2002 Peter K. New Prize Recipient: "Hell, I'm an Addict, but I Ain't No Junkie": An Ethnographic Analysis of Aging Heroin Users

By Boeri, Miriam Williams | Human Organization, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

2002 Peter K. New Prize Recipient: "Hell, I'm an Addict, but I Ain't No Junkie": An Ethnographic Analysis of Aging Heroin Users


Boeri, Miriam Williams, Human Organization


Although the number of drug users over the age of 35 is growing at a faster rate than other age groups, a gap in knowledge of how people age with drug use remains. This study focuses on heroin users who were born between 1945 and 1965, the baby boom cohort. Based on questionnaires and in-depth interviews with 38 active heroin users in Atlanta, Georgia, variations in their heroin use were explored through modified grounded theory methods, including constant comparison. Numerical and narrative data revealed a typology of active heroin users who are members of the baby boom generation. The two salient dimensions of the typology are the level of control over heroin use and the users' social roles, specifically the status the users allocated to their social role as a heroin user. The typology includes: 1) controlled occasional users; 2) weekend warriors; 3) habitues; 4) marginal users; 5) problem addicts; 6) using dealers/runners; 7) using hustlers/sex workers; 8) junkies; and 9) relapsing addicts. Increased insight into the heterogeneity among current baby boomer heroin users is relevant when designing comprehensive prevention and intervention programs.

Key words: heroin use, substance abuse, older drug users, baby boomers, drug treatment, drug policy

In the early 1960s, Charles Winick (1962) analyzed data collected by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and found that 70 percent of narcotic users became drug inactive between the ages of 23 and 37. He established 35 or 36 as the age when narcotic users generally "mature out" of drug use. Nevertheless, despite nearly a century of increased government regulation and severe legal repercussions, use of heroin and other narcotics is increasing, and persons 35 and older are part of the fastest growing age group of heroin users today (SAMHSA 2000).

A relatively silent event occurred in the year 2000-the youngest baby boomer turned 36 years of age (for discussions on ages of the baby boom cohort see Alwin 1998; Keister and Deeb-Sossa 2001; Morgan 1998). Some of the earliest baby boomers were part of the population known as the "heroin generation," a cohort of young narcotic users identified by Kinlock, Hanlon, and Nurco (1998); other baby boomers started using heroin later in life. Yet little research has described what happens to the heroin generation as they age, and studies of older, late-onset users of narcotics are particularly scarce. Regardless of the percentage of heroin users who stopped using narcotics by age 35 (matured out), the enormous size of the baby boom cohort produces a significant increase in the number of drug users among older adults, even if the overall percentage of older drug users remains low compared to other age groups.

Heroin is only one among many illegal drugs, but it has attracted increased attention from drug researchers due to its highly addictive qualities. Research findings also provide evidence of nonaddictive use of heroin, which is critical for a study on aging narcotic users. Lindesmith (1957) identified "joy poppers" as those who use heroin intermittently and never become "hooked," but he suspected that they eventually went on to become addicted. Goode (1999) believed that the number of weekend heroin users is higher than generally suspected, but he also thought that those who "chip" (use heroin occasionally) become addicted with continued use. Three factors hinder research on nonaddictive use of heroin: 1) concern that recognition of this category might encourage use; 2) difficulty finding a reasonable numerical estimate; and 3) the nonstandard and imprecise terms used to identify this group (Zinberg 1979).

Addiction has been difficult to define and diagnose. Many drug researchers and treatment practitioners use the criteria of drug addiction outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), 4th Edition (APA 1994), which has been applied to all types of addictions and addictive behaviors.

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2002 Peter K. New Prize Recipient: "Hell, I'm an Addict, but I Ain't No Junkie": An Ethnographic Analysis of Aging Heroin Users
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