Old Ideas for a New Era: On Reading Sam Quinones

Sam Quinones and I share an affinity for this startling fact: more Americans now die of drug overdoes than car crashes. I often say this when I am trying to convince someone that it’s important to study the drug wars; Quinones last week used the tidbit in the first paragraph of his New York Times opinion piece titled “Serving All Your Heroin Needs.”

In this article—and probably elaborated in his new book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic—the L.A.-based journalist writes about a new breed of Mexican heroin dealers who deliver drugs “like pizza” in cities across the Midwest. He uses a nickname for the dealers coined by a cop he knows: Xalisco Boys, for the poppy-growing region from whence they come to the United States looking for a fast buck.

Sam Quinones, Dreamland (Bloomsbury Press, 2015)

Sam Quinones, Dreamland (Bloomsbury Press, 2015)

I have no doubt the system of low-violence, customer-service-oriented drug dealing that Quinones has studied for several years is real. But the old chestnuts he hauls out in talking about the public health problems caused by the increased availability of heroin in smaller cities deserve comment.  Continue reading →

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Framing Addiction: Heroin Then and Now

At a press conference on June 17, 1971 then President Richard Nixon informed his constituents of a troubling menace. “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse.” Nixon also labeled those associated with drug abuse primary enemies of the state. “In order to fight and defeat this enemy,” Nixon charged, “it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” Sadly, this all-out offensive has been in full bloom under the modern War on Drugs while drug abuse—keeping in step—has also flourished.nixon declaring wod

Earlier that afternoon Nixon gave a special message to Congress, providing more details regarding the scope of the problem. Declaring the “tide of drug abuse” a “national emergency,” Nixon reminded Congress that, “narcotic addiction is a major contributor to crime.” Nixon continued, establishing what is now an oversimplified, rarely analyzed cultural truth: “Narcotic addicts do not ordinarily hold jobs. Instead, they often turn to shoplifting, mugging, burglary, armed robbery, and so on. They also support themselves by starting other people-young people-on drugs.” The addict, and the peddler—often doubling as the same shadowy figure—became cemented as cultural boogeymen. Addicts were either hooking our youth on dangerous drugs or committing other crimes to cop.  Addicts, not society, caused the problem and bore the threat to public safety. Despite his well-documented fiscal commitment to rehabilitation efforts, Nixon’s public rhetoric designed to sway silent majority voters advanced the march towards an ethos of punishment and condemnation. For example, in his same message to Congress, Nixon asked for additional funds to support enforcement efforts “to further tighten the noose around the necks of drug peddlers.”  To borrow from our Managing Editor Emily Dufton, Nixon, “transformed the public image of the drug user into one of a dangerous and anarchic threat to American civilization.”

"They bought it."

“They bought it.”

Continue reading →

“Blacks Declare War on Dope”

When I began researching grassroots responses to crack-cocaine I found myself—albeit naively—both surprised and confused by heavy-handed, aggressive calls for more policing and harsher sentencing from working and middle class black urbanites.  Was this unique to the period?  Did this represent a specific and different response to the marketing invention of crack?  Moreover, I found myself asking: What motivated calls to stigmatize and scapegoat members of their own local communities?  Why would local leaders deliberately attract negative attention to their already beleaguered districts, thereby further perpetuating negative stereotypes regarding the debasement of inner-city culture?  Where were the progressive voices calling for moderate, rational, public health responses?

In earlier posts, I have begun to explain this reaction through the lens of black-lash.  Much like working class white ethnics before them, working and middle-class blacks responded to what they deemed destructive and dangerous changes to their neighborhood and organized Imagein efforts for reform to “take back their streets”.  Steeped in the language of victimhood and citizenship, these local activists made battles over crime and drugs battles of good versus evil.  The war against pushers, panhandlers, pimps and hoodlums would be about protecting the decent, innocent citizens held captive in their own neighborhoods.  Finally, black-lash—much like white backlash—came to be motivated in part by a perceived threat to group progress.  Working and middle class blacks viewed youth and street culture manifested by the drug trade as a clear threat to gains made under the Civil Rights Movement.

Recently, the use of the term black-lash has given me some pause for two reasons.  First, black-lash is less clearly and directly motivated by race.  The increasing significance of class in the post civil rights era makes such a term less useful.  More significantly, black-lash is not unique to the Crack Era.  The new work of Michael Javen Fortner clearly suggests that such sentiment existed in the 1970s as Harlemites fought vociferously against the increasing presence of heroin and crime in their neighborhoods.  This suggests that black-lash existed less as a reactionary impulse, and more as an enduring, but understudied class fissure within the black community.  With that said, let’s take a closer look at the roots of black-lash in the late 1960s and early 1970s to better assess the utility of the term “black-lash” as an explanatory tool.  Continue reading →

The Points Interview: Eric Schneider

This week’s Points Interview is number fifteen in the series, and features Eric Schneider talking smack about Smack: Heroin and the American City.  Eric’s book has just appeared in a paperback edition, so this interview is a timely revisiting of this important study of heroin in postwar urban America.  Eric Schneider is Assistant Dean and Associate Director for Academic Affairs and an Adjunct Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.  Readers of Points may also be interested in one of Eric’s earlier books, Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York (Princeton University Press, 2001).

1. Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand
Smack is about two things:  markets and the social environments in which people Cover of Eric Schneider's Smackconsumed heroin.  New York City dominated a centralized national market from the 1920s until the 1970s because a handful of mostly Italian and Jewish illegal entrepreneurs controlled access to the European sources of heroin.   Over time, new groups and new points of entry challenged New York’s supremacy, with African Americans, Cubans and Mexicans importing heroin from Southeast Asia, Latin America and Mexico through a variety of places.  Ties to Latin America were particularly important, as increasingly large amounts of cocaine traveled along the same routes and set the stage for the emergence of crack cocaine as a new mass market product in the 1980s.

What did not change much was the location of retail marketplaces.  Primary marketplaces located in poor African American and Latino communities, where unemployment was high and the underground economy, including drug selling, provided jobs in what was essentially the free market’s answer to deindustrialization.  In addition, police sheltered some sellers while arresting others, thus waging an ostensible ‘war on drugs’ while taking advantage of opportunities for graft.  The persistence of retail marketplaces in a neighborhood also encouraged the recruitment of the next generation of users and sellers as adolescents acquired the ‘drug knowledge’ needed to negotiate the market.  As heroin use expanded, secondary heroin markets opened up in the suburbs closest to traditional heroin-using center cities.  (Basically, venturesome users would make larger purchases in the primary marketplace and then return home and support their habits through sales to less-venturesome peers.)

Heroin consumption began among the socially and economically marginal, those most alienated from mainstream American life.  Continue reading →