Politics & Policy

Glamor Junkies

The culture of heroin addiction

I was an admirer of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s, but I was not surprised to learn that he had died as the result of a heroin misadventure. Not that I was in any way privy to Mr. Hoffman’s private life, it is just that I am never surprised when somebody dies from heroin. At least three young men in the New York suburbs died of heroin overdoses just before Mr. Hoffman’s death, western Pennsylvania is full of the stuff, and Vermont claims to be in the midst of a full-on heroin epidemic. Every few years I read about how heroin is making a comeback or about how there’s a new surge of heroin addiction, but I am skeptical. Heroin never makes a comeback, because heroin never goes away.

I have known a few junkies in my life, and once witnessed the curious spectacle of a young man’s deciding to become a junkie. A young opiate tyro just learning his way around a needle, he began by shooting up between his toes, explaining that this way no entry wound would be easily visible to such members of the general public as might take an interest in his inner arms. He was planning in advance for track marks under the assumption that his taking heroin was not going to be a casual thing. Addiction was not simply something that had happened to him, but something he planned for, a choice he made. I think he thought of it rather like getting a tattoo: something rock ’n’ roll, rebellious. Permanent.

Here we are well into the 21st century, and I would be very surprised to learn that there is anybody in the civilized world — and by that I mean the world with sufficient industrial expertise to produce hypodermic needles and synthetic opiates — who has not heard the news that heroin is a very nasty business with a pretty good chance of helping you to an early death via overdose, HIV, hepatitis C, etc. People make bad choices all the time, usually because of a fundamental inability to operate over longer time frames: Nobody wants to be fat in five years, everybody wants the doughnut right now; you know she’s bad news, but it’s 2 a.m. and your decision-making timeline currently does not extend to sunrise; you should really take the money you were going to spend on that car and put it in your retirement fund, but part of you doesn’t expect to live that long. But taking heroin is, at least in part, an act of cultural affiliation. Connoisseurs of the poppy will go on and on about Great Junkies in History — William S. Burroughs, Sid and Nancy, Billie Holiday — though all in all I’d say that heroin addicts are less tedious on the subject of heroin than potheads are on the subject of pot. They do seem to have a particular fascination with the jargon of heroin, as though every conversation is taking place in 1970. I always have a sneaking suspicion that I could talk people out of deciding to become junkies if only I could get them to read a couple of good books composed with such literary skill as to illuminate the fact that Burroughs was a poseur and a hack. The belief that there exists some kind of deep and invisible connection between artistic creativity and addiction (or mental illness) is one of the most destructive and most stupid of our contemporary myths. I’d blame Thomas De Quincey, author of the 19th-century tell-all Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, if I thought anybody still read him.

On the subject of opiate addiction, no more bracing or insightful book has been written than Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy, by Theodore Dalrymple. (One of the most cultivated men I know considers it the best argumentative monograph of its kind on any subject.) Dr. Dalrymple, now known to us as Anthony Daniels, has extensive experience in the field, and he finds both sides of the addiction–treatment ritual ridden with shallow romanticism, as well as a good dose of misinformation and pseudoscience regarding the biology of opiate addiction. (For example, alcohol withdrawal is physically a much more dangerous experience than is heroin withdrawal.) Considering the relationship between crime and addiction, he finds that criminals become addicts more frequently than addicts become criminals. His analysis is entirely unsentimental, the precise opposite to most of what is said and written about heroin. It is a reminder that the exercise of compassion first requires ridding ourselves of destructive stupidity.

The model of “rational choice” has taken a beating over the years in the field of economics, and those of us with a broader and less quantitative interest in social questions should take notice. It is hard to develop a rational-choice explanation for junkies unless we consider the very short term, in which case people use heroin for the same reason they use alcohol: They are bored, they are depressed, they are lonely, they cannot sleep, it is a social convention within a certain milieu. And it is associated with a promise, usually unspoken: James Bond’s martini is as much a part of his persona as is his Walther PPK and his Aston Martin. A glass of champagne has a certain meaning, a cigarette has a certain meaning, and so does a syringe full of heroin. Those who contemplate the legalization of such substances (and I am one of them) must do so with clear eyes, neither taken in by the romanticism of heroin nor unable to understand how and why that romanticism operates in the culture, and what that means for the choices that people make. It is not the case that no one plans to become a junkie.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.