Heroin’s reputation in the 1970s was “a really hard-core, dangerous street drug, a killer drug, but there’s a whole generation who didn’t grow up with that kind of experience with heroin,” said New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan, whose office was created in 1971 in response to heroin use and related crime. “It’s been glamorized, certainly much more than it was during the ‘70s.”
In the 1990s, there was another wave of attention when the term “heroin chic” became ubiquitous as a description for pale, thin supermodels like Kate Moss.
The earliest heroin came to the U.S. from Chinese opium fields, Schneider said, and then Turkey became the leading source after World War II. After that, U.S. servicemen began smuggling the drug back from Southeast Asia and drug traffickers opened up a supply from Latin America. Today, Afghanistan is the world’s largest heroin producer.
In the past, the people who were most susceptible to heroin use were the ones who didn’t have to go to work every day, from the very poor to the very wealthy, Schneider said. Heroin was the drug of choice for 1950s bebop jazz musicians who used heroin in Manhattan swing clubs, he said, followed decades later by rock stars like Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain.
That’s not the case anymore. Most heroin addicts at Maryhaven, a substance abuse treatment center in Columbus, Ohio, got hooked on prescription painkillers like oxycodone after sustaining some type of injury, said Paul H. Coleman, the center’s president and CEO. When the cost of buying prescription opiates became prohibitive, and those drugs were reformulated in ways that made them harder to abuse, they turned to heroin.
About half of the center’s patients — it treated 7,000 people last year — are heroin addicts.