Forty or fifty years ago heroin addicts were overwhelmingly male, disproportionately black, and very young (the average age of first use was 16). Most came from poor inner-city neighbourhoods. These days, more than half of the users are women, and 90% are white. The drug has crept into the suburbs and the middle classes. And although users are still mainly young, the age of initiation has risen: most first-timers are in their mid-20s, according to a study led by Theodore Cicero of Washington University in St Louis.
The spread of heroin to a new market of relatively affluent, suburban white people has allowed the drug to make a big comeback in the United States, after decades of decline. Over the past six years the number of annual users has almost doubled, from 370,000 in 2007 to 680,000 in 2013. Heroin is still rare compared with most other drugs: Cannabis, America’s favourite high (still mostly illegal), has nearly 50 times as many users, for instance. But heroin’s resurgence means that, by some measures, it is more popular than crack cocaine, the “bogeyman” of the 1980s and 1990s.
America gets most of its heroin from Mexico, now the world’s third-biggest producer of opium, after Afghanistan and Myanmar.
United States’ Law Enforcement Agencies have seen the impact. Seizures of heroin at the border with Mexico have risen from 560 kg (1,230 lb) in 2008 to about 2,100 kg last year. And the smugglers have become bolder. “Three or four years ago, 5 lb was big. Now sometimes we’re finding 20 lb,” says Kevin Merrill, the assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Denver, Colorado.
The low transport costs faced by Mexican traffickers, who need only drive from Sinaloa to the border, mean that their heroin is far cheaper than the Colombian or Asian sort. A gram of pure heroin in America now costs about $400, less than half the price, in real terms, that it cost in the 1980s. And whereas much of the heroin in the past was of the “black tar” variety, which is usually injected, there is a trend towards brown heroin, which lends itself better to snorting and smoking. That matters to novice heroin users, who may be skittish about needles.
From Mexico to California to New York
An investigation by Mexico City Newspaper EL UNIVERSAL revealed that the Sinaloa cartel has taken over the heroin market in the United States, displacing Colombia and Afghanistan.
Jeen Blake, 40, drove his truck from Queens, New York to Riverside, California. The journey of at least 42 hours to cross the entire country from one end to another had an extremely profitable purpose: to deliver 750,000 dollars in exchange for 15 kilos (33 pounds) of heroin.
Blake, an employee of Good Guys Transport Corporation, took a week to go to California and return to New York. Inside his truck there were shoe soles in which part of the drug was hidden. The rest was hidden in square packages placed in secret compartments. After traveling 4,800 kilometers (2,982 miles), the driver arrived in New York on August 26, unaware that he was monitored by a special operation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the state police.
The driver had planned to meet with the owner of the company, Dorian Cabrera, in a parking lot in Long Island to deliver the goods. However when they both entered the trailer they were surprised by the agents, who found more than US$300,000 in cash apart from the drug. Inside the premises of Cabrera’s business they found US$190,000 more and expensive jewels. Both were charged with drug possession and conspiracy. The cargo was worth nine million dollars street price, according to DEA Special Agent in New York James Hunt.
“We believe that the drug entered the country through New Mexico, was taken to California and then to New York. They go in circles. There is so much money involved that it is worth the effort of transiting safer routes. Even if they lose a significant amount on the road there is much more,” said Bridget Brennan, Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York.
An investigation by EL UNIVERSAL revealed that the Sinaloa cartel has taken over the heroin market in the United States and even though authorities have it under the microscope, the criminal gang has not only succeeded in displacing Colombia and Afghanistan, but is also seeking to distribute it in more U.S. states.
Presence in over a thousand cities
According to the DEA, 50% of the heroin sold in the United States is produced in Mexico, between 43% and 45% comes from Colombia and the rest from Asian countries. However, almost all of it is supplied by Mexican cartels.
In an interview with EL UNIVERSAL, Brennan said that the Sinaloa cartel supplies heroin to New York and the rest of the country. According to the latest report from the Justice Department, Mexican traffickers operate in 1,286 cities. In less than 10 years Mexico has managed to replace Colombia and nations like Pakistan and Afghanistan as the main heroin supplier in the United States. Currently, Mexico is the second largest producer of opium and marijuana, according to the latest report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
New York is currently experiencing a heroin use epidemic that had not been seen since the 70s that according to Brennan is due to the increased supply since late 2008, when groups like the Sinaloa cartel began to produce it.
According to the latest estimate from the Office of National Drug Control Policy of the White House Mexico grows about 10,500 hectares (25,946 acres) of opium poppy.
“The heroin we have seized was not only going to be distributed in New York, but also in other states like Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Vermont. New York has become a hub,” the prosecutor said.
35% of heroin seizures across the country in the past year have taken place in this city. The largest seizure in the last five years was in 2013: 356 kilos (784 pounds). Until May 2014, 98 kilos (216 pounds) had been seized, compared to 63 kilos (138 pounds) last year in the same period.
The new heroin routes have also affected states that had never had heroin problems before, such as Maine or Vermont. In January Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin declared a health emergency due to a 770% increase in opiate use from 2000 to date.
According to James Hunt, DEA special agent in New York, when oxycodone prescriptions become harder to get, Mexican cartels take the opportunity to replace that drug with heroin, which is much cheaper and more addictive.
“Mexicans are filling the market. They are smart businessmen with a product that is poison. Heroin today is cheaper and more abundant and powerful than it was 20 years ago,” he said at a press conference in September.
In 2008 supplies of Mexican heroin increased, and so did its quality. In previous decades it was common to find a poor-quality heroin called black tar. However, in recent years, Mexican heroin has become mainly white and its effect is more powerful with a 40% to 60% purity compared to 10% in the 70s.
A kilo (2.2 pounds) of pure heroin can be used to produce more than 50,000 doses worth half a million dollars after being “cut” with chemicals such as strychnine and quinine or substances like sugar, chalk or borax.
On the streets of New York and vicinity, several groups control the sale of heroin. While the drug comes from Mexico, once in the city it falls into different hands.
“We have seen Russians, Eastern Europeans, Colombians and Mexicans. It is not exclusive to one group,” the prosecutor added.
Mexican cartels have increased the supply of heroin in the United States, especially the Sinaloa cartel. In 2013, 3,665 Americans died from heroin abuse.
Acxel Barboza, New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, spent much of his life buying white envelopes in Harlem, north of Manhattan, for 10 dollars at one of the corners controlled by gangs like The Latin Kings or The Bloods, that operate throughout the United States. The envelopes contained a dose of heroin with a 60% purity.
Five years later, Barboza is still in the corners of Harlem, but instead of buying heroin he distributes pamphlets, syringes, methadone and condoms to help addicts have a “responsible consumption“.
Since Barboza stopped using heroin he joined the New York Harm Reduction Educators, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting the health, safety and well-being of marginalized, low-income persons who use drugs. The logic of such groups is that drug use is a public health issue, so their mission is preventing drug users from dying from an overdose or diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.
“Sometimes they take us for drug traffickers. They see us in the corners with syringes and they believe that we sell heroin, but we are just the opposite,” says the man in his 30s.
The worst epidemic
New York is experiencing its worst heroin use epidemic since the 70’s. Around 420 people died last year from an overdose and consumption grew 84% between 2010 and 2012. According to a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 6.2 people per 100,000 inhabitants died from an overdose in New York City last year, the highest rate in the last decade.
The number of deaths is also high throughout the United States, where Mexican cartels have increased the supply of heroin, especially the Sinaloa cartel. In 2013, 3,665 people died from heroin use, compared to 1,799 in 2012.
Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, began working on the streets of New York in 1990 providing sterile syringes for addicts.
Like many other New Yorkers, Clear knew several addicts who had AIDS or hepatitis C. “There were 200,000 consumers and half of them had HIV. Many people were dying and something had to change,” he recalls.
Consumption was very visible throughout the city back then, especially in communities like Bronx, Brooklyn or Harlem. You could see people smoking crack or using heroin and cocaine. Many of those drug users often end up sick, dead, in prison or secluded in psychiatric institutions. Many were also left homeless.
Consumption in New York has become invisible compared to those years, even though it has not diminished. There are two theories to explain the phenomenon.
One is technology: the increased use of mobile phones made home delivery possible. Cyrus Vance, District Attorney of New York County, said in April last year: “Residents of Manhattan today can get nearly everything delivered to their doorstep – from dinner to dry cleaning and even cocaine.”
The prosecutor made this statement after a two-year investigation that ended with 41 arrests. The detainees, that belonged to three gangs, sold cocaine at twice the market value in Manhattan. Their customers were students, housewives or Wall Street bankers. Prosecutors estimate that during the time that the police kept track of them they sold drugs worth up to US$1.2 million.
The other theory is known in New York as “broken windows”, which means that drug use is tolerated under two conditions: that there is no strife or violence and that it is not public in the tourist areas of New York.
“If you ask me: what is the community where most drugs are consumed I would say Wall Street,” says Matt Curtis, Policy Director at NY-Vocal, another organization dedicated to harm reduction among drug users.
The epidemic has reached suburbs like Staten Island, one of the most affected parts of the city, where 36 people died from heroin use in 2012 and 37 more for abusing prescription pills like oxycodone. Experts say that consumption has changed in this area. Many young people addicted to opioids began using heroin because it is cheaper and more powerful.
When authorities closed clandestine clinics where these pills were prescribed, local traffickers started selling heroin for up to five dollars. Other affected groups are Hispanics in the Bronx, mainly men between 40 and 50 years. Last year 146 died from overdoses, compared to 64 in 2010.
“Until young whites began to die in Staten Island nobody realized that we faced a serious heroin epidemic,” says Mike Selick, from New York Harm Reduction Educators.
* The authors won the 2013 National Journalism Award and the 2014 Ortega y Gasset Journalism Award for a series entitled “Narcotics in America”, published by EL UNIVERSAL.
Other sources: http://www.economist.com/
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