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Editors’ Note

Greg Berman and Elizabeth Glazer

December 13, 2023

For better and for worse, substance use is an important part of the daily rhythms of the city.

For better and for worse, substance use is an important part of the daily rhythms of the city.

Welcome to “On Drugs,” a kaleidoscopic view of the complex world of drugs, alcohol and other substances. It’s a little different in approach than our past issues, with a wider lens and perhaps more humility about whether we know the answers to the challenges facing New York and other cities at the moment. Tell us what you think.

When we first decided to tackle the role that drugs play in urban life, we thought it would be a fairly straightforward task. We were motivated by concerns at both the high and the low end of drug use. As Peter Reuter explains in this issue, we are living through the unprecedented damage wrought by fentanyl, which has claimed the lives of thousands of New Yorkers and many more people across the country and globe. At the same time, we are also watching in real time as New York experiments with the legalization of marijuana, an anarchic rollout that has had demonstrable effects on our streets, as Errol Louis spells out in some detail.

As we dug deeper, we realized that fentanyl and marijuana are just the tip of the iceberg. For better and for worse, substance use is an important part of the daily rhythms of the city. From the first sip of caffeinated coffee in the morning to the nightcap with friends at the bar, New Yorkers use drugs for a variety of purposes. For many, drugs are reasonably harmless; they are social lubricants that bring people together and make life a little brighter. But, of course, used to excess, drugs are a threat to health and happiness, with addiction leading to a host of ills that can upend lives and neighborhoods. We asked a number of New Yorkers to share their personal stories with drugs, from cigarettes to heroin, as a way of shining a light on the diversity of substance use in the city.

Substance use is not a new phenomenon, of course. In this issue, we begin by taking a look backward. Daniel Okrent offers up some lessons from Prohibition. Michael Javen Fortner looks at the role race played at the start of the war on drugs. And David Courtwright details the history of heroin in New York City.

While there are many continuities with the past, some things have changed in recent years. Since the pandemic, we have broken records for the number of overdose deaths in this country. A number of authors in this issue — including Peter Reuter, Brandon del Pozo, Morgan Godvin, Maia Szalavitz and Terrence Walton — explore the harms wrought by opioids and the potential strategies government might employ to address this problem. 

Recent years have also seen public attitudes toward drugs shift, with many cities and states moving toward decriminalization and harm reduction, driven largely by concerns over the toll enforcement has taken on communities of color. We look at the implications of this shift from a number of perspectives in this issue, including the voices of drug users, activists, treatment providers and law enforcement. 

Across the decades and the substances covered by our contributors, this issue testifies to the path that many substances have traveled from provoking moral panic to garnering wide acceptance, with stops along the way for regulation and legalization. Some themes recur. There is the push and pull between science and politics, reflected, for example, in how marijuana landed among the most highly regulated of “dangerous” drugs in the federal schedule. There are the limitations of relying on the law to determine behavior, reflected in how the prohibition of liquor led to the explosion of speakeasies. And, perhaps most of all, there is the importance of effective government action, reflected in how the flawed implementation of legalization, decriminalization and harm reduction have challenged public support for these ideas.

We do not deliver a single overarching lesson from our exploration, because the story of drugs and urban life at the moment resists simple explanations and silver-bullet solutions. The policy landscape is in flux, and this issue reflects that reality.

Instead of answers, we are left with a range of questions:

How do we balance the rights and needs of the individual versus those of the community when it comes to alcohol and other drugs? Is there a happy medium between overenthusiastic enforcement, which almost always seems to fall heavier on poor people and people of color, and the complete abandonment of any rules whatsoever around public substance use? What is the proper role of the state here? To protect the health of vulnerable citizens? To express the mores and concerns of the general population? Something else? And to what degree should regulation express science as opposed to majoritarian politics?

We will continue to grapple with these and other questions related to drug use in our pages in the days to come. 

Thanks for reading.

Greg Berman and Liz Glazer