When studying the causal factors of heroin addcition it is necessary to approach the subject from a number of angles in order to get an overall picture of some of the underlying reasons behind it. The best explanations of addiction to heroin (and addiction to drugs like heroin) are those which acknowledge the interaction between the psychological and sociological factors which are likely to exist for the heroin user, and also the biological factor which exists for all and gives everyone the potential to become an addict. There is no hard and fast rule as to who will become an addict and, as I have already pointed out, it would be possible for anyone to become one.
However, there are many sociological explanations as to why certain people are more likely to fall into the trap of heroin addiction than others and also some psychological factors, which may in many cases exist as a result of the social environment in which they live. The sociological aspect does seem to play a major role in determining which particular areas are more prone to heroin addiction, but the sociological factors are not a straight forward cause of heroin addiction. It is more accurate to say that they provide the context in which heroin addiction is most likely to take place.
Many people try heroin and do not become addicted to it. In fact, many use it quite frequently, but just for recreational purposes and do not become addicts. Heroin has the effect of making the user feel at peace and makes problems seem unimportant. This is one of the reasons that heroin use may seem like an escapist activity, which is not necessarily the case as we shall discuss later. However, this quality of heroin makes it a perfect drug for those who feel depressed and who are therefore emotionally susceptable. Having tried heroin, as I have said, there are those that do not become hooked and there are those that begin to take it more and more frequently and eventually become addicts. They may start taking more for various reasons, but as they take more, then it becomes all too easy for them to sink into full blown addiction.
It can often be the case that heroin addicts think that they are addicted when they are not and consequently, by taking more heroin to avoid the withdrawal symptoms that they believe they will suffer, they become addicts anyway. They may feel a bit ill when they stop taking heroin and mistake this as the beginning of withdrawal symptoms and, again, take more heroin to counteract this. Also, the more heroin that someone takes, the more that person needs to achieve the same effect. Initially there is an instant 'high' after a hit of heroin, but as the person becomes addicted, this will happen less and less and eventually the person will need to take it just to feel relatively normal and not ill. It may well be the case that, as each hit is never as good as the first one, then the user will take more and more in the hope of achieving the same effect as that first hit.
The British government published a report about drug addiciton in 1984 at a time when heroin use was escalating in the UK. The report, "Prevention: Report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs," highlighted three fairly useful approaches toward the analysis of the problem of drug addiction:
The public health approach centers on the interaction between the drugs, individuals and the environment and also points out that there is no single psychological element that can be cited as a cause of drug addiction. It also takes into account aspects such as the activities of peer groups and subcultures, and also the influence on the individual of family, religion and the community. This approach is pretty comprehensive.
The reports pscho-social approach looks at post-war developments in health, social and moral education and the meanings that individuals, particularly the young, find in the 'drug scene' or subculture to which they belong. The aspect of extended adolescence, which has occurred since the war, partly due to extended education, is often thought to be one of the major causes of subcultures, which are largely a post-war phenomenon. It is thought that teenagers form these groups as a means of forming an identity for themselves and to cope with the transition into adulthood.
Problems with family relations, sexual identity and loss and bereavement also enter into the list of reasons why young people feel a particular need for groups such as subcultures, 'drug cultures' and, most importantly in this discussion, the drugs themselves. This is not necessarily a particularly good approach to the subject of heroin addiction as many of these subcultures do not condone the use of heroin, although some do. However, it is clear that there are more influential social factors such as unemployment and class divides which help to provide a setting for the use of heroin. Although, it must be said that some of these subcultures have come into being partly due to these factors and are also instrumental in providing a framework in which drug taking (and in some cases heroin) is more likely to take place.
Finally, the report looked at the Structural approach to drug addiction which looks at structural circumstances which seem to provoke certain behavioral responses by some social groups. These structural circumstances do not work on the individual causing him/her to become a drug addict, but they set the scene in which heroin addiction is more likely to occur. This last approach is a fairly useful when looking heroin addiction as there is a connection between particular structural circumstances where heroin addiction more often occurs. In fact, all three of the approaches in the government report offer some insight into the multitude of reasons why people become heroin addicts. It is interesting to look at this report as it was published during a time when herion addiction increased dramatically in the UK. However, as previously mentioned, the best explanations for heroin addiction take into account the psychological, sociological and biological aspects which all come to bear in any particular case where heroin addiction occurs.
There is a very significant correlation between heroin addiction and unemployment. This is not to say that unemployment causes heroin addiction, more that it creates a situation where heroin addiction is more likely to occur. The rise in heroin addiction that took place in the 1980s occurred at a time when unemployment was rising rapidly and this, coupled with an increase in the supply of heroin on the black market, will have been a substantial factor behind many people turning to heroin abuse. As already discussed, many look upon heroin addiction as an escapist, or retreatist, behavior. This may be true to the extent that it is retreatist from the normal social structure of society, but it is also an activist measure, which will be explained more fully later on. A major reason that the unemployed are more susceptable to heroin addiction than those that are employed is simply that they have less to lose if they become addicted. In fact, as will be discussed later, it may seem that they may have much to gain.
As well as certain sociological factors, such as unemployment, which contribute to providing an environment for heroin addiction, it is also necessary for a good heroin distribution network to exist in a certain area in order for a significant amount of heroin addiction to take place. As William Burroughs, the self-confessed 'master addict' states:
"By and large those become addicts who have access to junk. In Iran, where opium was sold openly in shops, they had three million addicts." (p.g. 149, THE JOB - Interviews with William Burroughs by Daniel Odier, Grove Press Inc. (1974)).
The fact that there used to be a considerable amount of addicts in the medical profession is a testament to this, although this is not something that happens very often nowadays, probably partly due to the fact that it's much less acceptable along with tighter controls on controlled substances. Earlier on in the century it was relatively simple for heroin addicts to survive on heroin prescibed by doctors. In the United States in the 20s and 30s heroin dealers were generally those who were being prescribed heroin by doctors and who sold off a few extra pills from there weekly allowance to make a little extra money. When the American Narcotics Department introduced the Parkinson's law restricting heroin prescriptions, it closed down the old system of dealers and a new generation of dealers arose who turned to teenagers for their custom. A similar situation arose in Britain when the 1967 Dangerous Drugs Bill was introduced. Up until this point prescribed heroin had pretty much satisfied the demand from addicts, but when this was restricted the black market, which had been waiting in the side wings, took over.
Particularly in the 1980s there was an influx of brown heroin via Western Europe which was also prepared for smoking. The brown heroin was not only cheaper, but as it could also be smoked, it encouraged more people to try it as the taboo of injection could be avoided. Of course a major problem with the emergence of a black market is that it drives addicts underground and so less information is known about them and less come forward for assistance. Despite the emergence of a black market in Britain, not everywhere is infiltrated with great quantities of heroin. It is obtainable in just about every sizeable town but, for instance, where softer drugs are commonly used, heroin is not warmly welcomed. This keeps it from becoming more popular and the social inacceptance of heroin use continues to be a large factor in keeping it a drug that is used by a minority.
As mentioned earlier, heroin use can seem to have positive effects for the user as well as negative ones, and this is not just in the effect from the drug itself. Heroin addiction shouldn't just be looked at as an escapist type of behavior. It can be viewed as an activist behvoir in that it can seem to provide a meaningful activity and provide the user with a new reference group within which he can achieve greater self-esteem. In order for the heroin addict to support his habit he must be flexible and be able to use his wits in order to obtain money (usually through illegal means) with which to score his next hit.
More experienced users are held in high regard in the addict community and a dealer who may have over- £500 a week passing through his pocket will be viewed as quite a big man among his fellow users, even though it is really a hand to mouth existence whereby he earns just enough money to keep him in the drugs that he needs. Also this type of lifestyle means that the addict will have some sort of time structure to keep to as he must be up and about in order to make money and score. This is another positive aspect of heroin addiction as time structure is something that is very often missed when simply unemployed.
Incidentally, the reason that the heroin addict has largely been referred to as 'he' in this discussion is not because there are no female addicts (although there are less), but because the lifestyle of the female addict tends to be considerably different to that of the male addict. Female addicts are often introduced to heroin by a partner who is an addict and they tend to turn to prostitution (or sometimes petty crime like shoplifting) as a means of supporting their habit.
The use of heroin also has an element of coolness attached to it. Notably various musicians and writers who have been heroin addicts have contributed to its popularity. Many of the black jazz musicians that were 'hip' around the 1940s in the United States were heroin addicts. Charlie Parker is and example of one of these and his heroin addiction seemed to add to the 'deep and soulful' aspect of his personality. Also, several of the 'beat' writers who started to become popular in the late 1950s were associated with heroin abuse. William Burroughs was strongly linked to the 'beat' scene and is a famous heroin junky, although he is the first to admit that heroin addiciton is a nightmare.
From this discussion it can be seen that there are many elements which contribute to the use of heroin. Along with sociological factors, there are often personal circumstances and individual psychological problems which come into play when any particular individual becomes an addict. There are, however, environmental factors which make certain sectors of society more susceptable to heroin addiction. It is useful to look at all the underlying factors when trying to understand heroin addiction.