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Crime and Drugs: The New Myths

Land of Opportunity: One Family’s Quest for the American Dream in the Age of Crack

by William M. Adler
Atlantic Monthly Press, 415 pp., $22.00

In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio

by Philippe Bourgois
Cambridge University Press, 392 pp., $24.95

The American Street Gang: Its Nature, Prevalence, and Control

by Malcolm W. Klein
Oxford University Press, 270 pp., $27.50


In a revealing moment in Pulp Fiction, John Travolta, playing a small-time hood, visits a drug dealer to score some heroin. As the dealer weighs out the merchandise, he offers a terse commentary on changing drug fashions. “Coke’s fucking dead,” he announces. “Heroin is coming back in a big way.” Later, a moll played by Uma Thurman discovers a bag of white powder in Travolta’s coat and, mistaking it for cocaine, greedily snorts it. The stuff is so potent that she lapses into a coma, and Travolta must rush her to the dealer’s, where she’s revived by a shot of adrenaline plunged directly into her heart. That’s what you get for being behind the curve on drug trends.

By now, everyone has heard about the comeback of heroin. The most recent round of stories appeared last August, after the overdose death of a thirty-seven-year-old stockbroker, the mother of two young children, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “The Middle Class Rediscovers Heroin,” declared The New York Times. “Although heroin’s resurgence first hit the West Coast five years ago, when it was embraced by Hollywood trendsetters and grunge musicians tired of cocaine’s manic high,” the paper reported, “the drug’s popularity has made a bold leap from the ghettos of New York to the plush Upper West Side apartments of the city’s young urban professionals.”

This was hardly the first time the Times had taken up the subject. In August 1993, for example, it ran a front-page story headlined “With Supply and Purity Up, Heroin Use Expands.” Describing a “young model” gliding through a swarm of “glassyeyed addicts” in East Harlem, the paper termed her “one of the new ones, drawn to a high grade of heroin that does not need to be pumped into the body with a hypodermic needle but can be inhaled like cocaine without the slightest damage to a finely turned nose, at least in the beginning.” In May 1994, the paper was back with a front-page story from Los Angeles headlined “Heroin Finds a New Market Along Cutting Edge of Style.” The drug, it reported, has “caught on, on both coasts, in circles whose habits often set trends—young people piloting the fast lane in the film, rock, and fashion industries.”

Joining the Times in reporting on the new craze have been, among others, Newsweek (“Heroin Makes an Ominous Comeback”), Mademoiselle (“Hooked! Why Nice Women Do the Worst Drug”), and The Village Voice, whose story on the subject made it sound as if virtually every writer, musician, and photographer south of 14th Street is doing the drug. In May 1993, the New York Daily News ran a four-part “special report” on “The Comeback of Heroin,” while New York Newsday in December 1990 featured a cover on “The Middle Class’ New Kick: Heroin.”

For five years now the press has been discovering a new trend that may not be so new. Perhaps it’s not even a trend, outside the nightclubs of Hollywood and the bars of the East Village. Many of the stories depend on slender bits of evidence—the death of one person, the comments of a single expert. The Times‘s August 1995 article noted that “in the last two weeks alone, eight people have showed up for treatment at the Metropolitan Hospital Center on the Upper East Side after overdosing on heroin….” In fact, Metropolitan Hospital is located on East 97th Street, in East Harlem, and most of its patients come from that poor neighborhood.

This is not to deny that heroin consumption is up. According to government figures, heroin-related visits to hospital emergency rooms increased 66 percent between 1988 and 1993. In New York, heroin samples seized on the street are averaging about 65 percent in purity—about double the level of a few years ago. This has made it possible to get high by snorting the drug rather than injecting it, and that, in turn, has increased its appeal for some middle-class Americans. Heroin is not a trivial matter; even sniffing can lead to addiction, and already treatment counselors in New York report seeing more well-to-do users. Still, these users have received attention out of all proportion to their number. As has been the case since the mid-1960s, heroin use remains heaviest among poor blacks and Latinos. Today the most common form of ingestion is speedballing, in which heroin is taken together with cocaine, usually by injection—a practice not for the faint-hearted.

Middle-class heroin use seems to be exaggerated,” I was told by Richard Chady, a spokesman for the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. “That seems the peg that interests most news organizations. It’s picked up every once in a while, usually when there’s a sensational case—for instance, that of the stockbroker. The favorite headline is ‘Smack Is Back’—as if it ever went away.”

Not long ago I had a telephone call from an ABC producer who was working on a program about the resurgence of heroin. “We’re trying to get some middle-class users—people who are sniffing, rather than injecting,” she said, asking for some leads. I said that while middle-class use somewhat increased, most of the new consumption was occurring among inner-city minorities. “Oh, they’ve been around for years,” she said. “The fact that heroin is spreading into other sectors is what people will sit up and listen to.”


The press’s indifference to inner-city drug addiction is unfortunate, for that problem underlies so much else that goes on in the nation’s cities. Only by understanding changes in hard-core drug use among the poor is it possible to make sense of the startling changes now taking place in urban America.

The most notable is the sudden drop in crime rates. After moving steadily upward for years, those rates are now moving as steadily downward. In 1994, the nation’s crime rate dropped two percent, the third consecutive year of decline. Some of the sharpest dips have occurred in the country’s largest cities. In the first six months of 1995, for instance, the homicide rate dropped 9.1 percent in Detroit (compared to the same period in 1994), 10.3 percent in Washington, 11.9 percent in Boston, 17.7 percent in New Orleans, 18.4 percent in Atlanta, 18.8 percent in Chicago, and 32 percent in Houston.

Nowhere has the overall decline been steeper than in New York City, where the crime rate fell 11.7 percent in 1994 and another 18.3 percent in the first six months of 1995. From January 1994, when Rudolph Giuliani became mayor, through June 1995, homicides were down 37.3 percent, robbery was down 31.3 percent, and burglary was down 23.6 percent, helping to reduce the incidence of crime in New York to its lowest level in twenty-five years.

Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton have sought credit for the decline, and the press has generally been willing to grant it. “The End of Crime As We Know It,” New York magazine declared on its cover last August. According to the article, by Craig Horowitz, Giuliani and Bratton had not only made New York safer but also resolved the long-simmering debate over the best way to fight crime in America:

Their victory appears to be a repudiation of three decades of received wisdom that crime is inextricably connected to economic deprivation and social injustice. Bratton and Giuliani are showing it is possible to keep a lid on crime solely through effective law enforcement…. “There has never been a proven connection between the state of the economy and crime,” the mayor said—in a different time and place, this would be sheer apostasy—“and there is absolutely no correlation between unemployment and crime. Go look at the Depression. It was one of the safest periods in the history of this country.” Giuliani and Bratton believe they have happened on something big. They have found the real root cause of crime: criminals.

Its fawning tone aside, the New York article raises an issue central to the recent crime drop. Have conservatives, with their insistent calls for more arrests, swifter prosecutions, and harsher penalties, been right all along?

One must give Giuliani and Bratton their due. Clearly the change in crime rates is not a statistical fluke, and, while crime remains an ever-present concern, many New Yorkers have a palpable sense that the city (its poor neighborhoods included) is getting safer. More police are patrolling New York’s streets today than ever before. Cracking down on previously ignored offenses, they have issued summonses for such practices as loitering and drinking beer in public. Checking the records of these offenders, the police have been able to identify those with outstanding arrest warrants and to take them into custody. By more thoroughly frisking the people they stop on the street, the police have picked up many young men carrying concealed guns. And, through diligent investigation, they have succeeded in busting many drug gangs. The NYPD has also adopted a computer-based management system that allows it to track local crime patterns and plot ways to counter them.

That such actions have had an effect is widely acknowledged by those in the best position to judge—the city’s hustlers and drug sellers. “It’s been tough the last year and a half,” I was told by a forty-year-old heroin user in Harlem, one of many addicts I’ve interviewed in the city in recent weeks. “Everybody’s hollering, ‘Giuliani, Giuliani.’ ” Wearing a Champion sweatshirt and a gold earring in his left ear, with dreadlocks poking out from the back of his otherwise shaven head, the man was expert in analyzing the changing tactics of the police department. “The merger between the housing police and the city police was one factor—there’s much better coordination now,” he said. “And before, you only had to worry about getting arrested by undercover cops. Now, you worry about the uniformed guys, too. That made a hell of a difference.”

You have to be more careful,” a Latino heroin user told me. “The police come up real quick. Everybody says it’s Giuliani.” Because he had an outstanding warrant, the man said, he had to be more cautious now. “If they catch me,” he said, “I’ll do thirty days.”

Virtually every person I’ve spoken with tells a similar story: Giuliani has turned up the heat, which has meant greater caution on the street, fewer drugs, and less crime. All of which would seem to support the view that the best way to reduce crime is to crack down on criminals.

Before law-and-order advocates declare victory, however, they should consider some inconvenient facts. First, the falloff in crime in New York started before Giuliani took office. The crime rate dropped 7.8 percent in 1992 and another 4 percent in 1993, when David Dinkins was mayor. During the 1993 mayoral campaign, Giuliani did a good job of obscuring this fact—a decisive factor in his narrow victory. Even more significant is the fact that so many other cities are experiencing similar drops, which suggests the existence of broader forces at work throughout the nation.

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