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Heroin is an urban thing. At least that’s the image we’ve been fed by movies, music, literature, news, public service announcements, and school curricula ever since it became a subject of moral panic over a century ago. The problem is, heroin was only ever a drug of the city because this image has focused almost entirely on the (historically very urban) point of consumption. What has been left out is a whole geography of production and distribution that has tended to encompass large and often very rural parts of East, South-East and Southwest Asia where the opium poppy could be cultivated. Now, the image continues to distract us from the fact that heroin users can no longer support themselves in urban centres, because our modern economy has long since forced all but the most productive subjects from the centre of cities, and out to the periphery, while at the same time still managing to support supply chains that can bring heroin, and all manner of other pain-relieving drugs to even the most far-flung places.

By hiding heroin’s more extensive geography and focusing instead on its individual and urban aspects, this representation has prevented a proper confrontation with the often very intentional harm caused to vast swathes of humanity who have been exposed to the drug over the past century. For this episode, therefore, we’re going to zoom out, and try to connect the dots between some of the disparate spaces and places that have been touched by heroin, exploring some of the main historical shifts in where heroin is produced, who uses it, how it gets to the places where it’s used, and why it ends up in these places.

  • Sonja Groot Obbink gives tours of Amsterdam’s Red Light District, she is a former sex worker in recovery from addiction to heroin and cocaine. She lives in Amsterdam.
  • Sam Quinones is a freelance journalist and author who lives in Southern California. Contact him through his website.
  • Prof. Andrew Hussey, Andrew Hussey OBE is Paris-based English historian of French culture. His writing is focused primarily on 20th century French history.

This episode was directed by Charlie Clemoes//The Failed Architecture Team

References:

This is Your Brain on Drugs

Heroin Screws You Up

Vangelis, “Prologue” Blade Runner soundtrack

Trainspotting (1996) opening scene

Tam Stewart, The Heroin Users, Pandora Press, 1996

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs, Brookings Institution Press, 2010

Trainspotting (1996) final scene

Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, Bloomsbury, 2015

The Connection (1961) whole film

Eric C. Schneider, Smack: Heroin and the American City, Penn Press, 2013

Penn Press Podcast, S01E04 “Eric C. Schneider Smack: Heroin and the American City

Heroin” BBC Radio 4 documentary

Velvet Underground, “Heroin” from “Velvet Underground and Nico” LP

Velvet Underground, “Sunday Morning” from “Velvet Underground and Nico” LP

Velvet Underground, “I’m Waiting for the Man” from “Velvet Underground and Nico” LP

Burroughs: The Movie (1983) whole film

The Drug Years (2006) excerpt on heroin and the Vietnam War

Alfred McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, Lawrence Hill Books, 2003

Henrik Krüger & Jerry Meldon, The Great Heroin Coup: Drugs, Intelligence & International Fascism, Trine Day, 2015

Wisdom Teeth Bringing Opioid Addiction Danger?” CBS New York, 2019