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Judgment Battles: Crack vs. Heroin

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty and prostitution in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.


In Hunts Point, I’m struck by the judgment pervading the streets — the lengths to which people speak against other addictions to feel better about their own well-worn one, the comprehension of their own serious addiction and the denial or dismissal of others’. To illuminate it, a series of vignettes: crack vs. heroin.

Erik: Hunts Point, Bronx
Erik, Hunts Point. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Erik pulled his shirt over his head by the neck, itching around his body after a shot of heroin, his hair a muss of perpetual sleep, his eyes blurred too. His fingers graced near a tangerine-sized scab on his chest and another behind his head, near the top of his spine — psoriasis he said, not HIV. He scoffed at what he called his out-of-shape body, a slim figure softened by muscle activity deprivation, though his frame appeared momentarily lean from the drug in his system.

“It’s not like we’re coke addicts or anything.”


Michael pocketed the $20 and borrowed a phone to call his crack dealer. Known as a devout heroin user in the neighborhood, he still palmed the crack stem from the pocket of his tight leopard-patterned pants and loosed the rocks from their light brown pack, placing them on the end of the stem. He ducked near a building entryway, lit and inhaled amidst a littering of bottle caps, the stuff of makeshift heroin junkies. Crack was a matter of secret. Crouching and bobbing along in a wave-like fluid walk, he eyed his surroundings, deigning it safe to follow the intrigue of a leaf trail in the sidewalk gutter. Something good might lay there.


Jen stood on her corner, hands in vinyl jacket pockets, tepid in the cool air after doing a snort of coke with Charlie, her pimp. Tapering off frequent crack use, though reliant on cocaine, the sex worker curled her lip towards heroin.

“That shit’s nasty. You don’t see me out here with a needle. Gross.”


Deshawn and Barbara: Hunts Point Bronx
DeShawn and Barbara, Hunts Point. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Barbara perched on a stool within the outer metal lip of an industrial garage and spoke of DeShawn, a woman 20 years her junior, one who she nurtured when the younger girl showed up in Hunts Point many years ago, a runaway at 11 years old. A fifth of Absolut peered from the older prostitute’s shiny black purse, and her eye blinks flickered, speech mottled.

“I can’t believe she’s smoking crack again. I bet she got Craig smoking that shit. Last time I talked to her, I asked why she smoked that shit. She used to make money, don’t know what she’s doing now.”


Mist gathered around Whoopie, midnight skin set apart from the light gray industrial backdrop framing the edges of the Point. She paced, emitting shrill noises to gain the notice of passing truckers and the occasional van.

“I’ll be honest with you. I smoke crack, snort coke, maybe a little weed here and there. But I never do dope, don’t do nothing like that. No.”


Sonia: Hunts Point, Bronx
Sonya, Hunts Point. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Sonya moved piles of cloth aside to sit on her bare floral mattress, small in a large third floor room of an abandoned building. She would stand to shoot up there, hands on the bed to still her, loosing her pants for her husband to probe a vein on the back of her leg. She didn’t have track marks; she keeps her heroin injection points moving. Thirty seconds after shooting, a breath escaped from her mouth in a slack O.

“This makes me feel good, feel mellow. No, we don’t do crack or any of that shit. Have you seen how coke heads act? That’s scary shit.”

More Hunts Point Addiction Writing
Writing Beyond Addiction in Hunts Point
Chris Arnade’s Photos and his Facebook feed

Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. HubertB 8:54 pm 10/24/2012

    The way you misbehave is far worse than the way I misbehave. What is new?
    Heroin addicts ruin their own bodies with their many puncture wounds and then their own lives. Gradually their appearance goes. An OD can bring death.
    Cocaine addiction comes on slowly. Like any addiction, it must be fed. “You need cocaine? You can hook, steal, or deal.” The cops pick up the little elementary school children selling cocaine and crack. The dealer a block away takes off running. The kid is released minus drugs.
    The prisions are filled due to cocaine.
    Which is the greater sin, a drug which makes you destroy your own body, or a drug more destructive to society?

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  2. 2. Puerto Rican Princess 7:50 pm 10/25/2012

    First,I’d like to thank you and Chris Arnade for the work you do. Secondly,I find this “superiority” phenomena oddly fascinating. Rather than focus on the similarities these addicts all share,they dwell on the differences. I guess it’s inherent in human nature,no matter what one’s station in life. In the movie and the book “The Outsiders” one of the Socs(wealthier jocks) was telling one of the Greasers that this has always been going on-the competition and fighting. Why,I wondered,do they not see that they are from the same town,same state,speak the same,eat the same food? Why do so many religions that speak of their love for Jesus look down their noses at other Christians? Same for Islams,with the Sunnis and Shiites,same with Jews,Hindus,etc. I have always had a child-like wonder about this “superiority” thing. It’s just so sad that even people who are down are their luck are guilty of it.

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  3. 3. aidel 8:55 pm 10/25/2012

    I’m reading this book called The Addiction Solution by David Kipper, MD and Steven Whitney. I’m about 75% sure this is quackery rather than good science, but it’s interesting anyway. The book argues that the kind of drug you are addicted to points to the neurotransmitter that is out of whack (deficient) in the brain. For example, addicted to cocaine? Need more dopamine. Herion or other opiods? Need more serotonin. Benzos your drug of choice? More norepinephrine. I’d like to see studies supporting this idea, but in a way, it makes sense. He does not say that prescribing medications is all that needs to happen (he believes that each patient should have a team of medical experts working on the problem AND that the patient should be involved in 12 step or other supportive programs…) But the simplicity of the idea is tempting…even if that’s actually the problem with his thinking.

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