Matt Pembleton, Review of Eric C. Schneider's "Smack: Heroin and the American City" (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008)


Matt Pembleton is a PhD candidate at American University, currently writing a dissertation on the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and U.S. national security.

Smack: Heroin and the American City is an urban history of heroin.  But author Eric C. Schneider is interested in more than just narcotics; he recreates the environments which have shaped heroin use in America to demonstrate the importance of the “social setting” in understanding drug abuse.  Complaining that too often the city is seen as “only a backdrop against which events occurred, rather than a primary shaper of those events,” Schneider highlights what he describes as “the spatial dimension of heroin use,” to illustrate the relationship between social groups, in this case drug-using subcultures, and the physical spaces that harbor them.  Schneider believes that understanding the link between drug use and social setting is the key to any successful policy response.

Cities bring together both supply and demand—in the form of international smuggling routes maintained by criminal entrepreneurs and concentrated populations of the marginalized people most likely to both use and sell drugs.  As North America’s largest city, New York played a unique role in “organizing” the world heroin trade; home to the nation’s largest population of users, it also served as the national distribution point at which heroin arrived from overseas.  All heroin on the East Coast, Schneider contends, moved through New York, where distribution was then picked up by regional actors in Chicago and other American cities, creating a hierarchical and centralized market.

In the absence of government, race and ethnicity acted to regulate the market.  The infamous “French Connection,” a supply line running from Turkey to New York via France, was jealously guarded by a coalition of Jewish, Italian, and French gangsters.  As heroin moved away from this pipeline, both purity and profits were diluted.  According to Schneider, “Race dictated the entry point into the market and therefore affected the quality of the product.”  Italian gangsters in New York operated as ethnic gatekeepers, creating subordinate African American markets centered in Harlem.  On the West Coast, ethnicity and proximity to Mexican sources created a market that was “horizontal and decentralized.”  Barriers to market entry were comparatively lower, but Latino gangs tended to control access.  Both black and white retailers were faced with the choice of forging alliances with Latino gangs going east to New York, or looking west toward Asian smuggling routes.

Schneider’s observations on the market and ethnicity are interesting, but the real value of Smack is in redirecting attention toward “social setting” and demand.  In one of the most interesting arguments of the book, Schneider uses the “spatial dimensions” of drug use to reinterpret the much ballyhooed “marijuana-as-gateway-drug” phenomena.  Schneider seems to say well, yes, marijuana did lead to heroin—perhaps not in terms of individual progressive use, but structurally.  Marijuana carved out critical pathways later followed by heroin, both in terms of trafficking as “trading in marijuana and barbiturates provided in the organizational structure and experience for heroin smuggling,” and by creating cultural associations with specific physical sites.  The same pubs, bars, streets and neighborhoods that fostered a marijuana subculture, Schneider argues, fostered groups that turned to heroin use.  He explains, “A drug subculture is rooted in physical spaces that sustain it and allows it to flourish and continue over time.  In other words, there was a spatiality to drug use and to the transmission of ‘drug knowledge’ that occurred in places where interested novices could interact with experienced users.”  This “logic,” he further points out, “transcended the particular drug being consumed.”

The notion of “drug knowledge” thus becomes a central component of Schneider’s interpretation, but is only part of the puzzle.  Drug knowledge may be a necessary condition, but Schneider acknowledges it is not sufficient to cause drug use.  The question remains:  Why did users risk addiction and choose heroin?  When does knowledge translate to use?  Drawing attention to the physical sites where “drug knowledge” is acquired is a helpful first step but leaves these questions unanswered.  Some youths, he contends, simply “wanted to join a cultural elite,” pointing to counterculture heroes like the Beats or jazz musicians who “valorized opiate use.”  This explanation works best when Schneider points to the nihilism of the early punk rock scene, but on the whole is a rather unsatisfying answer—despite the fact it might be true.

It is disappointing that Schneider does not parse this question further, in light of his criticism of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the media’s production of a “cultural script,” which oversimplified drug use and skewed policy responses away from public health and toward law enforcement.  In fact, Schneider’s explanation that the spatial dimensions of drug use (that the physical sites associated with drug culture preserved drug knowledge and encouraged use) perpetuated heroin addiction sounds remarkably similar to the Bureau of Narcotics’ constant assertion that addiction itself was contagious, inevitably transmitted to otherwise healthy people by exposure to addicts.  Neither formulation adequately considers the user’s choice to use heroin—a difficult one for the historian to recover.  As Schneider himself cautions, “historians believe in human agency, and a metaphor of epidemics obscures the actions of those who chose to use heroin… turning them into the hapless victims of larger forces.”

Schneider’s study remains helpful nonetheless.  His chapter on drug use in Vietnam and his observation that heroin use ceased with a change in social setting is particularly salient.  Schneider’s attention to “geographies of inequality” explains how marginalized people and activities tend to concentrate in the same places.  The disproportionate number of minorities who fall victim to drug abuse and arrest are explained by proximity, rather than moral failings or racial profiling per se.  Ultimately, Smack may not solve the riddle of large-scale demand and drug addiction, but it does help locate the problem and presents a fascinating synthesis of urban and drug history, offering some promising observations on a difficult and complicated social issue.   

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