Addicts and Drugs


This paper, a retrospective study in the anthropological oral-history tradition, presents an overview of drug addiction in Baltimore City from 1950 through 1977. Interviews were conducted with male addicts and ex-addicts who served as research informants to describe the conditions prevailing on the narcotic drug scene in Baltimore during that period. Each addict was considered as a participant observer, and the interview focused on his observations of the conditions that prevailed in Baltimore during his periods of addiction and not upon his own activities or habits. In addition to the interviews, data were drawn from available police statistics and from the Maryland State Drug Abuse Administration.


The formal design of the sample of addict informants called for the selection of persons who could report on two or more of the arbitrarily defined time periods during which their own addiction was of substantial duration. To be eligible for interview, each addict must have had at least two periods of addiction in Baltimore, separated by a period of time when he was not addicted.

In order to keep the interviews at manageable length, each addict was asked about two of the time periods during which he was addicted, regardless of the number of time periods for which he might have provided information. In general, almost all of the interviews were based on the addict’s initial period of addiction and the second period of addiction following remission.

In all, 48 interviews were conducted with addict informants (24 blacks and 24 whites). Twenty of the addict informants were chosen from the sample used in an earlier study of a community-wide population of addicts. The remainder were recruited from among nominees suggested in early interviews. Respondents received $15 for a one-session interview lasting one and one-half hours, conducted by trained and experienced interviewers; 80 percent of the respondents were previously known to the staff, or to the principal investigator, who has been engaged in drug research in this area for more than a decade.

The Addicts

The Drugs

In the early 1950’s, the clearly preferred drug in the Baltimore black addict community was heroin. At that time, heroin was easily obtained, reasonably priced, and considered to be of very good quality by the standards of 1977. Since cutting agents were relatively safe dilutants, there was little likelihood of health hazards such as abscesses resulting from chemical contamination. Because the strength of the drugs was fairly consistent, the chance of overdosing was not great for those addicts of relatively stable tolerance levels. Because of heroin’s fairly high strength and low cost, a heroin habit of even long standing could be well supported with little money.

Another popular narcotic drug was liquid codeine, obtainable in the 1950’s in the form of over-the-counter (non-prescription) cough remedies known in the addict community as “syrup.” Each four-ounce bottle could be used as a narcotic agent and could produce euphoria and addiction. They were often “drunk” by younger teenagers, and were frequently cited as the “path to addiction” by addicts who started using “syrup” and later went on to heroin. In the 1950’s, “syrup” was obtainable with little restriction at all drugstores.

In this period of the early 1950’s, the quite small population of white addicts typically preferred “drugstore dope,” i.e., pharmaceuticals, to heroin, although white users of heroin did exist. The category of “drugstore dope” included Dilaudid (one of the most favored), morphine, codeine, Dolophine, Demerol, and Pantopon. Some white addicts also used non-narcotic drugs such as amphetamines, barbiturates, and cocaine. Pharmaceuticals were perceived as “safer” narcotics; because they were not cut and the strength and composition of the drugs were known, they provided “safe highs.” “Drugstore dope” was obtained primarily from drugstore burglaries, thefts of physicians’ medical bags, and often through forging prescriptions or “conning” physicians.

In the later 1950’s, the kinds of narcotic drugs available had not changed greatly. Heroin was still the major narcotic used by blacks. Cutting agents were the same as in the early 1950’s. Any illness, infections, abscesses, etc. resulting from heroin use in this period tended to stem primarily from using unsterilized “works” (syringe, etc.). Codeine syrups had become very popular and were used extensively. “Syrup” was often used by heroin addicts to avoid or relieve withdrawal symptoms when heroin was unavailable to them. Some also turned to the very inexpensive “syrup” when they needed to use their money for other expenses. “Syrup” also attracted many addicts who wished to avoid the necessity of injecting a drug, and those unwilling to resort to criminal activities to support a heroin habit. The threat of prosecution applied also to heroin purchase and use, while at this time purchase and use of codeine syrups were still entirely legal. Pharmaceuticals were still relatively popular with whites. In “panics” (periods when heroin was scarce), blacks might turn to alcohol or barbiturates. Combinations of drugs were used and indeed preferred by many addicts.

During the 1960’s, the purity of heroin gradually declined, with a greater variety of synthetic chemicals being used as cutting agents. By this period, overdosing occurred with some frequency since addicts could not be certain of the drug’s strength, or might use too much in an attempt to get a reaction from the weaker substance. Also, many of the chemical contaminants used to dilute heroin caused itches, rashes, and abscesses, the latter in part because addicts injected the weaker drugs more frequently. In this period pharmaceuticals became increasingly difficult to obtain because of intensified security measures instituted by pharmacists and physicians as sophistication about narcotics developed. One of the greatest changes in the 1960’s was the removal of codeine syrups from the over-the-counter category. By the later 1960’s, liquid codeine had become scarce, and obtainable primarily on the black market at high prices. Another great change occurring in the late 1960’s, related to the proliferation of therapeutic programs providing methadone maintenance, was the appearance on the streets of methadone, first in tablet or powdered form, later as liquid.

The trends of the 1960’s continued into the 1970’s. Heroin became steadily more costly, and was cut with many chemical substances and household materials. The heroin was considered rather unsafe and “firing” frequently resulted in itching, swellings, infections, and illness. A decline in the quality began in 1971 and continued. Prices varied greatly, according to quantity and quality, but a daily heroin habit in the most recent years of our study required from $50 to $150. Many addicts felt that the heroin had become so diminished in quality that it was not worth the effort involved in trying to obtain it. In the last few years, there has been a gradual return to the use of pharmaceuticals? as addicts forged prescriptions for use in pharmacies in counties around Baltimore City. By the end of our study, methadone was widely used; it was sometimes used in combination with Valium or cocaine.

Obtaining Drugs


Nurco, D. N.; Wegner, N.

Selections from the book: “Problems of Drug Dependence, 1979: Proceedings of the 41st Annual Scientific Meeting, The Committee on Problems of Drug Dependence, Inc.” A comprehensive assemblage of reports of ongoing research on all aspects of drug abuse and drug dependence, including studies of new compounds. National Institute on Drug Abuse Research Monograph 27, 1979.