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 May 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."
At the time, flashy-dressing and high-living superdealers like Earl Foddrell, Frank Lucas (of "American Gangster" fame) and, most infamously, Nicky Barnes ruled the roost and became street idols. "Barnes is, police say, one of the biggest heroin dealers in the country," a 1977 New York Times Magazine article titled "Mister Untouchable" stated. "In his home base, Harlem, the center of the New York City drug traffic, he is regarded as perhaps the biggest. But he is more than that. To the police, to the drug community and to an extent in the uptown drug-related subculture, Nicky Barnes is a current legend ... his name alone inspires awe because of a spit-in-your-eye, flamboyant lifestyle that is perceived by the street people as Barnes' way of thumbing his nose at officialdom."
Heroin from southwestern Asia, mainly Pakistan and Afghanistan, often routed through Marseilles, France, was what most of the approximately 200,000 New York addicts were shooting in the early 1970s. John Gilbride, special agent in charge of the New York office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, says that back then the heroin was only about 3 percent pure, which was very low compared with the 50 to 70 percent purity levels that the drug went up to over the ensuing three decades.
Gilbride, a middle-aged man of average build who looks far more like a professor or banker than the state's top drug cop, says after law enforcement took down all the "big-personality drug dealers" like Barnes and Lucas, the city's heroin peddlers assumed a much lower profile. Along with their style, the source of their smack also changed. In the mid-'70s and early ‘80s, heroin from Southeast Asia, aka the Golden Triangle, that was sometimes referred to as "China white" was brought in by Chinatown gangs and dominated the New York heroin scene. During this period, the heroin market softened. According to the admissions records of treatment programs monitored by New York State drug officials, heroin was the primary drug of 92 percent of those treated for addiction in 1970, peaked at 95 percent in 1972, then slid to 46 percent by 1978. As the New York State Division of Substance Abuse Services reported back then, "There is a strong consensus that heroin activity is declining and new drugs of choice are emerging, such as PCP, cocaine and several other illicit substances." But while heroin use seemingly declined, the number of arrests for possessing or selling it increased, going up 24 percent from 1975 to 1978, 61 percent of which were felonies.
By 1990, the world's foremost cocaine traffickers, the Colombians, wanted in on the lucrative New York heroin market. Back then, a kilogram of cocaine could fetch anywhere from $30,000 to $65,000, while a kilo of heroin was going for about $150,000 wholesale, according to DEA records. Using the smuggling network and transportation routes they had already established to ship huge amounts of cocaine into this country, the Colombians made their first foray into the New York heroin market by giving their cocaine dealers samples of their super powerful heroin and telling them to simply give it away to their coke customers, Gilbride says. And once the demand was established, the Colombians flooded New York with heroin that was so cheap and high in purity that they owned the heroin market virtually overnight. "They basically created a market for their heroin in New York City," Gilbride says.
Some shipments were close to being 90 percent pure, meaning that very few chemical agents were used to "cut" the product to dilute it so dealers could sell more hits and increase their profits. The purer the heroin, the stronger the high (and the danger).
In fact, the heroin the Colombians originally brought into New York was so powerful that it not only made loyal users out of veteran addicts but also attracted a whole new crowd because it was so pure that they could snort it. This removed both the physical and psychological barriers of injecting heroin with a hypodermic needle, a line many recreational drug users refused to cross. "Snorting heroin does not have the stigma of putting a needle in your arm," Gilbride says. The fallacious thinking was, "snorting made them less of a drug user than injecting," he explains.