Heroin and New York: A History

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NYPD identification held by Ed Mamet, one of the first undercover narcotics officers to join the department's renewed push against drugs in the 1960s.

Photo by: Lizzie Ford-Madrid

NYPD identification held by Ed Mamet, one of the first undercover narcotics officers to join the department's renewed push against drugs in the 1960s.

The tragic passing of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent overdose of heroin is a reminder of the destructive persistence of that drug in New York. Back in 1980, Jack Newfield and Joe Conason wrote in the Village Voice that some crimes aren't just felonies—they're treason against the city. “One is the importation, distribution, and sale of heroin.”

In 2009, Sean Gardiner (now of the Wall Street Journal) wrote for City Limits a history of the war on drugs in New York, from the early days to the Bloomberg era mass-arrest strategy around marijuana. That story begins—and continues—with heroin:

America's long-running drug war has its roots in a real armed conflict, the Civil War. It was after that crisis that addiction to an opiate called morphine, which had been used as a painkiller and anesthetic for wounded soldiers, became a noticeable social problem in the country as its use moved from the battlefield into civilian society. Opium, the poppy product from which both morphine and heroin are derived, was the first drug that the U.S. legislated against, in an 1890 act of Congress that imposed taxes on opiates.

It was also the drug at the heart of the problem that President Nixon cited in 1969, when he laid out a 10-point plan for reducing illegal-drug use—an effort for which New York was the proving ground. “New York City alone has records of some 40,000 heroin addicts, and the number rises between 7,000 and 9,000 a year,” Nixon wrote in his July 14, 1969, message to Congress. “These official statistics are only the tip of an iceberg whose dimensions we can only surmise.” Two years later, Nixon also cited New York's drug problem when he pledged that “America's public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new all-out offensive.” In other words, a war.

Local officials echoed the president. By 1978, New York City special prosecutor Sterling Johnson announced that Harlem was the “drug-trafficking center of the nation,” where dealers openly sold “to the blacks who walked into the streets and the whites who never got out of their cars.” And that had been the case for nearly a decade.

In the early 1970s, Phillip Panzarella worked as a patrol officer in Harlem's 30th Precinct and later in the NYPD narcotics units that were assigned uptown. A Washington Heights native who retired as a lieutenant after a legendary 40-year career in the NYPD, Panzarella was known to other cops as “Sundance” after the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He says people came from five states to buy heroin in Harlem. “There were a lot of good, hardworking people who wanted drugs off the streets, but it was just a losing battle. There was so much of it,” says Panzarella, chewing on his trademark cigar butt one day in 2009 as he sprayed the lawn of his suburban Long Island home to get rid of a horde of bugs. “It just drained the lifeblood out of Harlem, where there was no money to be made except off drugs.”

Read more of Gardiner's award-winning report here.

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