Drug Policy

A Mania Called Horse

What is the new heroin? What isn't?

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In case you missed it, cheese is the new morphine. At least that's what the head of the animal rights group (and oddly named) Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine reports.

At a November Congressional hearing designed to stir up hysteria over something Congress can't do much about (Internet porn), psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover said, "Modern science allows us to understand that the underlying nature of an addiction to pornography is chemically nearly identical to a heroin addiction."

Moreover, Satinover told Sen. Sam Brownback's committee, "Pornography really does, unlike other addictions, biologically cause direct release of the most perfect addictive substance," he said. "That is, it causes masturbation, which causes release of the naturally occurring opioids. It does what heroin can't do, in effect." So it's worse than heroin.

Cultural busybodies have long known that in post-this-is-your-brain-on-drugs America, the best way for to win attention for a pet cause is to compare it to some scourge that already scares the bejesus out of America.

Dr. Satinover knows what veterans of the hysteria industry have known for some time—you can't go wrong with heroin.

During the 1980s and 90s, it was a little different. Then, a troubling new trend wasn't officially on the public radar until someone dubbed it "the new crack cocaine." In his book Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, Reason's Jacob Sullum notes how methamphetamine got the "crack of the 90's" moniker by concerned government drug warriors and enthusiastic journalists. Ecstasy, speed, anti-depressants, and even household inhalants have all also been called "the new crack" at one time or another. Drug Czar John Walters recently pronounced Canadian hydroponic cannabis "the crack of marijuana."

On his Vice Squad weblog, University of Chicago Professor Jim Leitzel notes that a Google search finds experts declaring slot machines (The New York Times Magazine), video slots (the Canadian Press) and casinos (Madison Capital Times) the "crack cocaine of gambling," respectively. Leitzel's search also found that spam email is "the crack cocaine of advertising" (Sarasota, Fla. Herald Tribune), and that cybersex is a kind of sexual "spirtual crack cocaine" (Focus on the Family).

My personal favorite comes from British writer John Walsh, who last year unleashed the following fury in London's Independent (note: "quad bikes" are better known as all-terrain vehicles here in the U.S.):

Does it take a genius to spot that quad bikes are the new cocaine? Available at hideous expense (pounds 5,000-plus) to grown—up chaps with too much money, lots of rolling acres and a desire for chemical—free thrills, they're four-wheel, all-terrain death traps for the cocky, plastered and terminally unwary.

The above examples notwithstanding, heroin is still the analogical drug of choice for classifiers of public and private vice. When it comes to being the New Heroin, heroin, not surprisingly, remains the champ. A Lexis search for "the new heroin," brings back 74 returns over the last two years, compared to just seven for "the new crack cocaine." You might say that heroin "is the new crack cocaine" of overly enthusiastic drug war comparisons.

Some advocates use both drugs to make their point, lest there be any doubt about the seriousness of their cause. One gambling opponent told the Christian Science Monitor in 1988 that, "Gambling is a rush like heroin, [and] a big win in gambling creates the same feeling as a coke high." Anti-smoking author Roger Aveyar told the Dallas Morning News last May that giving up cigarettes "can be agonizing because cigarettes are so addictive—just like heroin, cocaine and crack." The Morning News also reported in 1994 that of all things, caffeine "can produce addiction similar to that engendered by alcohol, tobacco, heroin and cocaine."

But for bluenoses in search of that elusive high only a strained drug war analogy can provide, heroin's clearly all the rage. Take your pick of troubling trends in the news:

•Alcohol. A few years ago, European temperance advocates grew alarmed when several countries relaxed alcohol control laws. One of them, Suzanne Moore, warned in the Independent that though the British government worried of a heroin epidemic, alcohol is "far more deadly."

•Raves and "club drugs." Rep. Marc Souder called a congressional hearing last year where he compared the lethality of ecstasy to that of heroin.

•Corporate governance. According to Bloomberg News, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said recently that corporate executives at Qwest Communications became dependent on the fraud they perpetrated, "like a heroin addiction."

•Obesity. Last year, the BBC exaggerated a report in the New Scientist to conclude that "cheeseburgers and French fries can be as addictive as heroin."

A few years ago, the media buzzed with reports about Internet and technology addiction. The fear apparently was that people were spending too much time online, perhaps satisfying urges within the confines of their own home that they were once too embarrassed to satisfy in public.

Heroin comparisons ran rampant. Master's and Johnson's Dr. Mark Schwartz told The New York Times in 2000 that "sex on the Net is like heroin. It grabs [users] and takes over their lives. And it's very difficult to treat because the people affected don't want to give it up."

On the technology website Totse.com, Richard Forno wrote: "Technology, like gambling and heroin, is addictive." A Chicago Sun Times columnist took aim at video games. "Role-playing games such as Everquest run worldwide around the clock," he wrote, "so it's always available. And, like heroin, the first taste (month) is free." One Canadian news service article likened Ebay to heroin and cocaine but, to be fair, admitted that researchers hadn't formally established any similarities just yet.

My favorite heroin example comes from the Port St. Lucie News, which actually called the prescription painkiller Oxycontin, "the new crack." Oxycontin is actually from the same family of opioids as heroin. Which means the paper missed its one opportunity to make a heroin analogy to a trendy drug that actually is a little like heroin. Of course by then hundreds of media outlets had already made the Oxycontin-heroin connection, too.

Karl Marx famously called religion the opiate of the masses. Today, he might point out that hysteria has become the heroin of talking heads.