New York City; Drug Use in the Belly of the Beast

Here is a story from an incredible activist from back in the day called Peter VanDerKloot. Peter actually fought to keep open one of NYC’s main methadone clinics from closing, by agreeing to put his entire face (and his boyish all-American good looks) onto a FULL PAGE advert in a NYC newspaper, telling people that methadone had saved his life and was saving the lives of hundreds of others and that it just must not be closed down! It wasn’t, and Pete went on to do some fabulous work in the field and, though I don’t know where he is now, we are lucky to have had a few articles from him. Here is one. From issue 2.


Pic by photographer L. Bobbe 1970's NYC

Pic by photographer L. Bobbe 1970’s NYC

When the Black Poppy crew asked me to do a column on the dope scene in the States, it got me thinking about all that’s changed in my time as a dopefiend here in the Belly of the Beast. It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since Ron and Nancy Reagan cranked up the heat on the War on [Some] Drugs and sold folks on the idea that invasion of ones home by a SWAT team was something that all Americans had a right to expect. Not that this was the first time our fearless leaders had declared war on a molecule. We’ve been through plenty of chemical warfare in this country, from turn of the century campaigns against cocaine-crazed Black men visually raping Southern belles with  their dilated pupils, to drives in the 70s to save pot-head teenage boys from the shame of Dolly Parton-esque breast growth. All along though, it’s been us dopefiends who’ve made up most of the casualties. Hell, we started the century able to buy pure heroin via mail order and now we end it unable to buy dried decorative poppies in the florist’s.

Still, the last two decades have been rougher yet. The powers that be seem to have decided that the solution to unemployment in our post-industrial

Lower East Side of Manhatten, area known as Alphabet City

Lower East Side of Manhatten, area known as Alphabet City

economy is to imprison half the population and hire the other half to guard them. At the rate we’re going, we’ll meet that goal soon – as it is, nearly 1% of our adult male population is currently behind bars.  No other Western democracy comes close, and when you factor in the effects of spiraling mandatory drug testing, increased police powers, and ever-decreasing privacy, you can bet that that lead will remain unchallenged – even if our right to call ourselves a “democracy” does not.

Here in my hometown of New York City, the dogs have really been loosed on us. The tanks are filled with public beer drinkers and subway fare-beaters, and you can catch a six month bit just for looking cross-eyed at a cop. And yet when it comes down to copping and getting off, the War on Drugs hasn’t made much headway.



When I first got turned on to heroin, New York was still the dope capital of the world, and “Alphabet City” was still the capital of New York dope neighborhoods. In the days before the real estate interests moved in and the area was declared an extension of the “East Village” and hence suitable for yuppie inhabitation, the streets belonged to us, and you best believe we made the most of it. Block after block of abandoned buildings and vacant lots were commandeered by major dealing organizations. The streets echoed with the cries of the steerers touting the brand names of different bags: “Red Tape!… Seven-Up…ET!!”  We’d line up to cop in queues stretching around the corner, kept in place by enforcers with golf-clubs in their fists or pistols in their waistbands who’d order us to have our money ready and fanned out just so — reminding us not to linger post-purchase with chants of  “Cop and bop!” Street traffic was heavy too, as the narrow streets were choked with cars with out of state plates down either to supply the driver’s habit or to run a few bundles back for resale.

Pic by Engel -1970's/80's NYC -family in phone booth

Pic by Engel -1970’s/80’s NYC -family in phone booth

The police, when they’d ride through at all, would rarely even stop, much less get out of their cars, and business would continue without a pause. Everyone shot up in those days, and we would get off on the curb by a hydrant or pay a couple of bucks to a shooting gallery, renting works stored in a bloody glass of water if we weren’t too picky. If you believed the stats, the dope averaged maybe 10% pure. Most of us would become infected with HIV, almost all of us with Hep C.  And as the government prepared to flood the neighborhood with police in one of the first salvos of the new war, they told us there were about 250,000 dopefiends in the metro area, most of us poor, Black or Latin.

The typical sort of NYC_heroin-baggies_ From Graham MacIndoe’s collection, see more in his photographic book, (click pic) about the wraps he collected throughout his using days. Fascinating!

I don’t recognize the Alphabet City I knew in the East Village of today. The burned out shells where we copped are now $1500/month studios, and the cops will leap from their cars to arrest the owners of unleashed dogs.  There are no lines of sick junkies waiting to cop “Bad Boy” or “Poison”. The dope’s still here though. True, the area is no longer the heroin distribution center for the all the states around – no, that business has spread out across the city. You can cop anywhere these days if you know what’s what, except that now you don’t have to put up with cane swinging line enforcers and rules about which way to hold your money. No, the market’s consumer driven these days – you can cop a few bags from the corner store with the right code word, they’ll deliver to your home if you want, give you real discounts for quantity and brand loyalty, even let you return a bad batch now and then. If you believe the stats, the dope averages 60% now, most people sniff, and fewer of us are infected with HIV. There are reportedly about 250,000 dopefiends in the metro area – an increasing number of us middle-class and Caucasian.

If all this is the result of the War on Drugs, perhaps it’s time we enlisted…

Today around the area called Alphabet City

Today around the area called Alphabet City -pic by


Glossary: (Forgive me if unnecessary – I don’t know what’s familiar to Brit readers…)


Dopefiend – Current version of “junkie” – Heroin Addict

SWAT Team – Heavily armed paramilitary police unit commonly used to make drug arrests. The sort that throws stun grenades in your window before battering your door down and shoving an assault rifle in your mouth.

Tanks – Holding cells. May substitute “Bullpens” if more familiar.

Dope – Heroin only. Doesn’t refer to other drugs in NYC.

Bit – Jail or prison sentence.

“Cop and Bop” – Buy your dope and leave the area.

Bundle – Pack of ten $10 (“dime”) bags of dope.

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