3/26/13 - the explosion of narcotics use in america

In today's selection -- the explosion of narcotics use in America after World War II:

"The Cold War inadvertently set the stage for the return of narcotics, in devastating strength. For the most part, the Mafia had been bitter enemies of Mussolini, and several men who would become leaders of the American underworld, such [as] Joe Bonanno, were driven into exile by the Fascists. During the Allied Occupation, many of the local mafiosi were returned to power by the Americans, who were in need of a leadership that was equally free of Fascist and Communist taint. This resurrection of the Sicilian Mafia coincided with the deportation of some four hundred gangsters, including Lucky Luciano, who introduced their local counterparts to the lucrative narcotics trade. The Sicilians often worked with Corsican gangsters in Marseilles, where the 'French Connection' soon supplied 85 to 90 percent of the heroin that arrived in the United States. The French government did little to discourage it: de Gaulle was delighted to thwart American policy, and the problem of addiction was not significant in France at the time. More sinister was the fact that the narcotics trade helped finance French military and intelligence efforts in its about-to-be former colonies, especially in Indochina, where the 'Golden Triangle' was the world's great opiate producer, along with the 'Golden Crescent' of the Near East, from Turkey to Pakistan.

"After the war, heroin use was largely confined to a few, narrow sub-cultures -- among jazz musicians, most famously -- from which it spread, like a rumor or a fad, in a geometric progression. The drug was seen as part of a lifestyle that opted out of the mainstream, whether as a protest against the specific exclusion of blacks from postwar opportunity, or as part of the larger, looser cynicism of the counterculture. Some junkies started because they were shut out of society, others because they didn't want to join it, and still others because they believed it explained how Charlie Parker played or Billie Holiday sang. Whether the pipe dream appealed to them or the American dream didn't, once people started, their original reasons didn't matter. As heroin spread through the larger black community, especially in the northern ghettos, the price went up and the quality went down, even as the addict population exploded. Property crimes skyrocketed to pay for habits, and then violent crimes followed, not only in the competition between dealers, but also disciplinary and debt-collecting functions of the gangs. By the 1960s, changes in the welfare system had accelerated the already extraordinary chaos of the ghettos, in its disastrous effects on patterns of marriage and work, which remain the two greatest bulwarks against criminality. Heroin created thousands of rich killers and millions of derelicts, whores, and thieves. In short, it created crime as we know it.

"In a sense, heroin was one of many white appropriations of black culture, following the same routes of imitation as the blues and hip-hop. But if heroin moved up from the ghetto, cocaine reached down from the white upper classes, offering a mass-market taste of glamour, like designer jeans. Through the mid-eighties, most media coverage of cocaine had an envious quality, as if the chief problem with the party favor of Hollywood parties and Studio 54 was that it was too expensive. Though official anti-drug rhetoric had been fairly constant for decades, it was only in 1986, after the death of basketball star Len Bias, and after crack began to burn through the cities, that action backed up the words. Until then, there was little attention paid to cocaine at the federal level: in 1985, of the hundred agents in the New York office of the DEA, only ten were assigned to cocaine cases, and in South Florida, where the drug had become a seven-billion-dollar industry, the DEA had to have a bake sale to raise money. In other words, until fairly recently, the war on drugs was remarkable for its lack of troops and ammunition, though the casualties certainly abounded.

"The modern cocaine business began when George Jung met Carlos Lehder in federal prison, in 1974. Jung, who was from a white, working-class New England background, had developed a sophisticated marijuana business, in which he bought drugs by the ton in Mexico and flew them all over the country in small planes. Carlos Lehder was a car thief from Colombia, who would join with Pablo Escobar and the Ochoa family to form the Medellin cartel. Jung had a hippie's soft-minded indulgence toward drug use, believing it to be kind of harmless and sort of a civil right, whereas the fanatical Lehder saw cocaine as the atomic bomb he was going to drop on America. Cocaine, which had been smuggled by the pound, now began to enter the country by the ton, and the Colombians introduced a degree of violence to the trade that would have made the Mafia blanch. Cops were killed by the hundreds in Medellin, and entire families were murdered, sometimes by the 'necktie' method, in which the throat was cut and the tongue pulled out to dangle down the chest. Sometime in the early 1980s, someone invented crack, and business got even bigger than anyone could have imagined.

"Cocaine used to cost as much as the best champagne, but crack made the price drop to that of a pack of cigarettes. People fought to buy it and sell it, with more and bigger guns that they sometimes shot without even looking. By the early 1990s, the New York City annual homicide rate had passed two thousand, of which half were estimated to be drug-related. Crack ravaged entire neighborhoods and seemed to claim as many women as men; heroin took a lot of fathers, and now crack took mothers, too. If heroin made the streets unsafe, crack killed people who hadn't even left their homes, and mothers in the ghettos practiced a kind of fire drill, sending the kids under their beds or into the bathtub at the sound of gunfire. Even as the crack epidemic started to level off, the Colombians began to produce heroin of exceptional quality.

"We're not back where we started, by any means, but quitting time -- for addict, dealer, cop - is nowhere in sight."


Edward Conlon


Blue Blood


Riverhead Books


Copyright 2004 by Edward Conlon


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