`Seattle Scene' And Heroin Use: How Bad Is It?

In the days after Kurt Cobain's violent suicide, the nation again gaped at Seattle's grunge music scene. The lead singer of Nirvana was on heroin when he shot himself in the head, renewing speculation that Seattle is a hotbed of heroin abuse, particularly among grunge musicians and fans.

It's an image that has emerged and expanded in recent years, with high-profile cases involving Seattle rock musicians: Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone overdosed on heroin in 1990. Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch died of an overdose of the same opiate in 1992. Layne Staley of Alice in Chains publicly detailed his battles with heroin last year.

And after Cobain's body was found on April 8, his widow, singer Courtney Love, characterized Seattle as a drug mecca, where heroin is easier to get than in San Francisco or Los Angeles.

But many people involved in the local music scene agree with Seattle police that the magnifying glass of media attention has distorted the reality of heroin in Seattle. They say that while use of the drug here has grown in recent years, it is no worse than in any other major metropolitan city.

The signs of heroin resurgence in Seattle, both statistical and anecdotal, are undeniable:

-- Heroin-related deaths jumped from 32 in 1986 to 59 in 1992 - the most recent year for which statistics are available - an increase of 84 percent.

-- Heroin-related overdoses are at a record level, with 410 reported at Harborview Medical Center in the first six months of 1993, the most recent statistics available.

-- The bathroom wall of a restaurant in the University District bears the graffito, "Heroin, just do it."

-- Inside the Lake Union Pub & Eatery, a new punk club on the south end of Lake Union, a large logo for Black Star beer has been altered to read Black tar beer. Black tar is the type of heroin smuggled here from Mexico and California.

-- On a Metro bus, a 16-year-old Blanchet High School freshman hears a man making strange noises behind her. She turns to see him holding a needle, preparing an injection.

"I was really scared," said Candice Englis. "I thought he would do something to me."

Heroin's resurgence is caused in part by younger users who now inhale and smoke heroin, as well as inject it intravenously.

Clearly, heroin is hot in Seattle. But is the trend any different here than in other U.S. cities?

Apparently not. Nationwide, emergency rooms are treating more heroin overdoses. According to the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors, the number of heroin overdoses reported in hospitals has gone up in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York and San Francisco.

"I can say I've been to all the major cities, and Seattle's got nothing on New York and nothing on San Francisco," says a 26-year-old addict who has been using heroin for 13 years. "The junkie circle in Seattle is so small that you know everyone."

"There is no more (heroin) here than anyplace else," says Daniel House, owner of C/Z Records. "Every city in America has tons of methadone clinics."

House, who works with alternative and grunge bands, says heroin is not a big part of the culture. Other drugs, such as marijuana and alcohol, are far more prevalent among the musicians he knows.

Jeff Gilbert, a former writer for The Rocket and the West Coast editor for Guitar World magazine, agrees.

"I think this has been really overblown," Gilbert said. "There is the impression that everyone here is strung out on heroin in the music scene. That's not true. If anything, they're all a bunch of potheads."

In many ways, the club scene does not lend itself to heroin use. Many addicts say the drug is intensely antisocial - a private, introspective experience. On a recent night at the Off Ramp club, a man who admitted using heroin called the drug "something for home."

"I used to go to clubs after I used it, but it got embarrassing, puking, . . . " he said. "It's too obvious. . . . It's not a social drug."

The man said he hadn't injected heroin in two months, ever since he overdosed and was taken to Harborview.

"I was dead, man. I was dead for 14 minutes. My cousin, he took me to the hospital, he told me what happened. They had to bring me back with those electrodes."

Police say heroin is difficult to control on the street. Dealers work in a murky world where there are few hard facts but lots of money, a world of confidential informants and electronic pagers.

The Seattle Police Department has 42 officers assigned to narcotics, ranging from financial analysts to undercover cops. They handle about 4,000 cases a year. Most drug arrests actually are made by patrol officers stopping cars or acting as Anti-Crime Teams targeting specific areas of street sales.

"It's not like the TV cops, where we can go and kick down a door," says Capt. Dan Bryant.

With so few officers assigned to narcotics, few are surprised by the availability of heroin. On University Way Northeast, 3,500 to 5,000 dirty needles are exchanged for clean ones each week at a small stand run by Bob Quinn. Most needles are for shooting heroin, he said, although many young people use them for shooting speed (methamphetamine).

He doesn't think the Seattle music scene has attracted more people to heroin. The needle-exchange rate has been steady for years, he says.

Others argue that Seattle's grunge culture fosters a rebellious image that exceeds the reality of heroin use.

"Seattle has no more and no less heroin than any other city like it," said Bob Timmins, a former addict who now counsels rock stars about drug abuse.

Seattle today "reminds me of Hollywood in the '60s," Timmins said. "There's a feeling that nothing bad can happen. It's youthful. It's successful. It's life on the edge."

Since the Seattle music scene took off three years ago, Timmins said, he's been called to Seattle to work with six musicians in three prominent bands.

"Interestingly, it's all been for heroin," he said.

Timmins said he isn't surprised by musicians' fascination with heroin and other drugs, since they tend to be "pretty sensitive, emotional people. If most people feel things at a `10,' they feel things at a `12.' "

That's also part of heroin's allure. "It's a pain reliever," he said. "It hides the demons and makes you feel insulated."

The young musicians he's worked with in Seattle and around the country "are very successful, and it gives them a sense of power and control - that they're immune and they can control their use." That denial makes them typical heroin addicts, said Timmins, who was addicted for 16 years.

Because of that denial and the feeling of invincibility, Timmins doesn't think Cobain's death will affect young musicians with heroin addictions. "It'll get attention for a few weeks, then everybody will forget about it."

Almost everybody. While most think Seattle is no more plagued with heroin than other major cities, Mary Truscott argues otherwise.

The music industry here is like "an addicted, co-dependent family" that doesn't want to admit its problem, said Truscott, the advertising manager of American Music, which sells, rents and repairs equipment for many major Seattle bands.

Heroin use "exists at all levels of the music business," she says. "It exists in the clubs. It exists on all levels from the most desperate, hardscrabble, trying-to-be-rock-star band on up to the successful bands. . . .

"Coke (cocaine) has fallen so out of favor," she adds. "Heroin is more of a loser drug, like it fits in more with the grunge thing. Coke was the drug of the '80s, and everyone was all charged up. Heroin is the antithesis to that." Reported by Seattle Times staff reporters Vanessa Ho, Linda Keene, Kery Murakami and Peyton Whitely.