I don’t mean that diamorphine, the substance to which the word ‘heroin’ ostensibly refers, doesn’t exist. I mean that there are two heroins: the heroin of pharmacology, and the heroin of mythos; and that the relation between the two is dubious. The average adult has never used heroin, does not understand its pharmacological action, cannot even conceive of its effect, and his understanding of its epidemiology is based entirely on hysterical hearsay. Heroin is, to this person, a notion, an allusion – an invention of mind, based loosely on what he (incorrectly) imagines diamorphine to be. I can only conclude that the jumbled, elusory, and frequently contradictory haze of ideas and feelings which constitute the heroin of mythos cannot properly be considered to have any authentic relation to the heroin of pharmacology, much less be considered a valid part of the same singular concept. This ‘heroin’ does not exist. Hell, just look at the mythos woven by those even with intimate experience of the drug.
I have a confession to make: I like to read trashy drug literature. This can really be a damaging habit, and I believe the only way to inoculate yourself against the obvious pitfalls of this vice is to be a critical reader of trashy drug literature. Take William S. Burroughs as an example: Burroughs gave us a snapshot of obscure subcultures in pivotal times and places, but the value of his theory of addiction is such that pawning it would yield scarcely enough cash for a hit. Reading Burroughs is fine, but you need to understand that he’s full of shit.
The first thing to be aware of is that literature, like all media, has an in-built bias towards the exceptional. Nobody really wants to read the memoir of somebody who tried heroin a few times and then moved on with their life, but such people exist in droves. It is estimated that only about 23% of people who try heroin become dependent…and I’d wager, further, that this 23% account for 100% of the literature. Pop autobiographies with subheadings like ‘a year in the life of a shattered rock star’ are read far and wide, but you’re unlikely to find ‘Memoirs of a Moderate and Occasional Opium User’ in stores anytime soon. This is not conducive to a robust understanding of the phenomenon of heroin use in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Neither is the sense of seniority that tends to follow from intimate experience with a subject. The heroin addict has personally experienced heroin addiction – what can anyone else possibly tell them about it? This attitude is hardly unique to heroin addicts: In my work in the harm reduction community, I’ve frequently explained categorical facts to drug users only to be rebuffed on the basis of experience. “Don’t take tramadol while on SSRI antidepressants? What are you talking about? I’ll have you know I’ve been taking opiates for a decade, kid.” People need to understand that there is only so much you can learn about a substance by shoving it in your nose, mouth, or asshole. The heroin addict has a special knowledge of the subject, undoubtedly, but they are not the fountain of all wisdom. Their special knowledge mostly pertains either to the cultures surrounding heroin use and addiction or to the subjective experience of heroin use and addiction. There is much more to know.
What this all is conducive to is the myth-making which has come to characterize the literature of heroin, often achieved simply by choice in tense. You’ll find, if you read much of this literature, that the heroin diarist often recounts their personal experience in the present and general tenses, rather than the past and personal. Generally, they do not say “when I first used heroin, I was hooked,” but “when you first use heroin you are hooked.” Their experience, it would seem to follow, is not only timeless but universal. Except it usually isn’t. The statement of conjecture as categorical fact is a constant presence in such literature.
This is demonstrated well by a passage from Michael Clunes ‘White Out’:
“In Baltimore they call cops ‘knockers.’ We had to watch out for the knockers. Cops dressed like junkies. Undercovers. They were hard to spot. I asked everyone I knew about their favorite way of detecting knockers. It was a survey.
‘So how can you tell a knocker?’ I’d ask.
‘It’s easy,’ Funboy said. ‘Knockers’re black. But the dope boys got it twisted. That’s why some spots won’t serve white fiends.’
‘It’s easy,’ Tony said. ‘Knockers are always white. That’s why we don’t serve white boys. Except you, Funboy. And you.’
‘It’s tricky,’ Henry said, ‘but I got the trick. Knockers always look you right in the eyes. Their eyes knock into yours. It’s why they’re called knockers.’
‘Knockers don’t look at dope right,’ Dom said. ‘They look at it the way you might look at a beer. Or at Henry.’
‘Knockers drive Toyota’s,’ Todd said.
‘Knockers have white teeth,’ Fathead said. ‘Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their teeth.’
‘Knockers mostly snort dope, they never shoot it,’ Funboy said.
‘If you ask a knocker if he a knocker, a real knocker gotta tell you,’ the teenage dealer said looking at me. ‘You a knocker, motherfucker?’
To be fair, this is a problem with drug culture in general, not just heroin. Everybody’s an expert, and they’ll all tell you something different. On any given topic, too.
And not only do the 23% of people who become dependent on heroin account for 100% of the literature, I’d venture a guess that the selection bias is worse still. I would conjecture that among that 23%, the type who actually goes and writes a book about it is especially prone to romanticism and literary flare. Thus opium becomes “a panacea for all human woes,” and “the secret of happiness…at once discovered,” in the romantic prose of de Quincey. Thus heroin becomes “the end of desire,” “the end of wanting,” “the end of fear,” in the phraseology of Clune.
So heroin is romanticized from both sides. Everybody raises it on a pedestal, of some description – it is either panacea or a harbinger of doom. Popular estimations of heroin are scattered on the extreme ends of a spectrum. The truth is more banal. It is an opioid drug. It is highly pleasurable. It is not ‘addictive’ in the sense of inducing addiction, but a minority of it’s users are liable to become addicted. It is, ultimately, just a drug: it has associated pleasures and pitfalls, none of which live up to the romanticism of its disciples or opponents. It’s not that special. Stop embellishing.