Long-term Chinese heroin users in a southwestern mining city complain that they feel stuck in the past. Departing from narratives that focus on the potency of the opiate, this article argues that this cohort of heroin users experience their struggles as a form of hysteresis—they lag behind ongoing transformations of private-sector life occurring around them. First exploring the arrival of heroin during early post-Mao economic liberalization campaigns, the author shows how in the late 1980s and early 1990s the opiate briefly circulated among private-sector actors who cultivated “daring” dispositions to take advantage of dangerous emerging market opportunities. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, one-time private-sector pioneers see their heroin use as one of many maladapted habits hindering their participation in a local economy now dominated by different types of workers. Recovery, according to these long-time users, is not conceived of as an attempt to return to an earlier way of drug-free living; rather, to recover is to adapt to the economic and social demands of a different historical moment. The conclusion considers how understanding this cohort as entrepreneurs from the country’s recent past contributes to broader discussions of experiences of marginalization among workers in China and beyond.

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