The Dope on Dope

How Global Heroin Shifts Could Hit Home

Like the U.S. bombing raids in Afghanistan, another aspect of the war—the Taliban's reported dumping of stockpiled heroin on the international market to raise quick cash—has seemed a distant reality on these shores. The geography that spares Americans from firsthand views of Afghan rubble and refugees blunts any immediate impact from the heroin glut here, unlike in some areas of Europe or Southwest Asia where street prices have halved. Yet early observers warn that the aftermath of September 11 has to affect U.S. heroin, if not the illicit drug trade at large. The only question is to what extent.

The level of heroin use in the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent years. There were an estimated 208,000 users nationwide in 1999, up 300 percent from the 68,000 in 1993, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. In New York, DEA heroin seizures have more than tripled since last year, from 93 kilos intercepted between October 1999 and September 2000 to 315 kilos from October 2000 just through this June. Special Agent Robert Gagne of the local DEA division attributes the spike not to an unusually large bust but simply to "more coming in." Cocaine seizures, however, diminished slightly over the same span—an indication, according to Gagne, that suppliers have been pushing drug demand toward the more profitable heroin sector.

Add to the considerable dependency on heroin the psychological blows felt by nearly everyone here since September 11, says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Lindesmith Center, a liberal drug policy foundation, and concerns about use and supply become more acute. Lindesmith is working with Dr. David Vlahov, director of urban epidemiological studies at the New York Academy of Medicine, to track how the stresses of terrorism and the economy are affecting drug users.

Yet unlike in Europe, which gets an estimated 90 percent or more of its heroin from Afghanistan, the U.S. supply comes in similarly high volume from Colombia and Mexico. (Although spots along the Eastern seaboard, especially New York, could get a not insignificant share—in 1997, as much as 20 percent—from the Afghan region.) So for now, assessing the impact of Taliban machinations on the domestic heroin market comes largely in anecdotal or theoretical bits.

One user, a 36-year-old Manhattanite, reports an intriguing change in the dope available recently. It's "dark brown" and "has a vinegary smell," unlike the "generally light beige or off-white" Colombian powder he is used to. The new kind reminds him of the Iranian stuff he used to buy when he started using 20 years ago. "I wonder why all of a sudden we're getting this stuff, and if it's from that part of the world," he says.

While supply from Central Asia may have increased slightly, experts consider it unlikely that Taliban heroin has suddenly flooded New York's market. To the contrary, Ric Curtis, anthropology chair at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who focuses on drug policy, shares an inverse hypothesis: The Taliban's stockpile dries up, possibly "within months." U.S. military efforts destroy or prevent poppy farming in Afghanistan. European heroin supplies dwindle and prices climb. The Colombians step in to fill the void, and because of the diversion in supply, New York prices go up as well.

When prices rise, the size of a bag stays the same, but "what's in the bag is going to change," says Curtis. The purity of the heroin, at record highs right now—the DEA's Gagne reports seizing amounts as pure as 95 percent compared to levels in the teens and twenties a decade ago—would suffer. "There's more of a chance of poisoning or getting weird cuts," says the Manhattan user. And for the poorest users, advocates say, having to buy more to get the same high leads to less spending on food and shelter and more of an inclination to shoot up than to snort. With heroin accounting for about one-third of emergency room drug mentions in New York—11,028 of 31,885 mentions in 2000, according to Department of Health and Human Services data—any shifts in heroin supply that could lead to riskier use is troubling.

Prices have already gone up on the other side of the Hudson, according to one user, a 44-year-old resident of New Brunswick, New Jersey, with a two-bag-a-day habit. She says the standard $10 bag now goes for $15, as dealers claim greater risk from tightened security in the New York area.

Liberal policy advocates worry that more law enforcement following September 11 will hurt the most vulnerable users. Sellers, despite what they might tell customers, will remain largely untouched or even find greater freedom as authorities focus on terrorism, advocates theorize. But street users risk more chance encounters with police on anti-terrorism patrol. While NYPD drug arrests dropped sharply in the weeks immediately following the terrorist attacks—down to 17 percent of the number in the same period the previous year—they are going up, from 261 between September 10 and 16 to 933 two weeks ago.

"Poor people of color" will be the primary victims of both rising prices and increased profiling or punitiveness, says user advocate Donald Grove of Harm Reduction Coalition, as they are already disproportionately impoverished and imprisoned on drug charges.

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