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Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Series Introduction

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: Next week, we begin a new series marking the release of the first paperback edition of Addicts Who Survived: An Oral History of Narcotic Use in America, 1923-1965.  First published in 1989 by the University of Tennessee Press, Addicts Who Survived was based upon a series of oral history interviews of older methadone patients in New York City.  There interviews were collected starting in 1980, by David Courtwright, Herman Joseph, and Don Des Jarlais.  Both Joseph and Des Jarlais were themselves subjects of a more recent oral history project, History of a Public Science: Substance Abuse Research, conducted by myself and Nancy Campbell.  You can read Don Des Jarlais’ interview, and Herman Joseph’s interview, to get some additional perspective from both scholars on Addicts Who Survived.

Starting Monday, we’ll present a series of excerpts from the book, paired with a


I’m particularly pleased to have organized this series, because of how much Addicts Who Survived has meant to me since I first read it (not long after the initial publication).  I can still remember working on the early history of cocaine, and coming across an account from “Curtis” describing how he obtained cocaine from a drugstore at the age of nine–in 1913.  It is hard to describe the impact of reading his account in 1990 or so, at a time when few people even remembered that cocaine had once been legal, much less had access to testimony about that moment in time.  I wish that Addicts Who Survived had prompted more such oral history projects.  For now, we can simply celebrate this particular accomplishment.  Here’s a portion of what “Curtis” had to say, below.–Joe Spillane


Curtis was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1904, the second of six black children. His father was a barber and itinerant musician, his mother a washwoman.

I smoked reefers and used a little cocaine when I was nine years old. I got it where I worked as a delivery boy in a drugstore. They used to sell reefers. It was legal at that time. Marijuana, they called it; they had it in cigarette boxes. No, it didn’t have any medicinal use: they used to make ropes of it.9 I never cared for this reefer, but I smoked it. On Sundays, this fellow I was hanging out with, he’d smoke cigarettes and reefer. On Sunday, that’s all. Just for the devil of it you’d smoke it. I didn’t know, really, that it was a drug, or that it would make you feel funny.

There were a few older fellows that were addicts in this town. They knew I worked at this drugstore. They told me if I would see a bottle with a cross and a skeleton on it to get them some and they would give me a little change. I used to get it for these fellows, but I didn’t know what it was—I just got it for the money. I’m sure they were also using morphine. They used to be around a poolroom where I would go, and play pool and things. See, even kids could go to poolrooms there, as long as they had on long pants.

The cocaine I sniffed only a few times. But I didn’t care for it then. And I quit the cocaine and reefer. I only worked at this drugstore for five months or something like that—a short time. I didn’t start using cocaine again until I was about twenty, until after I had come to live in New York. I had gotten into trouble in Wilmington. I always liked money. I burglarized the same place twice, but I got caught the second time. After that I lived up here with my aunt.

One day I met this fellow from my home town. He said to me, “Come on, let’s go over here and get some of this cocaine and sniff it.” So I went with him. He took me to this apartment on Lenox Avenue where this girl was selling cocaine and heroin. She was a black woman, a nurse in Harlem Hospital. I don’t know why she quit, but she had stopped nursing and started selling drugs.

For two years I used to go there, but I wouldn’t use no heroin. I just sniffed cocaine. But I used to have pretty good money for my age. And if you have money, these women would try to get you hooked so you’d spend money. So one night this nurse sneaked heroin in my cocaine. And this like to kill me. I fell on the floor and I vomited a lot.

9. Marijuana was an important cash crop in the Midwest and Upper South in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The hemp fibers were used mainly in the manufacture of twine.

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