Hep Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams

A History of America’s Romance with Illegal Drugs

Eiffel's Tower by Jill Jonnes

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Hep Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams

A History of America’s Romance with Illegal Drugs

As the Victorian age drew to a close, and Americans became alarmed at the ready availability of dangerous drugs and rising addiction, Congress began passing the first drug laws. Hep-cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams traces the spread of illegal drugs throughout our culture: from the free-wheeling Prohibition era until World War II, when the first drug epidemic was largely quelled. Then, in postwar America, there was a tragic resurgence of heroin in the inner cities, while the “flower power” Sixties promoted a huge new middle-class drug culture. Then cocaine begat crack, with all its heart-breaking violence and community destruction.

Hep-cats takes us on a dazzling tour of the American Century, from the glamour of Hollywood during the silent-screen period to Harlem’s smoky jazz clubs to Miami’s mean streets and Colombia’s jungles, detailing the high jinks and dirty tricks of the drug trafficking trade along the way.


“A classic, as fine a history of America’s experience with illegal drugs as we are likely to see and a delight to read. The author writes with such pace and excitement that you cannot wait to find out what’s on the next page… put Hep-cats, Narcs, and Pipe-Dreams in your permanent collection.”

Joseph A. Califano Jr.


“There is no other book that affords so detailed and well documented a history of illegal drugs in the United States since 1885… a richly detailed and textured history.”
Dwight B. Heath


Hep-cats, Narcs, and Pipe-Dreams tracks the colorful careers of movie stars and street junkies, drug traffickers and federal agents, to document journalist Jill Jonnes’s chillingly plausible thesis: that drug abuse is as much a part of our national heritage as Mom, the flag, and apple pie… Jonnes’s book is lively, anecdotal, and entertaining—until we stop to consider the reality of a substance abusing nation.”
Francine Prose


“This fine book will stand for some time as the standard reference on the subject. The most complete and comprehensive work of its kind, Hep-cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams is one heckuva good read. Jill Jonnes has simply done a superb job of crafting this immense and important story of America’s drug wars.”
Jeff Leen

Co-author of <em>Kings of Cocaine</em>

Eiffel's Tower by Jill Jonnes

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Hep-cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams really grew out of my South Bronx book. I had been quite surprised to discover that heroin was wreaking havoc there as early as the 1950s. Like many baby boomers, I assumed that illegal drugs became a problem only later, in the 1960s. Wanting to explore this history of drug culture, I looked for but could not find a book on the subject. And so it was that Hep-cats was born. But it was a long gestation.

My initial trip to the Library of Congress in 1985 (long before the Internet allowed instant remote access) revealed that the American drug problem was not just decades, but more than a century old. Smoking opium and hop-heads, Dope Cola, morphine fiends, these were all of the 19th-century. At this point I had been a journalist for almost a decade, but kept finding myself attracted to history. Yet this particular history felt too complex to sort out with my journalistic training. I entered graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in American history in the fall of 1986. There I had the good fortune to study with John Higham and in 1992, I emerged with a Ph.D. and a thesis about the history of American drug culture. I signed a book contract and spent another three years finishing Hep-cats.

Probably my fondest memories from Hep-cats revolve around a 1994 trip to France to research the French Connection. The newspaper Le Figaro provided access to its archives in Paris and arranged for its Marseilles correspondent to meet me when I headed south to that tough and funky ville. There I interviewed aged drug traffickers and retired drug cops in local cafes, where everyone was imbibing bright blue and green drinks.

Not long after Hep-cats was published in 1996, I was quite surprised to be approached by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (with whom I’d had a protracted fight over seeing old documents) about helping them create a museum of drug history. After all the years in libraries and archives, it was enthralling to see the real artifacts that the DEA had been collecting and saving for twenty-five years. My favorites were 1920s old-timey drug paraphernalia and numerous containers (one still filled with smoking opium, the other with cocaine) seized as evidence in a 1923 West Coast case and then a pair of iridescent green snake-skin platform shoes worn by an undercover agent. So 1970s! The museum opened in DEA headquarters in 1999 and has become quite an off-beat Washington, D.C., attraction.


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