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Chasing the dragon

(from Mainline, special edition VIIIth International Conference on AIDS Amsterdam, July 1992)

Two-thirds of all heroin users chase the dragon. Yet little is known about it. Does the aluminium foil give off harmful fumes? What happens when the dope is cut with something else? And how much dope do you lose when you chase the dragon? The views of some users a doctor and a laboratory analyst.

It started off as a rage in Hong Kong early in the fifties. It got called chui lung, which means chasing the dragon. Because the spiralling smoke looks like a dragon' s tail. The fumes are inhaled through a small tube. In Holland smoking heroin only started to become popular in the seventies when the main supply of heroin came from China. That's why chasing the dragon has become known as 'chinezen' (Chinesing) in Holland. A good two-thirds of all users in Amsterdam take their heroin Chinese-style.

Carlos has been chasing the dragon right from the start, fifteen years ago now. "I came to Holland from Surinam and was taken in by an aunt. I spent a lot of time with my two cousins. Smoking grass, and hanging around the streets a bit. One of my cousins had a chromium-plated convertible Chevrolet in perfect condition. Those were the days, man! All the dope you wanted, beautiful women, and evenings dancing in Marcanti. Both my cousins were users already, so I asked them once could I try it, chasing the dragon. One thing led to another.

I've never done anything else but smoke it, earlier on in cigarettes as well, but usually on foil. There aren't that many Surinamers who shoot up, I only know a few. It's much more common with Dutch kids. They often begin with the needle."

Joop began with the needle. "I was six-teen when I had my first shot. After two weeks I could fix without any help. I didn't think of smoking the dope. I didn't even smoke cigarettes. I only started doing that a few years later. " For ten years Joop shot up. First only heroin, later on coke and cocktails as well. A year and a half ago he stopped injecting and started chasing the dragon instead. "It was my veins, you see. I didn't have easy veins to start with, but in the end I didn't have any left that I could use. I always shed a lot of blood, and of course I went on trying, because you want your hit no matter what it costs. Certainly if you're on coke. I stopped with coke first, because that just got completely out of control. A couple of months later I stopped shooting up. I hadn' t had that blissful flashout for years anyway. Chasing the dragon suits me better. It's also better for my health."

Extra filter

Chasing the dragon is less of a health risk than mainlining. When you shoot up everything goes straight into the blood-stream: not just the heroin, but also any-thing it' s been cut with and any other toxic substances. Using a swab of cotton wool can give you a degree of protection against most of these substances, but a lot can still come through the needle itself and so go straight into the blood. In any case all soluble elements and anything that is extremely small, bacteria for in-stance. It's the shit and bacteria that comes with the shot that cause all the misery that many mainliners experience: abscesses,

the shakes, blood poisoning. Chasing the dragon means that no toxic substances can get into the blood-stream directly. You have an extra filter, your lungs. The inhaled heroin fumes enter the lungs via the air passages. And the pulmonary blood vessels absorb the heroin. Only after that does it enter the bloodstream. Many people ask: even if those toxic substances don't all enter my bloodstream directly, aren't they just as damaging for my lungs?

"I've never come across a lung problem that was only caused by smoking heroin," says doctor Krish Kanhai. He has been working for eight years for the Health Authority as a doctor specialized indrugs and he is quite clear on possible risks for the lungs of smoking heroin. "Don't get me wrong, it isn't healthy. Smoking is always bad for the air passages, whether it is tobacco, marihuana or heroin." He stashes his pack of cigarettes and continues. "The fumes of some substances that are present in the dope can cause the air passages to contract. The air passages can also become irritated. All this together can lead to bronchial complaints. A lot of people get an increased production of phlegm. Heroin suppresses the tickle in the throat, which means you don't cough up all that phlegm. This causes it to accumulate lower down and this can lead to pneumonia. But that' s not something you get easily. Only if someone already has poor health or has been sleeping out-side in the cold or doesn't look after him-self properly, do you get problems like that. This doesn't come from chasing the dragon but from other reasons." It' s a different matter when someone already has lung problems. " Chasing the dragon can be dangerous for someone who has a tendency to bronchial asthma. It can give you a severe attack. I know two people who choked to death during an attack like that." But in general Kanhai does not regard chasing the dragon as a health risk: "In any case it is safer than shooting up. "

White chocolate

The foil is to someone who smokes what the works are to the mainliner. Only it is less complicated. A syringe must have a sterile wrapping, a good rubber and a sharp needle. With foil you don't have to be so careful. As long as the foil is metal and can be heated well and gradually. In practise a roll of kitchen foil is the best. The thicker the better. "When I don't have any foil," Carlos says, "I buy it on the street from hustlers who sell it or from a fish stall. And sometimes I buy chocolate. Some brands of chocolate also have good silver paper. Galac's white chocolate, for instance, the kind without the rice. It's often bought just for the wrapping. That's why in places where people chase the dragon you often see bars of chocolate Iying around. In case of need I sometimes use the foil in cigarette packs. First you have to burn off the paper and the foil is very thin. You can burn holes in it easy as anything. But when in need it will do."

First of all the piece of aluminium foil is made completely smooth. For instance with a piece of toilet paper. Then the dope can move freely round the foil. Some people heat the foil a liffle before they put the heroin on it. This burns up the thin plastic layer on the foil. The plastic is there to prevent the foil from rusting and to make it easier to roll out. With its normal household use you don't have any problems with the plastic but inhaling burnt plastic is bad for your health. "Of course smoking plastic is harmful," says doctor Kanhai. "The same goes for the fumes of aluminium that has been burned through being heated too long. It is better let the plastic burn off the foil first."

A taste of the grave

Chasing the dragon has another plus point. People who smoke heroin can more easily tell the quality of their dope. Joop: "When you hase the dragon you can first try out a little bit and taste it to test whether you've got good stuff. When you mainline it's different. You dissolve the dope, fix a shot and all at once you've got it in you."

Good quality dope melts when you heat it, turns into a light brown oil and can move easily around the foil. Carlos: "If it leaves a trail of little black specks, then you're okay." When the oil sets it turns into a resin-like substance. The resin should be hard as glass and transparent. "It's also a good tip to take the drop of resin from the foil and hold it up to the light. If it comes easily off the foil without crumbling and if you can't see any impurities when you hold it up, then you can assume your dope is good." You can also tell good dope from the taste you get when you smoke it. " Some people say it' s a taste that's bitter and sour at the same time. Other people say it tastes like putty. I think it has an unpleasant taste, a taste of the grave, but at least it' s one you can recognize out of a thousand," Carlos says. "But the main test is whether you get stoned from it or not. And you can tell this with the first puff. If you don't feel any-thing with the first puff, then it's shit."


Not all kinds of heroin lend themselves easily to chasing the dragon. You'd think that Chinese heroin from the Far East would be the best to smoke. Because of the name and because Chinese heroin dominated the market at the time when chasing the dragon became popular in Holland. But it turns out that 'Turkish' heroin from countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan is more suitable. This kind of heroin is prepared in a different way from the Chinese. It only dissolves after some lemon juice or ascorbic acid has been added, but it makes an easiersmoke.

H. Hauser from the forensic laboratory in Rijswijk came to the same conclusions. He did research into chasing the dragon. He placed different sorts of heroin and heroin cut with other substances on some foil and heated the samples with a lighter. In two seconds the temperature rose to six hundred degrees centigrade. Hauser collected the fumes and checked out the amount of heroin contained in each sample. The percentage of heroin in the fumes turned out to depend mainly on the kind: there is three times as much heroin in the fumes from Turkish heroin as there is in the Chinese. What the dope was cut with also proved to have a great influence on the quantity of heroin in the fumes. Cutting it with caffeine produces positive results: it increases the ease with which one can smoke the heroin. Caffeine already starts evaporating at a hundred degrees and one might say that it takes everything else with it. After heating a mixture of Turkish heroin and caffeine sometimes as much as three-quarters of the heroin remains in the fumes. All other ingredients (paracetamol, mannitol, strychnine, lactose and glucose) that the heroin is cut with diminish the pro-portion of heroin in the smoke. When heroin is cut with noscapine (which is a by-product of careless preparation of the heroin) the percentage of heroin in the fumes is a third less.

In theory it's possible that someone will get more stoned from chasing the dragon with weak heroin that has been cut correctly than with much stronger heroin that has been cut with bad ingredients. The way in which it is heated is also very important for the effect. Heating it too quickly means more gets lost. The more skilful you are in smoking it, the more you get.

To each his style

"You have to learn to chase the dragon," says Joop. "I've noticed that I have a completely different style from Carlos who has been smoking much longer than me. You see, he smokes in a way that's very painstaking. He makes a tiny flame and succeeds in sucking in almost all the smoke. He can spend hours over one packet. I' m different. I' m much greedier and so I lose a lot of smoke. That' s why I've lined the inside of my tube with aluminium foil. After I've smoked there's always a bit of red deposit left. That is pure dope that I haven't absorbed. I keep this foil for the next morning. First of all I heat up the deposit till it turns into a drop and then I smoke it.

"It suits me perfectly. It's more healthy and I get more pleasure out of my dope. I take longer over a packet and I still feel good. I am also more sociable. Smoking together is much more sociable than shooting up together, isn't it? You also feel more inclined to give some away. Compare it with someone who sits sociably at the bar and treats everyone to a round. That's totally different from someone sitting in the toilet on the sly and tossing back the contents of a hip-flask. I don't think of myself as a junkie any more, but as a user."

John-Peter Kools