Heroin: Art and Culture’s Last Taboo

It wrecks lives – but it has also inspired art from the poetry of Baudelaire to the music of Lou Reed. In Paris and Berlin, Andrew Hussey traces the path of heroin through modern culture.

“One of the easiest places to find heroin in Paris is in the streets in and around the Gare du Nord, a stone’s throw away from the Eurostar terminal. I know about this place partly because I live in Paris and I am a frequent Eurostar traveller, and partly because this is where Google sent me when I typed in the request “Where to find heroin in Paris”. Apparently the most popular spot for dealing is the rue Ambroise-Paré which contains a series of entrances to underground car parks where users can shoot up in relative privacy. The place permanently stinks of piss and is under constant police surveillance, as dealers and clients scurry back and forth between their hiding places. You can watch all of this action, nibbling on a snack and sipping champagne, from the front end of the Eurostar VIP Lounge which backs on to the street.

In fact although there are plenty of drugs around the Gare du Nord there is not much real heroin. Most popular with the young homeless population is a substitute called skenan, capsules of morphine sulphate. Aside from skenan, or alongside it, these young people, and older raddled boozers, drink Viking-strength lagers which smell even from a distance like pure ethanol. According to real heroin lovers, in contrast, the best drugs supermarket in this part of town is half a mile away down in Chateau Rouge and Strasbourg Saint-Denis. Actually, I am told that you could probably find heroin in most parts of the city if you look hard enough, but this particular area has a long tradition of busy criminality and a reputation for being relatively police-free.

I should say from the outset I am not a heroin user and I only really began to find out about the Parisian drug scene a few months ago when, with my friend and producer Geoff Bird, I started to write a documentary for Radio 4 called Heroin. In this programme we wanted to investigate the contribution, positive or negative, that heroin had made to 20th-century culture. Our starting point was that the beneficial effects of hallucinogenics (mainly pot and acid) on our culture are now a widely acknowledged fact. Despite their dangers – which are many – no one could deny that the works of Bob Dylan, the Beatles or Syd Barrett, and countless others, have been enhanced by the electric glow of the psychedelic experience. No one, however has ever seriously argued that heroin too can unlock creativity, albeit in a very different way.

We went to Berlin and Paris, mainly because heroin has been a crucial part of their identity. At no point did we wish to glamorise or promote the drug; it was a given that in these cities countless lives had been wrecked by heroin. In the first instance, though, we spoke to heroin users who were unashamed about their habit. Some of them even said that heroin made them better people. This lack of secrecy and guilt is most visible on the internet, where there is now a proliferation of blogs and websites where, like any other consumers, heroin users compare prices, quality, the “taste” and purity of the product. The knock-on effect of this is that, wherever you live, it is easy these days to launch a quick Google search, as I did in Paris, and find a variety of locations and prices, pretty much as if you were looking for a niche restaurant or a specialist club.