Heroin is making a comeback.
The drug widely viewed in the 1970s and 1980s as a ticket to a living nightmare is becoming increasingly popular in the late 1990s - especially with young people.
Although experts say that use of heroin is nowhere near the peak US levels reached in 1970, statistical and other studies show a trend toward increased use of the dangerous narcotic. And that has the nation's drug control officials concerned.
Long-time cocaine users are buying heroin as a supplement to their drug use to deliver a more powerful narcotic kick. And heroin is being tried by ever-younger children and teens, who are not old enough to remember how the drug hit a generation of addicts dating from the 1960s.
"The central trend that is disturbing people is that heroin use is increasing primarily among young kids," says Margaret Beaudry, director of research at the nonprofit group Drug Strategies. "What we see is that eighth- graders are just as likely as high-school seniors to have tried it."
To most Americans, heroin conjures images of down-and-out junkies at the margins of society who trade dirty hypodermic needles to administer their drugs.
For the most part, that negative image has been enough to dissuade most potential users from experimenting with heroin.
But not all of them.
The purity of heroin sold on US streets began to increase in the 1980s. It rose from 7 percent in 1981 to 48 percent in 1994. In some places, street-level purity approached 80 percent. Higher purity meant users could snort or smoke the heroin rather than inject it, eliminating a significant barrier that had deterred many potential users from ever considering heroin.
During the same period, the drug was portrayed in a favorable light in the music, entertainment, and fashion industries. Models with dark raccoon eyes and gaunt figures introduced so-called "heroin chic" to fashion trend-setters. And songs such as "Heroin Girl" offered, at best, a mixed message about heroin use.
"First use of heroin has increased dramatically since the early 1990s, and if the trend continues it could be as bad as what we experienced in the early 1970s," says Rumi Kato Price, a long-time heroin researcher at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "What we don't know is how far it is going to go before it levels out."
Some experts issued dire predictions in 1990 that heroin would become so popular that it would replace cocaine as the drug of choice among the large population of hard-core illicit-drug users in the US. But other researchers say heroin will never approach the levels of cocaine use reported in the 1980s.
Less tolerant society
David Musto, a drug-abuse historian at the Yale University School of Medicine, says Americans are much better informed and far less tolerant of drug use than they were in the freewheeling 1960s. "We are a different country in our approach to drugs than we were 30 years ago, and that has an effect." he says. "It is not perfect, but an improvement."
Dr. Musto says in the 1960s many Americans viewed drug use - including heroin - as a benign activity that promised certain recreational benefits. But in the years since, those same Americans learned that they were wrong. "We are aware of what it is like to be a heroin addict and what is associated with it," he says. That knowledge will continue to deter most, but not all, prospective drug users from trying heroin, he says.
Bruce Johnson, a heroin researcher at the nonprofit National Development Research Institutes Inc. in New York, disputes dire predictions of a heroin epidemic. He says his research shows that the core heroin population in New York City resides within a single generation that got started on heroin in the 1960s or early 1970s. That generation - people born between 1947 and 1953 - accounts for most of the heroin currently purchased in the city. There are younger heroin users from subsequent generations, he says, but at nowhere near the level of new users in the early 1970s.
"We think they got the message that heroin is not cool. They saw a lot of their friends and family members destroyed by it or dying of AIDS," says Mr. Johnson.
As a result, the heroin population may actually be declining, he says. "Despite this supposedly better heroin, the demand for heroin never grew. If anything it has diminished," Johnson says.
Melanie Bernard is director of counseling at National Narcotic Recovery Centers Inc., a heroin- treatment facility in Northfield, N.J. She says most of the patients are new addicts from middle America who snort the drug rather than inject it.
"It is amazing who gets caught up in it," she says. "I have no stereotype anymore of what a heroin addict looks like."
Most of the calls Ms. Bernard receives are from "scared parents" whose children have become addicted. But she says the client roster ranges from inner-city residents to executives.
"The problem is that heroin is so available now," she says.
No longer dangerous?
One of the trends behind increased use of heroin and other drugs in junior high schools is a decrease in the number of students who view drugs as dangerous. At the same time, their friends are less likely to disapprove of drug use. That creates an environment for experimentation.
Drug-abuse experts stress that the key to protecting children and other potential users from experimenting with drugs is for parents and other adults to give a clear no-use message about drugs, including cigarettes and alcohol.
"What we know is that if kids can get through adolescence without getting involved in substance abuse, they are much more likely to get through life without it," says Ms. Beaudry.