” because–and this is the greatest insight in a book full of great insights–pushing was not the way heroin use spread, either among middle-class college kids or the down-and-out of New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. No one pushed heroin on anyone. Rather, users taught their friends how to use; in turn, those friends–now users–taught their friends, and so on. Heroin stealthily spread through personal networks. The only part of the process that was visible was the result: in the case of suburban college kids, bad grades and rehab; in the case of poor urban hispanics and blacks, crime and incarceration.

Not surprisingly, when the heroin “epidemic” ended, it was not due to the war on drugs. Heroin simply fell out of fashion, in this case being replaced by another fashionable drug, powder and crack cocaine. Today we are fighting cocaine just as we fought heroin, and, by all appearances, with similar success.

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