Why do people use drugs? Why do people continue to use drugs? 

For such a simple question, the answer is far from straightforward, even in the context of a single drug.

Take heroin as a case study. The use and abuse of opiates has a long history in America, from opium and laudanum tinctures in the 1800’s to prescription pills today.  The rise and continued use of heroin, an opiate derivative, is attributed to a wide range of factors, depending on who is doing the explaining.

According to the History Chanel documentary, Hooked: Illegal Drugs & How They Got That Way – Opium, Morphine, and Heroinheroin was marketed by The Bayer Company in 1989 as a cure for morphine addiction–until we realized heroin was the opiate that resulted in the greatest physical dependence that had been synthesized at that point. In 1914, the passing of the Harrison Narcotics Act required doctors prescribing opiates to register and pay a tax. The government began to control who was licensed to prescribe and established a precedent for the Federal Government to have a hand in regulating drug use and trafficking. By 1925, it became illegal to manufacture or possess heroin, pushing the market underground to supply the ongoing demand in the US.  This was a significant move away from viewing drug users and addicts as patients and rebranding them as criminals.

As Stuart Taylor argues in Outside the outsiders: Media representations of drug use, messages in the news media and governmental beliefs mirror one another. Louis Althusser argues that ideology in a society is controlled by Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) (ie: religious institutions, educational systems, family members, and media; all of which reinforce or teach particular beliefs and values held in a society) and Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs) (ie: police, government, law enforcement, and the military; all of which uphold the beliefs and values through force or violence). It should come as little surprise then that mainstream media reflected the paradigm shift of drug user from patient to criminal. The American public was fed a new paradigm about drug use from both an RSA and an ISA with particularly devastating consequences for minority populations that are still apparent today.

Today young Black and Latino men are particularly targetted as criminals and jailed at staggering rates compared to their white counterparts. Just as the Chinese were labeled as others and outcasts, associated with opium smoking, laziness, and immoral behavior, Black and Latino populations were associated with drugs from heroin to cocaine to marijuana, made out to be criminals, and further cast out of society.

In the middle of the 20th century, Heroin hit inner cities particularly hard and became closely linked with Black communities and Jazz players in the minds of many Americans. The association was not entirely unfounded. Singer and Mirhej trace the role of drugs in the Jazz scene, citing Eric Nisenson:

“Among the hippest of the ‘hip people’ Jazz musicians and singers were quick to pounce on the new high…”

– Singer and Mirhej – “High Notes: The Role of Drugs in the Making of Jazz”

As for why Heroin became popular among the Jazz community, explanations include enjoying the sensation of the high as explained by Claude Brown when first using Heroin:

“Everything was getting rosy, beautiful. The sun got brighter in the sky and the whole day lit up and was twice as bright as it was before. . . Everything was so slo-o-ow”

– Singer and Mirhej – “High Notes: The Role of Drugs in the Making of Jazz”

The need to escape from a high-stress life as a Jazz musician was also cited as motivation for taking the drug:

“Anyone who thinks it’s easy to go onstage every night, three hundred times a year, and create something new, will never get the toll that it takes to be a jazz musician”

-Michael Cuscauan via Singer and Mirhej

If heroin could make the world seem calm and at peace, it seems logical that an extremely stressful lifestyle could motivate someone to try the drug, particularly when peers, mentors, and idols also partook:

“[For] most of the young Jazz performers entering into the field at mid-century, drug use among those they admired influenced their own willingness to use”

-Singer and Mirhej

However, the association of heroin with the black community extended well beyond the Jazz scene. In the 1950′ and 60’s, Alan Jones was growing up in the Bronx. “at a time — the 1950s — when that neighborhood was a place of optimism and hope for upwardly mobile Black and Latino families. Brought up in a two-parent household, with many neighborhood mentors, he led an almost charmed life as a budding basketball star” (Fordham University Press Synopsis) and yet watched as heroin began to run rampant through his community.

“The streets were growing extremely dangerous as the drug trade flourished and more agressive dealing tactics were put in place. Guns became commonplace…In the world we were living in, all the old rules were being broken. Dealing drugs, running numbers, and selling guns all seemed like legitimate ways to get money, cars, and women.”

-Alan Jones, The Rat that Got Away

Like the young Jazz musicians who found it easier to try highly addictive drugs after watching their mentors use heroin, Alan Jones was introduced to  “Queen Bitch Heroin” by a friend at a time that he was struggling with rejection from his high school basketball team. About a year later he began dealing the drug as well. The addictive properties of the high in addition to the appeal of a source of income had made heroin part of Alan Jones’s life and would see him in jail before he eventually found success as a professional athlete and banker.

Although inner-city New York had been struggling with a spike in heroin use since the 1960’s, it is not until the 1970’s that a heroin epidemic became a moral panic. The History Chanel’s Hooked claims that heroin use skyrocketed in the 1970’s. The spike in heroin and cocaine usage was largely blamed on soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam. This narrative does little to acknowledge the serious impact that heroin was having on minority communities nor the role that a failing economy and political tension within the US had to do with the increased usage. Amidst civil war protests, an increasing number of young Black college graduates entering the workforce only to find no jobs, “hopes for prosperity were fading fast” (Jones) and selling drugs was a viable option to make a living, at least so long as you didn’t get caught.

That remains true today, and a shocking number of youth make a living dealing cocaine, crack, and heroin, and often end up using the substance to some degree. Alan Jones spent his high school days dealing, starting with heroin, in the mid 1960’s. Twenty years later, Terry Williams spent several hours a day multiple times a week for four consecutive years talking with eight young cocaine dealers in New York, all 18 or younger, trying to understand the complex world of teenage drug rings. Despite being young, the “Cocaine Kids” were savvy business people.

“The teenagers in this story are sophisticated cocaine distributors, wholesalers, and retail sellers. Their work has been essential to the growth of a major industry; they have helped establish an orgainizational structure that sustains a regular market and outwits law enfocement authorities”

-Terry Williams, The Cocaine Kids

In the 1990’s, Jihad had established himself as a high-powered crack/cocaine dealer, funding his taste for fancy cars, women, and music equipment–while he was still in high school. He funded part of his college education dealing, largely because he saw drugs as the most viable way to make a living in his community where “happiness is sought in the bottom of liquor bottles, needles and dope sacks is just ordinary life in the hood” (Street Life) His business system was complex and organized to

While minorities (and men in particular) were targeted with increasingly harsh punitive responses. In 1971, the “War on Drugs” began and brought harsh mandatory minimum sentencing and triple strike clauses. Far less punitive consequences were placed on white users who became ‘victims’ of heroin.  Rather than jail housewives en mass, the response framed the issue as far more of a public health crisis.  The stakes change when (white) women are involved.

In Chillicothe, Ohio, nine women live in a three bedroom, one bathroom house for opioid addiction recovery. The Washington Post tells the story of these women who had families, jobs, homes and “in the grip of addiction, they traded away what they loved most in life for transient jolts of euphoria”

-Joel Achenbach “No Longer Mayberry”

As another wave of addiction to prescription opiates sweeps across the country, people turn to heroin as a less expensive alternative. Achenbach writes, “Americans are dying from a rash of pathologies, sicknesses, and addictions that experts call ‘diseases of despair.” Now that heroin addictions are becoming prevalent and visible in prosperous small town America they are disrupting the portrait that we like to paint of America as land of the free, prosperous, and happy.

It is little wonder that people turn to opiates including heroin to waylay feelings of dissatisfaction. Pop culture shows heroin as a gateway to escape reality. Depictions of nodding on heroin in Drug Store Cowboy and Ray portray the high as bliss, an almost religious experience.

But the experience has a dark side. Trainspotting shows a scene in which a child dies from neglect in a house of opiod addicts. The mother’s immediate response is to shoot up, using the very drug that presumably led her to neglect her child in the first place. It is the sacrifices and danger to women and children that motivate public discourse about the need to combat opiod addictions.

“Addiction is like termite rot, eating at the foundation of a community. This cultural self-destruction is particularly pernicious when women with children can’t function as mothers”

-Joel Achenbach

There are more myths embedded in those two sentences than can be confronted in this post alone. It speaks to the perceived roles of women and men in a child’s life and the assumption that drug use wrecks communities rather than drug use becoming popular in communities that already have issues.

But let’s face the facts. Heroin use has been an issue in this country for decades. We paint minority users and men as willing participants, using drugs to make a buck or fit in with the cool kids. We tell a counter-narrative about women, painting them as victims and yet charging them with reckless abandon of their responsibilities to their children.

There is a serious disconnect and failure among mainstream conversations, be it media, government, or public education efforts, to examine the use of heroin as a multifaceted issue that impacts all communities. There is a failure to realize that we treat addicts as criminals or victims almost entirely based on race or gender. When will we realize that punitive responses are ineffective at dealing with the root cause of addiction to deadly drugs like cocaine and heroin, and find ways to better support all the communities affected, rather than only aiding those which we deem worth saving?