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Wolfgang Sterneck
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Richard Hell:


"Happiness might now be bought for a penny and carried in the waistcoat pocket."
--De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater

What is heroin? It amounts to a concentrated, injectable form of opium. Opium drips right out of the seed pods of the opium poppy when incised a few days in their growth cycle after their petals fall. A simple process discovered in the early 19th century isolates morphine from opium, and another simple process, discovered late in the 19th century, makes heroin from morphine. Morphine is about ten times the strength of opium, and heroin is about four times the strength of morphine. Opium was legal, freely available, and widely used in both the U.K. and the U.S. until the early part of the 20th century. It's been an indispensable medicine wherever it has been known throughout human history. It is referred to as the "joy plant" in Sumerian texts 6000 years old. In 19th century Britain it was the drug indicated in the treatment for any pain from infant teething to rheumatism, as well as for sleeplessness, diarreah, coughs and colds, and depression. It was and is very effective against all these complaints. It is in fact the cure for the common cold, or all its symptoms. It was largely self prescribed, since medical care for the mass of people was still mostly a matter of traditional remedies, and it was as popular as aspirin is now. Every home had its bottle of laudanum -- opium dissolved in alcohol --, and in areas where living and working conditions were their worst, shop counters on Saturday market day would be laden with two or three thousand vials to meet the demand for the week. None of this caused alarm, in fact it was so much taken for granted that it is hard now to know how many people were physically addicted. That term "addiction" has become so loaded for us who have been force fed the image of the drug "fiend" that it takes some effort to imagine a society where widespread addiction is tolerated, but it was true of both England and America just 150 years ago. At worst it was regarded as a bad habit, an unfortunate weakness, like laziness. It was neither a crime nor a disease.

The transformation over the course of the 19th century of this view of the substance as a highly valued, widely used, general palliative into it's present status as a death dealing, insanity inducing, instrument of depravity has been traced expertly by Virginia Berridge with Griffith Edwards in their book Opium and the People. There was a public health movement with legitimate complaints about the wholly unregulated marketing of opium products which resulted in a certain number of accidental overdoses, etc.; there was the emergence of organized societies of doctors and pharmacists whose interests were served by claiming the right to control opium dispensation; there were class tensions leading the nervous, paternalistic middle classes to condemn the drug's use among the working class as ignorant and degenerate (heroin use is still pretty much regarded as criminal among the poor and just sad -- diseased -- among the privileged).

That rainy afternoon I had a meeting with P. He's a journalist one of whose special fields of interest and expertise is heroin. We had an interesting conversation in a chain pizzeria. He was unlike anyone else I talked to. Intense, pockmarked, skinny, late 20's, a little paranoid, a little haughty, very detached, determined like a scholar or diplomat to be fully understood on every point and not to be mis-quoted. Others wanted to share their information, he wanted to make his points.

Amidst much hedging, he predicted a major cultural shift, a re-evaluation of our position vis-à-vis drugs worldwide that would possibly replace truly dangerous addictive drugs such as alcohol and tobacco ("If you want to talk about death penalties for drug pushers start with the executives of tobacco companies." --Andrew Weil) with the mildest, crudest forms of presently illegal substances: coca leaves rather than cocaine, and opium rather than heroin. And then he presented his analysis -- in the terms of modern linguistic theory as applied to psychoanalysis -- of where the immediate appeal of heroin lies and why it's so offensive to society. (With apologies, I'd summarize his take as follows: Heroin simulates the oceanic ecstasy of the original pre-language state. Language springs from the urge to name one's desire, but because a word is not the thing it names, one actually puts oneself further and further from one's desire with every new word. It's this constitution of displaced desire as language that supplies all social motivation, so to short circuit oneself back to the original motivationless state via heroin is the ultimate transgression against society.) (In other words, heroin makes you a big baby -- which is definitely true.)

There's a way in which writing itself can be seen as a giant step in the decline of humankind. Writing codifies existence, it reduces it to laws (as Levi-Strauss described). It's a system, a tool, of oppression. In Narcotics Anonymous the first step is acknowledging that heroin is bigger than oneself and that is certainly true for a writer on the subject.

I felt both frustrated and stimulated by my conversation with P. What he mostly supplied were opinions -- fascinating, sophisticated opinions, but they didn't contribute much to my research. What our talk really brought home to me was the difficulty of the subject. Everyone throws around the term heroin "problem." Is the problem that people want to do it? If so, why? It does not damage one's health. Is addiction to it somehow inherently psychologically / socially harmful? How? Many other equally addictive drugs, from tobacco to barbiturates are legally available and much more widely used. (Alcohol causes many more deaths and valium is more difficult to withdraw from.) Heroin use is growing worldwide. Why? Is it the profit motive? Is its legal status the problem? If so, how can it be improved? These questions are all hard, especially in the present climate of irresponsible political and financial profiteering in the fear and fascination with the drug, but the suffering that is resulting from the evasion and / or misrepresentation of these issues makes it necessary to face them.

England is a good place to start, because for 40 years (1920-60) it was the envy of the world for its benevolent, successful system for dealing with and containing addiction. Then something happened. In the sixties the number of users increased suddenly (though still remaining very low), the laws were made stricter (in 1969), and the number of users, stable for 40 years, just leapt off the graphs. What was going on? What did it mean, and what could be done about it? I walked back to my hotel in the rain feeling like the reporter in Citizen Kane, asking person after person: Who is Mr. Heroin? What did he do? What did it reveal about him? Poppybud.

All societies have their acceptable and taboo drugs. The drugs that are generally acceptable in a given society have usually been in use there for long enough that, no matter how dangerous to the individual and the society they might be when used in concentrated doses and / or at frequent enough intervals, they are used wisely and with care, whereas, as we can see in England now with heroin or, for instance, as happened with Native Americans first exposed to alcohol, when an "alien" drug is introduced to a susceptible society it tends to be abused.

There are quite a few cultures where opium use is tolerated and addiction does not present a problem. The moment its use is obstructed, as happened in Pakistan in 1979, a market is created for the far more easily concealable and powerful and dangerous heroin (physical addiction to which occurs within two weeks daily use, while it's likely to take months of opium use). Pakistan, which had virtually no heroin addicts in 1979, now has over 200,000. All indications are that prohibition of a drug for which a demand exists leads only to crime and the chanelling of funds to criminals. Opiates aren't magically irresistible. It is ignorance and the fear created by ignorant and self-serving propaganda that fosters that idea. Even here and now there are far more people who occasionally use heroin in the U.S. than are addicted to it. In 1978 the White House Office of Drug Abuse Policy estimated there were 500,000 addicts and as many as 4,000,000 people who had used the drug during the preceding year. It has been established that every addict reaches a plateau level of quantity required and that a limited, low, number of the population are psychologically susceptible to addiction. It has also been established that heroin use in itself does not provoke acts of crime. (Alcohol does.) It is only the artificially inflated price created by its illegal status which leads to crime.

Virginia Berridge points out that valium and other mild tranquilizers have taken over the role that legal opium played in the 19th century -- 8.6 per cent of adults in the U.K. will, during a twelve month period, take such anxiety-relieving drugs for four weeks at a stretch.

I woke up this morning feeling like a drug addict. I woke too early, alone, with just this pale blue-grey light worming its way through the shutters, and I had this dreadful feeling of being behind, just behind. In every department: puffy eyes and muffled brain from being awake too soon; alone -- no "friend" whom I didn't owe, emotionally and financially, and was way behind in paying; behind in my resolutions to work; and far short of being the person I imagined and presented myself as being in my illusorily prouder moments. And knowing the only way to begin the day was to start lying. I'd have to lie just to get myself out of bed. Lie to myself that it was alright, that I was alright, that admitting my condition made it alright and that if I could accept that lie for just this morning, I'd be o.k., my confidence would return and I'd manage to begin behaving in such a way that I wouldn't have to feel this way again. As long as I could feel confident again, I'd be able to get what I need and do what I had to and people could believe in me because I'd believe in myself and vice versa and et cetera and ad infinitum. It all came back for a few seconds. Of course when I was addicted to heroin the mechanism was a little different. Because now the feelings of confidence I grope for when I feel lost have some basis, but then, before, when I was a junkie, nothing ever got really better, the fear just got covered for a day, every day, while it grew. I knew it too, but it's amazing what living conditions -- emotional and material -- a human can adjust to, especially when the change is gradual. Like the Jews in '30s Germany. You just focus your mind on the immediate aim. Heroin allows -- insists -- that all your problems are reduced to one simple question of logistics: how to cop today. Every day there's always some way to get that sixty dollars and someone to give it to. And then, to paraphrase Brecht, after we hit up, we can discuss morals.

The term "drug culture" is apt because upon partaking of a drug one leaves behind whatever other ways one may be classified socially / culturally and enters the culture of the users of that drug. The drug supercedes one's other qualities and one becomes drug derived and has more in common with others under the influence of the given drug than with anyone else. There is the country of the drunk, the country of the speed freak, and the country of the junkie. Heroin is the archetypal drug partly because, by inducing such an extreme form of self absorption and by being so highly addictive, it exemplifies this phenomenon -- the country of heroin is the country of the self referring self. The heroin addict needs virtually nothing but heroin. It removes social drives (as the journalist P. emphasized), and solves hunger.

Talking about heroin is like talking about pain: language is inadequate. You can't really learn from someone else's experience. The subject can't be isolated: it alters your whole being, and not only is it incapable of being shared with the non-initiate, but who in his right mind would want to fully grasp another's pain? A saint, maybe. Certainly not a politician. (Heroin, of course, is a pain killer.)

There is no "solution" to the heroin problem. (Andrew Tyler: "The solution to the heroin problem lies in individual self awareness.") It is not even possible to clearly define what constitutes the problem. Morality and law are just the places where human nature and societal values intersect. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. What I do to myself is nobody's business. [Weil on how our policies have led to extremely dangerous, but easily-smuggled, cocaine rather than safe coca leaves. Heroin rather than opium.]

I remember first coming upon the concept of the "vested interest" in an essay by William Burroughs, and how those whose identities are as combatants of social problems therefore have a vested interest in maintaining the phenomenon against which they're pledged to battle. Politicians, of course, are generally tangled skeins of vested interests, the greatest one being their need to offend the fewest number of voters and campaign contributors. Politicians (and the media -- who also benefit from playing on people's fears) are responsible for supplying the general public with most of the information it gets about heroin. Their basic message is that it is a crime to use or traffick in opiates. Why is it a crime? Because it is illegal. "The word 'narcotic' comes from the Greek word meaning stupor...stupid." Is stupidity a crime? It would be if politicians didn't get a lot of mileage out of its use.

WHO IS MR. HEROIN? This quiet guy with kinda soulful eyes but very small teeth. Wears a big fedora. Very apologetic. Crosses his legs like a girl. (The government like a nasty little chijuajua snapping at his heels.) Has a soul but no heart. He operates -- holds jobs and friends and attains his ends -- by being so good in the beginning, so efficient, creative, selfless, reliable, amusing and sensual as to make himself seem indispensable, creating such a blindingly positive first impression that he can stop working for years before his victim realizes it. He's not a friend at all; he's a self centered manipulator who works by subtle flattery.


- Berridge, Virginia and Edwards, Griffith: Opium and the People, London, New York, Allen Lane/St Martin's Press, 1981.
- De Quincey, Thomas: Confessions of an English Opium Eater, New York, Carrol & Graf, 1985.
- Henman, Anthony; Lewis, Roger and Malyon, Tim: Big Deal, London, Pluto Press, 1985.
- ISDD Research and Development Unit: On Heroin, London, Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence, 1985.
- Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence: "Surveys and Statistics on Drugtaking in Britain", London, Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence, 1986.
- Lewis, Roger, et al: "Scoring Smack: The Illicit Heroin Market in London ,1980-83," British Journal of Addiction 281-290, 1985.
- Policing London:"Guide to the Met 3: Drugs Squad," London, Policing London, Nov/Dec 1986.
- Society of Civil and Public Servants, and the Civil and Public Services Association: "UK: Drugs Unlimited", London, Society of Civil and Public Servants and the Civil and Public Services Association, 1986.
- Stimson, Gerry: "Can a War on Drugs Succeed," London, New Society, November 15, 1985.
- Tosches, Nick; Power on Earth, New York, Arbor House, 1986.
- Trebach, Arnold S.: The Heroin Solution, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1982.
- Zinberg, Dr. Norman E.: Drug, Set, and Setting, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1984.
- Tyler, Andrew: Street Drugs, London, New English Library, 1986.
- Weil, Dr. Andrew (interview): "Getting Real About Getting High," New York, Village Voice, Sept 30, 1986.

Used by permission of the author - Thanx to Richard Hell.
Copyrighted 1986, 2001 by Richard Meyers.
Taken from the book "Hot and Cold" by Richard Hell (powerHouse Books):
Richard Hell:

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