For the last two decades, heroin has been largely confined to a hard core of several hundred thousand addicts, mostly in metropolitan areas in the United States, not least because of its reputation for being highly addictive, expensive and potentially lethal.
But the authorities say a gullible new market has emerged, which is consuming heroin as a 'party drug'. Members of the so-called 'Generation X', particularly young, middle-class whites, appear oblivious to the drug's perils, and perceive it as having a pop culture mystique. Lawmakers have noted, with considerable alarm, that romanticised allusions to heroin are becoming common in the music and literature surrounding 'alternative' rock, which has lost the lives of at least four stars to narcotics abuse.
The drug's new chic status was underlined last October when the 23-year-old actor, River Phoenix, idol of millions of youngsters, collapsed and died outside a Hollywood nightclub after 'speedballing' - taking a cocktail of cocaine and heroin. When Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the hugely popular rock band Nirvana, shot himself in Seattle last month, heroin was found in his body.
'There is no question that heroin is thought to be hip,' said Ralph Lochridge, a spokesman for the US Drug Enforcement Administration in Los Angeles, where the drug has infiltrated Hollywood's clubland. 'Initially heroin use was primarily among the junkies of places like Harlem - and it still is.
'But we are seeing an expansion among people in the rock 'n'roll and film industries, and in the underground. Right now, it's not perceived as particularly dangerous - and that's a very ignorant, uneducated assumption for people to make.'
The revival of heroin's popularity appears to be borne out by the number of people who visit America's hospital emergency departments and are listed as having heroin-related problems. Although this figure is only a rough guide to underlying trends, it rose by 44 per cent in the first half of last year, compared with the same period in 1992. It rocketed from 21,400 to 30,800.
The US government has long concentrated its much-vaunted 'war on drugs' on cocaine, which is by far the most widely used drug in America, but the authorities are increasingly concerned about the rise in world-wide heroin production, fuelled by bumper crops.
The price of a gram has dropped from around dollars 1,300 (pounds 870) to dollars 250 (pounds 170), and the purity of the drug has increased dramatically - from about 6 per cent, to at least 40 per cent. This makes it easier to get high by smoking the drug ('chasing the dragon'), than by injecting it, so avoiding the risk of infected needles.
Much of the heroin supply continues to be smuggled from the traditional sources - Burma, Laos, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Thailand, Mexico - but drug barons in Colombia have also begun muscling in, attracted by the prospect of higher profits.
What worries the US authorities most, however, is the risk of an explosion of heroin use among young Americans. It usually takes some time before the horrors of addiction become clear.Reuse content