I have known a few junkies in my life, and once witnessed the curious spectacle of a young man’s deciding to become a junkie. A young opiate tyro just learning his way around a needle, he began by shooting up between his toes, explaining that this way no entry wound would be easily visible to such members of the general public as might take an interest in his inner arms. He was planning in advance for track marks under the assumption that his taking heroin was not going to be a casual thing. Addiction was not simply something that had happened to him, but something he planned for, a choice he made. I think he thought of it rather like getting a tattoo: something rock ’n’ roll, rebellious. Permanent…

The model of “rational choice” has taken a beating over the years in the field of economics, and those of us with a broader and less quantitative interest in social questions should take notice. It is hard to develop a rational-choice explanation for junkies unless we consider the very short term, in which case people use heroin for the same reason they use alcohol: They are bored, they are depressed, they are lonely, they cannot sleep, it is a social convention within a certain milieu. And it is associated with a promise, usually unspoken: James Bond’s martini is as much a part of his persona as is his Walther PPK and his Aston Martin. A glass of champagne has a certain meaning, a cigarette has a certain meaning, and so does a syringe full of heroin. Those who contemplate the legalization of such substances (and I am one of them) must do so with clear eyes, neither taken in by the romanticism of heroin nor unable to understand how and why that romanticism operates in the culture, and what that means for the choices that people make. It is not the case that no one plans to become a junkie.