Last week, the press reprised one of its favorite stories: Heroin is back. The news hook was the July 12 death of Smashing Pumpkins side man Jonathan Melvoin, 34, while shooting scag in a Park Avenue hotel. The Washington Post Page One obit on Melvoin claimed–without substantiation–“a resurgence in heroin use in the ‘90s,” while the New York Times asserted that the “heroin vogue has been building since at least 1993 and shows no signs of ebbing.”Trainspotting, the new movie about young Scottish junkies, provided another useful occasion for noting this alleged trend.
“Smack Is Back”? For the press, smack is always back. It never goes away, but it’s always returning. Boarding the Nexis wayback machine, we find that nearly every publication in America has sounded the heroin clarion yearly since 1989: the New York Times (“Latest Drug of Choice for Abusers Brings New Generation to Heroin,” 1989); U.S. News & World Report (“The Return of a Deadly Drug Called Horse,” 1989); the San Francisco Chronicle (“Heroin Making a Resurgence in the Bay Area,” 1990); the New York Times (“Heroin Is Making Comeback,” 1990); Time magazine (“Heroin Comes Back,” 1990); the Los Angeles Times (“As Cocaine Comes off a High, Heroin May Be Filling Void,” 1991); the Cleveland Plain Dealer (“Police, Social Workers Fear Heroin ‘Epidemic,’ ” 1992); Rolling Stone (“Heroin: Back on the Charts,” 1992); the Seattle Times (“Heroin People: Deadly Drug Back in Demand,” 1992); NPR (“Heroin Makes Comeback in United States,” 1992); Newsweek (“Heroin Makes an Ominous Comeback,” 1993); the Trenton Record (“A Heroin Comeback,” 1993); the Washington Post (“Smack Dabbling,” 1994); the New York Times (“Heroin Finds a New Market Along Cutting Edge of Style,” 1994); USA Today (“Smack’s Back,” 1994); the Buffalo News (“More Dopes Picking Heroin,” 1994); the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel (“Heroin Makes a Comeback,” 1995); the Times-Picayune (“Heroin Is Back as Major Problem,” 1996); the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (“State Gets Deadly Dose as Heroin Reappears,” 1996); Rolling Stone again (“Heroin,” 1996); and the Los Angeles Times (“Heroin’s New Popularity Claims Unlikely Victims,” 1996).
The granddaddy of the genre appeared 15 years ago in Newsweek (“Middle-Class Junkies,” Aug. 10, 1981), with language that reads as fresh today as it did then. We learn that heroin has breached its ghetto quarantine: “[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 lunch-time crowds in predominately white business districts.” As always, part of the problem is a glut of white powder: "[S]heer abundance is prompting concern about a potential ‘epidemic’ spilling across demographic divides.” And heroin purity is increasing dramatically: “Purity levels as high as 90 percent have been found in seized wholesale caches, with street-level purities averaging up to 20 percent–around six times the typical strength of the 1970 Turkish blend.”
Having hit 90 percent 15 years ago, you wouldn’t think that heroin purity could keep rising. But for the press, it has. The Washington Post’s story about Melvoin reported that heroin purity has risen from “as low as 4 percent in past decades to upward of 70 percent today,” while the Los Angeles Times’ piece noted that heroin had gone “from 4 percent [purity] in 1980 to 40 percent in 1995.” After Melvoin died, the Associated Press reported that the heroin he shot was 60 percent to 70 percent pure.
Depending on where you drop the Nexis plumb line you can find references to more potent street heroin in the recent past. A 1989 New York Times story pegged the potency of heroin at 45 percent. In 1990, the Washington Post placed average purity at 30 percent to 40 percent. A Seattle Times story from 1992 quoted a Drug Enforcement Administration source who said that in the ‘70s, heroin was typically 25 percent to 30 percent pure, but that heroin seized in the early ‘90s was now topping the scales at 67 percent pure. A 1996 government study puts purity at 59 percent, so if the DEA was right a few years ago, recent purity actually has declined somewhat.
T here is good evidence that potency isn’t the most significant risk factor in overdose deaths. A study of heroin overdoses in Washington, D.C., the findings of which were published by the Journal of Forensic Sciences (1989), found no relationship between heroin purity and death-by-overdose or nonfatal overdose. (On the night that Melvoin shot that 60 to 70 percent heroin and died, Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin shot the same junk and survived.) The researchers attributed most overdoses to intermittent or post-addiction use of heroin–meaning that people who OD’d tended to misjudge tolerance when returning to the drug. Another risk factor that never gets enough ink in the heroin-obsessed media is the danger of using heroin in combination with alcohol. The mixture has an additive effect: A drinker could spike himself with a lower-than-lethal dose and still OD.
What do we really know about heroin use? For one thing, the federal government’s National Drug Control Strategy for 1996 says that the addict population is basically stable. It reports that the number of “casual users” (less than weekly) of heroin came down by nearly half between 1988 and 1993 (539,000 to 229,000), the most recent year measured, while the number of “heavy users” (at least weekly) dipped from 601,000 to 500,000. One statistic feeding the heroin “revival” stories is the increasing number of emergency-room visits by people who mention heroin as a reason for seeking ER treatment. But the statistics, which come from the government’s latest Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) survey, come with a disclaimer suggesting that the explanation may be multiple visits by aging druggies who are using the ER for a variety of health problems.
My bet is that when the medical examiner releases his report on Jonathan Melvoin next week, it will disclose that the smashed pumpkin was drinking booze while shooting, a fatal error that pre-’50s addicts almost never made. We’ll learn that Melvoin–like the press–was an amateur who didn’t really know what he was doing with heroin.
What the Hell Are “Flame Posies”?
Seamus Heaney’s poem The Little Canticles of Asturias, which appeared in the debut issue of SLATE, contains a mesmerizing image of a “smouldering maw/ of a pile of newspapers lit long ago,” fanning “up in the wind, breaking off and away/ in flame-posies, small airborne fire-ships.” Heaney’s verse reminded me that everything–even awful newspaper stories–is beautiful when it burns. Such was the inspiration that I embraced “Flame Posies” as the name for my occasional column on the press. I also hope that the oxymoron will remind me to include applause as well as condemnation in my dispatches.
Illustrations by Robert Neubecker