Heroin Be the Death of Me

South Beach nightlife sophisticates know they can handle it. A little puff now and then won't kill you. No big deal.

He's tried that several times before, of course, and it hasn't stuck. Tonight, though, will be different. Tonight will be the end of the bad and the beginning of the good. "Your last memory must be your most beautiful," he murmurs, his decorum flawless despite the tortured symptoms of withdrawal. As he speaks, he twirls a clove cigarette in one hand, wielding it with the grace of a conductor's baton.

David is one of South Beach's best-known nightclub party promoters, a creator of alternative realities, fond of decorating clubs with flowers, of sneaking Gregorian chants under the techno rhythms of disco music, of spouting stream-of-consciousness poetry and spontaneously breaking into dance. He has themed this special evening around a particularly bleak reality: his addiction to heroin.

He was clean of heroin for two and a half months, though cocaine had taken its place. Then four days ago he returned to "chasing the dragon" -- sucking up the smoky curlicues produced by heating heroin on a bit of aluminum foil. If David continues to smoke, he knows he'll be consumed, fried to a crisp by the dragon's searing but seductive breath. He's not yet 25 years old, but to many people on the Beach who have noted his progressive dissipation, he has already self-destructed. David has heard them whispering behind his back, has seen them avert their eyes. Sylvester Stallone was the kindest. "Get some new role models, kid," the actor told him.

But tonight will be the end of it. He says he's going to quit once and for all, going to leave town and simply stop. Cold turkey. Ever the publicist, he's even invited a reporter to observe his narcotic version of the Last Supper. But not to reveal his true name. (David is a pseudonym. The names of some other individuals in this article have also been changed.)

"Everyone thinks the heroin high is so incredible, but it's nothing like that," he says. "It's like falling asleep and being dead. You just become numb. You don't feel anything and you just fade away." During the past few months, six of his friends and acquaintances have permanently faded away as a result of heroin overdoses. Among the dead: the owner of a popular nightclub, two young models, and the granddaughter of Victor Posner, one of Florida's richest men.

According to the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office, 30 people died of heroin-related overdoses in 1994, a startling jump over 1990, when only one such death was reported. And in the first two months of this year, at least nine people have died of overdoses involving heroin. During the past four years, the number of emergency room patients reporting personal heroin use increased about 300 percent. Jim Hall, executive director of the Miami-based Up Front Drug Information Center, says those figures, while small in comparison to New York and Los Angeles, reflect heroin's rise in Dade County.

Long known as a reliable marketplace for high-grade cocaine, Miami has never seen much in the way of top-quality heroin. What local smack could be found was usually dirty and weak, its purity levels hovering around four percent. Until recently, that is. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies, the Colombian cocaine cartels have diversified their product line and are now marketing an extremely potent brand of heroin. They're employing the same recession-proof strategy they used to sell cocaine in the early Eighties: Pitch heroin as a glamour product and target young, sophisticated drug-users. With the right mystique surrounding the substance, the suburban market will sell itself. "This is almost a drug for the cognoscenti," remarks Hall, adding that most young people trying the new, deluxe Colombian heroin have already dabbled with cocaine.

"I'm seeing it all over and I can't believe it," notes Brian Antoni, author of the novel Paradise Overdose and a well-known South Beach social host. "It's become part of the scene as far as I'm concerned." Antoni, who does not use heroin, says those who are experimenting with it are generally well read and highly educated. "The people I'm seeing it hit most are people who consider themselves to be living on the edge. They want to go back to the whole Paul Bowles romantic thing, which is really stupid, considering what happened then."

Another nightclub promoter, Sam Zaoui, concurs: "A few years ago heroin was very difficult to get on the Beach, but now it's all over." While Zaoui himself has never tried the drug, he says he has seen plenty of people chasing the dragon, the telltale flash of a cigarette lighter under foil briefly illuminating a club's dim corner.

For long-time junkies who ridicule the notion of "heroin chic," the increased availability has eased much of the hassle associated with scoring dope. Three Miami Beach friends -- Debbie, Mike, and Jack -- all shoot heroin rather than smoke or snort it. And they've done so for years. "In the old days, it was really dangerous copping in the city," recalls Jack, an artist. "I've been stabbed like six times. I've been shot at once. Ten years ago, before heroin started hitting the Beach, before it was fashionable like it supposedly is now, I was one of the few people who was getting high. I used to go to Overtown. I used to ride my bicycle to Liberty City. There was no dope in Miami Beach. Now, in the last two years, there has started to be dope. So it has become a lot safer to cop."

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