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Delanceyplace: Drugs In America

Edward Conlon tells of 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

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."

Author: Edward Conlon
Title: Blue Blood
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Date: Copyright 2004 by Edward Conlon
Pages: 172-174

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