Which drug is most addictive?

No substance can be taken seriously as an addictive drug until it is compared to heroin. That is why Newsweek, when it sought to stir up alarm about crack cocaine in 1986, called it "intensely addictive, a drug whose potential for social disruption and individual tragedy is comparable only to heroin." Three paragraphs later, the magazine cited a Los Angeles detective who "readily compares [crack] to heroin."

Having established crack as heroin's equal, Newsweek immediately announced that in fact it was worse. "While a typical heroin addict shoots up once or twice a day," the article said, "crack addicts need another hit within minutes." In the same issue, the magazine's editor-in-chief declared crack "the newest, purest and most addictive commodity now on the market." Newsweek also quoted the psychopharmacologist Arnold Washton, who claimed, "Crack is the most addictive drug known to man," causing "almost instantaneous addiction."

Although cocaine, whether snorted or smoked, was never as powerful as its press implied, that did not stop it from becoming a new touchstone of addictiveness. So when President Clinton wanted to scare the public about methamphetamine, he warned that the drug could become "the crack of the '90s." Less than two years later, with just a couple years to go in the decade, drug czar Barry McCaffrey was reassuring the public that methamphetamine would not become "the crack cocaine of the '90s," thanks to "drug education programs."

But for a while there, methamphetamine was "the most malignant, addictive drug known to mankind," as a physician told The New York Times. A federal prosecutor declared it "more addictive than crack." The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, officially charged with discouraging drug use, said the meth high "is about 10 times more pleasurable than any other sensual experience."

U.S. News & World Report began a story by describing a Phoenix beautician for whom "the seductive allure of methamphetamine took hold almost immediately." As she put it, "The first line I ever did, I thought, 'My God, this is it. This is the answer to all the world's problems.'...It's the ultimate high. You're like Wonder Woman. It makes you feel so powerful. You have tons of energy. You feel like you can do anything. I loved it. I craved it. It was total euphoria." As if to make up for this breathless advertising, U.S. News quickly added that "methamphetamine turned her euphoria into a free-fall nightmare" -- "as it almost always does."

This image of an instantly, inevitably addicting drug was familiar to anyone who had followed the news media's crack coverage. But while crack was said to be especially addictive because the high was so brief, meth was said to be even more dangerous because the high lasted so long.

Methamphetamine's power was validated by reference to crack, while crack's power was validated by reference to heroin. Crack was said to be just as addictive as heroin, if not more so. Meth was like crack, only worse. And throughout this period, public health officials and anti-smoking activists were emphasizing that nicotine was "more addictive than heroin." So even as heroin served as a model for addictiveness, its reputed power was implicitly downgraded.

More recently, however, heroin has been making a comeback in the press. In 2001, under the headline "Deadly Lure," the New Orleans Times Picayune warned that heroin is "more addictive than crack cocaine."

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