By James Aaron
[Some names have been changed in this story.]
Tango and Cash back in the day, that was the best,” remembers Jimmy Morton, his eyes fluttering closed on the L-train, his lips fixed in a grin as if he’s remembering a lost love. But he’s not referring to the 1989 action flick with Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell, rather an especially potent brand of heroin that flooded the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan in 2011. It wasn’t one of the more elaborate stamp insignias at the time. The brand came in the same small glassine envelopes with three words in block yellow lettering inked on top—the way all New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia heroin is distributed. The only thing that changes is the names and designs that mark the bags.
What made Tango and Cash such a fond memory for Morton? Likely one or all of the three criteria by which heroin quality is rated on the website Jynxie’s Natural Habitat, an online blog moderated by a former Brooklyn resident wherein stamps are posted and rated by Rush, Legs, and Count.
“Rush means how hard it hits when you first take it,” explains Marcus Rosen, a five-year drug user with a full-time job. “Legs refers to how long the effects last, and Count just means how much powder is in the bags. Like, sniffers care more about Count than shooters, because they won’t run out as quickly.”
Rosen fondly remembers a stamp called “Smoking,” which featured an insignia of a skeleton lying on its side and smoking from a hookah. “The Rush was a ten,” he says. When asked about the website, Rosen characterizes it as more of a community service than a review blog.
“Buying heroin can be a precarious pursuit. Forget about the risk of being robbed or hurt; once you actually obtain your bags, there’s a chance you’ll either be ripped off, OD, or be poisoned. The review blog can serve as a warning for bags that are hot [poisoned] or especially potent, so that you can avoid an OD.”
Like any marketing technique, stamps on heroin bags are intended to engender brand loyalty and return business, but with the advent of the internet it’s also become a way for users to be warned.
When asked if he’s ever wondered where the bags come from, Rosen replies, “I don’t know. Stamp shops?”
After calling stamp shops across the city, many declined to comment for this article. However, a representative from Casey Rubber Stamps in the East Village insisted that they do not accept drug business. He even referred to a sign out in front of the shop warding off any potential drug dealers. When asked how they identify such business, he replies, “I can tell by what kind of designs they ask for. Those people always want violent or death-related imagery, and I won’t do it.”
According to Morton, who’s been on and off the streets for the past four years because of his drug use, drug dealers may now have their own stamp source.
“They call it the Yard,” Morton says. “It’s uptown, you go and ask for whatever you want, and they make it for you.”
Tawnee Jackson is a former user with two years clean who clearly remembers her relationship with stamps.
“There were skulls and guns and things like that. There were also a lot of brand names like Gucci or Prada. Sometimes a more elaborate stamp was a good sign, just like any other kind of packaging. It means care was put into the product.”
She describes a kind of brand loyalty that develops with heroin. “Sometimes a stamp will change, I guess to avoid the cops or whatever, and that’s the worst, because there’s always the fear that it’s no longer going to be good.”
When asked about the review blog, Tawnee adds, “What people don’t understand is that a lot of people use because they have to. People don’t understand the extreme physical pain that can come from withdrawal. It becomes like insulin, just something you need to take care of each day. I’ve known plenty of people that function with a daily habit, and anything out there that can make their lives safer is a good thing.”
In 2012, there were more accidental heroin overdoses in Brooklyn than in any other borough.