5. Working-class heroin use 1950-1970

Submitted by Steven. on January 20, 2012

From Figure 1 we observed that black drug offenders remained a numerical minority, at least through the 1930s, although from 1920 on there was a significant increase in their relative likelihood (compared with whites) of becoming offenders. Table 8 reports the FBI statistics from 1933 to 1955, which indicate that beginning in 1950 blacks were in the majority and they remained this way until 1960. At that point there is evidence of both an absolute and relative increase in white drug use (primarily heroin). Computing the index of susceptibility for black drug offenders (in relation to whites) for the three census years 1950, 1960, 1970, we find that it fell from 9.7 in the earlier year, to 7.4, and then down to 2.1 in the most recent one. This means that blacks continue today to be more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than whites but that the margin between them is diminishing (Helmer 1974).

The development is an important one to record, for we have become accustomed to thinking of heroin use as primarily an inner-city black problem. (Wald et al. 1972), when in fact this has been a rather short-lived (1950-60) feature of the more stable class phenomenon - as short lived, for example as the Jewish heroin problem (1910-20).

In Chein's study of adolescent drug offenders in New York City between 1969 and 1953, correlations run for drug rates and class, but adding in the race variable (black or not) improved the variance explained by only 7% for manhattan and not at all for Brooklyn and the Bronx. On the other hand, adding in the ethnic variable (Puerto Rican) made no difference in the Manhattan relationship, and 13% and 15% for the other boroughs respectively (Chein 1964:73).

Data on the most recent (current) "epidemic" of heroin use confirm the strength of the class correlation, as well as the impact of continued heroin use among Puerto Ricans (New York) (Chambers 1971). A new group of white heroin users began to develop after 1969; these were working-class veterans of military service, more particularly, of the Vietnam war. Estimates of their number are quite imprecise and vary from 4% to 33% of all heroin users (Helmer 1974).

We should add that without doubt heroin has been used in middle-class suburbs of the country, but only one case of an "epidemic" in such places has been verified; there, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, the numbers involved, while perhaps large in the local context, were insignificant in the state aggregate or by comparison with the number of drug users estimated for a big city like Detroit (Levengood et al. 1971; Kroll et al. 1971). But this is the point: in the aggregate of narcotic offenders, users or addicts, and notwithstanding popular notions about its makeup, the suburban or middle- class group is a tiny minority of the cases.

In the one available survey of New York State for drug use taken in 1970, not a single upper- or upper-middle class heroin user could be found. the class measurement was made on a neighborhood basis, and according to the author, the random selection methodology used favored discovery of the stable and higher-class users. Still, the proportion of middle- class heroin users (15%) was less than half their distribution in the general sample population, and the lower- middle or lower-class users (84.4%) were significantly more numerous than the normal distribution (Chambers 1971:132).

This does not mean that the higher classes did not use drugs; they did, but the ones they used were legal in most cases or were used in circumstances which were legal. Drugs used disproportionately by the upper-middle class included legal narcotics (pain-killers like Demoral, Dilaudid, Dolophine), hallucinogens (peyote, psylocybin), marijuana and diet pills. The middle-class drug users disproportionately preferred LSD, the pain killers, relaxants and tranquilizers (Chambers 1971).

There is other evidence to suggest that although middle-class drug users are less likely to be known to the police, those who are not known reflect pretty much the conventional drug preference of their class (Nurco et al. 1971). In other words, there are almost no hidden middle-class narcotics users.

Once we accept that narcotics use was and remains a feature of the conditions of working-class life, the demography of the urban working class between 1920 and 1950 can help to explain why the offender-addict population was blacker in 1950 than in 1920, and why this seemed to have happened so suddenly between 1949 and 1953. In another paper this is discussed in detail (Helmer 1974).