Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It’s about a new drug, a killer, raging through a major American city filling ERs and morgues and leaving a trail of wrecked lives. Just a year ago heroin was the big problem, but now this new scourge accounts for three-fourths of drug busts and a third of all addicts seeking treatment. Experts are saying there’s no way the drug will stay in one city: “similar to an infectious process,” it will inevitably spread across the nation. It’s already surfaced in a handful of cities, and who knows where it will strike next.
The year is 1978, and the Talwin panic is in full swing.
Wait, you don’t remember the great Talwin terror of 1978? Maybe haven’t even heard of Talwin? Don’t feel bad. Despite the promising start, the Talwin scare never really got off the ground. There were a few headlines here and there, a TV documentary, and a day of testimony in Congress, but in the annals of anti-drug crusades it was small potatoes.
Why? 1978 was a great year for drug crusades, and this one seemed to have plenty going for it: Talwin really was causing major public health problems in Chicago; it had a hip, media-friendly street name (“T’s and Blues”); and most of its abusers were nonwhite, urban poor—classic drug-war boogeymen. More: one of the largest sources of Talwin in Chicago was a Medicaid clinic, where, Congress was told, the drug was “handed out literally like M&Ms.” The headlines could have written themselves. “Hard Working Taxpayers’ Dollars Going to Give Dope to Junkies!” And if that wasn’t enough, how about this sound bite from the Congressional hearings:
Thank you indeed! “Grandmothers are buying Talwin on the street”: does it get any better than that for an anti-drug crusader? It wasn’t supposed to end up like that for Talwin.