Prof examines history of heroin trade

"Smack" book jacket

About half of all of America’s heroin users in the 20th century were concentrated in one place—New York City. And when one factored in the big cities of Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Detroit, nearly all of the nation’s users could be accounted for.

There is something distinctively urban about heroin, says Penn adjunct associate professor of history Eric Schneider. And in his new book, “Smack: Heroin and the American City,” he discusses how and why big cities became the heart of the heroin trade. He also argues that public policy should attack the drug problem in new ways.

Schneider says part of the reason for the rampant use of heroin in cities is the location of heroin markets. The more involved a person is with heroin, the greater the necessity of residing near a hub, he says. Users need a steady supply, need to be able to identify the dealer with the best product and, maybe just as important, need to know who may be snitching to the police. “You need to be in the system and in order to be in the system, you need to be located near a marketplace,” Schneider says.

Heroin users are also more dependent than other drug users on what Schneider calls “drug knowledge.” A potential user must know where to buy high-quality heroin, how much of the drug to use, and how to interpret the body’s reaction to the drug.

Users need to have intimate contact with the drug world to acquire drug knowledge, and out in the country, that knowledge just isn’t as readily available.

In researching his book, Schneider spoke with former heroin addicts and counselors, and utilized two extensive collections of oral history interviews with early methadone patients, information from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Agency), and social science studies. He read an inordinate number of jazz and rock & roll biographies, too, “because so many musicians of all types wind up using heroin and they want to write about it in their autobiography.”

His interest in the topic grew out of a separate project he completed on the history of street gangs in New York City. Former gang members talked about the impact of street gangs on their lives, but they also sent a message that Schneider remembered well: “If you think gangs were bad, heroin was a lot worse.”

But today’s heroin world isn’t what it used to be. New York City’s supremacy in the heroin trade disappeared in the 1980s with the rise of cocaine and the explosion of drug-importing cartels.

Heroin, which Schneider says had been tightly controlled by a small group of Italian and Jewish organized crime figures, became “democratized” with Cubans, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other ethnicities trading in the drug.

The result? Competition increased, and so did quality. Heroin today is much purer than it was in the past, which Schneider suggests is because of an overabundance of supply.

“So you could say, ‘What conclusion can you make about 40 years of the War on Drugs if heroin is now cheaper and purer than it ever has been in the past?’” he says.

Part of his motivation in writing the book is to turn public attention toward seeking ways of tempering demand for the drug—and getting help to the addicts who need it—rather than simply criminalizing its use.
“As any economist will say, it’s demand that drives the market,” he says. “And the supply of heroin is almost infinite because opium poppies are not that hard to grow.

“The way you have to deal with drugs is to work on demand, and that’s where our policies have been sorely lacking,” he adds. “We’ve chosen to criminalize drug users. We now spend $40 billion a year on imprisoning people in the United States, and many of them are non-violent drug offenders who need treatment rather than prison.”

Originally published on October 2, 2008