Heroin & Italy’s ‘Disappeared’ Generation

The alleged collaboration between drug traffickers and government forces in pushing heroin during the 1970s in Italy brought on a devastating rise in opiate dependency and deaths in the 1980s, creating the so-called "disappeared generation."

Drug use in Italy experienced a seismic shift in the 1970s and 1980s. Between 1974 and 1975, heroin began to appear in large quantities on Italy’s drug market. During this period, heroin use was primarily concentrated among the country’s counterculture; groups who were firmly against the political establishment and who rejected consumerism. However, this association between heroin and rebellion/political struggle did not last long. By the beginning of the 1980s, use of this substance involved groups across the societal spectrum, including the most disadvantaged social classes, adolescents, students, and professionals, among others.

There is, of course, no simple explanation behind this sudden spread of heroin in Italy. One overarching dynamic, though, is the shift in drugs marketing by dealers; as dictated by traffickers, there was a dearth of other narcotics on the market and an abundance of heroin at low prices. Once a number of drug users had shifted to the opiate and in many cases become dependent, drug sellers exploited this by increasing the price.

The motive behind introducing heroin onto Italy’s black market in such a calculated way is tied up in conspiracy theories that traffickers at the time were colluding with the government and American intelligence services to quell anti-government social movements. Such movements were known to constitute one of society’s larger groups of recreational drug users, and the rationale in pushing heroin in these circles was that it would essentially render them ineffective.

What has become known as Operation Blue Moon (Operazione Blue Moon) allegedly had three main components:

1) The aforementioned market move. The mafia, through their control of the soft drugs market, had no difficulty in orchestrating a drought of one set of narcotics and a glut of another; heroin. Thousands of people, who had no prior experience of the drug, or knowledge of its effects, were not resistant to trying it.
2) To ensure heroin dominated every area of the market, the regulated supply of opiates – principally in the form of morphine – similarly dried up. Although prices were higher, morphine users had no choice but to switch to heroin, considering that it is a pharmacologically suitable substitute.
3) Arrests related to other drugs such as hashish and cannabis, along with interdiction of these substances increased as the government enforced a clampdown on illicit narcotics other than heroin.

In the context of the final component, the dynamic of the public-police partnership was also extremely important in ensuring that drug use outside of the newly available, little understood heroin was cracked down on. Authorities were feeling the pressure from media outlets and the public to combat the perceived negative effects of drugs in Italy at the time.

To illustrate a typical case in 1970s Italy, a parent would be more likely to report their child to the police for drug use in a misguided attempt to “save them,” rather than fostering a network of support. The result in such a scenario was the transformation of the family into a network of “free espionage” for the police.

The heightened stigma and criminalization attached to all other substances than heroin left Italy’s youth vulnerable to the latter’s devastating effects. Authorities were not concerned with policing the drug as heavily as other narcotics meaning people could essentially use without fear of arrest at the time. Even if someone were interested in purchasing something like hashish, they were being increasingly deterred by its scarcity, high prices (£2-3 per gram, a huge price for the era), and poor quality.

A research report on the trend of the epidemic of drug use in Italy, published in 1992 by the British Journal of Addiction, indicates a noticeable increase in both drug-related deaths (mainly from overdose) and HIV/AIDS cases reported in injecting users during the 1980s. The report authors estimate that in 1977 there were 28,000 opiate users; by 1982, this had jumped to a staggering 92,000. To highlight this increase further, the authors found during their study period (1985-89), that the number of subjects attending drug dependency units increased from 13,905 to 61,689, a rise largely driven by the uptick in heroin use.

Unlike places such as the United Kingdom – where the rise in heroin use in the 1980s was mainly due to its spread in areas hardest hit by the economic recession – Italy’s increase was one partly driven by a period of comparative prosperity. Areas of the country, particularly the north-east, began to experience sudden and increased economic well-being. In fact, the 1980s were years of economic and social modernization, years in which the Italian society quickly got rid of the previous decades’ features. As a consequence, the increased financial capacity of large segments of the population allowed a cross-cutting diffusion of drugs, in particular heroin. The middle class and professionals had newfound disposable income, and thanks to the lack of education on the drug, were using it in many cases to purchase heroin.

According to several studies, this phenomenon mostly hit northern Italy. Big cities such as Verona, Pordenone, Udine, Milan, Varese registered the highest level of drug users among the most disparate of social backgrounds.

Of course, this phenomenon of a manipulated black market and possible governmental involvement was not long-term. However, its impacts were lasting with the rise in heroin dependency rates and overdose deaths in the 1980s, a devastating result that ensured a disappeared generation.