February 6, 2014

The rise and fall of heroin deaths over time

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman struck me as unusual for involving heroin. That seemed to be a much bigger problem in the '90s, not just use of the drug itself but also its glorification in the "heroin chic" trend in fashion advertising, and even in the spacey, strung-out sound of "shoegazing" music in the UK and some alternative music in the US.

So I went to Wikipedia's list of notable drug-related deaths, and plotted the heroin deaths over time. They are grouped into 5-year periods, with the mid-year shown on the chart. This is not a rate, simply the number of deaths.

Sure enough, these notable deaths peaked in the late '90s and early 2000s -- more than one per month -- although notice that huge spike in the early '70s -- Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, et al.

These deaths mostly follow the outgoing and rising-crime phase of the crime-and-cocooning cycle. They began rising during the '60s, and have been in dramatic decline recently. However, unlike the violent crime rate and outgoing behavior, deaths from heroin peak about 10 years later. The crime rate peaked around 1992, and these drug-related deaths around 2002.

That is a general pattern as far as I can tell. Hard drug use among American high schoolers also peaked in the late '90s and early 2000s. (See the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a nationally representative sample that asks about various risky behaviors.) Among white students, the likelihood of having ever used heroin peaked in 2001.

In Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America, David Courtwright found a similar pattern. He looked at opiate use during the previous outgoing / rising-crime period, from roughly the turn of the 20th century through the early '30s. The drug trade peaked in the late '30s or early '40s, about 10 years after the peak of the homicide rate in 1933, and well after the exuberance of the Jazz Age had begun to wane in favor of the more restrained and streamlined Midcentury.

He did not compare the timing of the drug cycle's peak to the timing of the crime wave's peak. I only noticed that when reading his book because I'd seen the same delay of 5 to 10 years when looking at the recent crime wave and drug cycle.

Most social and cultural trends move right along with the cocooning-and-crime cycle, so the consistent delay or lag in the drug cycle is a puzzle. It shows up for all kinds of drugs, and across two separate crime waves. My hunch is that drug use doesn't decline right away like everything else because it doesn't have to be a social activity. It could just be the troubled teenager alone in his room looking for a way out.

If so, it wouldn't matter if the society is becoming less exciting and people more withdrawn. It's not like going out for a joyride. Still, why doesn't it continue to climb, then, during a cocooning / falling-crime period? Or at least plateau? Drug use does begin to lose its appeal, but it takes about 10 years.

Perhaps the folks who have just lived through the rising-crime period are self-medicating into the falling-crime period. You might have been abused when you were a child in the '70s or '80s, and then tried to numb that out when you were a teenager or 20-something into the '90s. But once your emotions start to stabilize during your 30s, you don't need hard drugs so much.

The next cohort who was far less likely to have lived through something requiring self-medication (the Millennials or Silent Generation) would be less likely to start using in the first place.

I wish I had more intuition into what's going on here, because the 5 to 10-year lag of drug use behind all other forms of risky behavior is consistent and puzzling. If anyone has some insight, please chime in.


  1. The early 1970's featured a lot of heroin use which was reflected in the popular culture. Movies like "Jennifer On My Mind" and "Panic In Needle Park" were among the better-known such films.

  2. I'm not sure if drug use is being effected by the crime rate. It coudl ust be a separate cycle, like the equality-inequality one.

  3. Drug use falls easily into "risky behavior" on the demand side (users), in often in a social setting. And the supply side is clearly linked to crime and violence. The rising and falling phases largely overlap, and the cycles are the same length between peaks.

    The only odd thing is that the drug cycle is the crime/cocooning cycle delayed by 5 to 10 years.

  4. Youth Risk Behavior Survey data starts in 1991 Monitoring the Future goes bak further and shows a peak about a v shaped decline with trough in 1991 a lower leak about 2000 then a decline.

  5. The only other thing I can think of is that the first wave of prisoners arrested during the beginning of a crime wave, get introduced to drugs and/or form connections, and are all released 5-10 years later. I remember seeing a documentary or movie somewhere that drug dealers often make all kinds of connections in jail. It might be worth looking at what the average jail term is, to see if its 5-10 years.

  6. The spread of drugs is, afterall, a social occurence.

    I don't think that it has to do with being abused, though its an interesting idea. The millenials self-medicate themselves pretty intensely, despite living in safe, non-violent times. They don't have the social connections to do hard drugs.

  7. It would be interesting to plot cocaine use alongside - my intuition is that they would be on different cycles, with coke more closely following the crime rate, but I don't know.

    i learned from Toby Young's memoir "How to lose Friends and Alienate People" that there was a Cocaine boom in England in the 90s, about 10 years after it peaked in the US. How is the crime rate in England as compared to the US?

  8. England's homicide rate peaked in '94 or '95, not too long after America's. I think it got started at the same time too, ~1960.

  9. Hoffman had been a drug addict in the 80s. He relapsed into drug addiction. Do you think that's relevant?

  10. Cocaine deaths in the Wikipedia list show the same peak in the early 2000s. They start with a few in the late '70s, rise sharply until the early 2000s, then fall dramatically.

    Current cocaine use peaks in 2001 among the YRBS high schoolers. I think our image of the cocaine-fueled Eighties is due more to its social / party usage, rather than the loner listening to Limp Bizkit circa 2000.

    "Hoffman had been a drug addict in the 80s."

    I don't see the relevance, other than the fact that you can relapse once you've been hooked before.

  11. for Hoffman the relevance to your theory concerns the fact that he began taking drugs and first became addicted during the 1980's, a high crime era when people were less risk averse.

    Often drugs do not result in death for many years. A friend I grew up with in the 80's recently relapsed and was found dead of a Heroin overdose last May. He was 41 years old. In the 1990's he became addicted to Oxycontin , he started doing heroin because it was so much cheaper. I had no idea he was a Heroin user until he died, but knew he had gone to rehab for oxy about ten years ago.

  12. Cocaine was very much the drug of choice during the 1980's. The crack cocaine epidemic in the inner city neighborhoods was the most obvious case. Starting in the late 1970's (remember "White Lines" by Grandmaster Flash?), it quickly exploded to the point where there were some neighborhoods the police was afraid to go into. But by the mid-1990's, it was on the decline and while it remains a problem, it's now remembered in historical terms by those who were affected by it.


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