Pubdate: Tue, 26 Dec 2006
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2006 Los Angeles Times
Author: Garrett Therolf, Times Staff Writer


The World's Purest Form Can Kill More Addicts, As Seen In L.A. County.

Supplies of highly potent Afghan heroin in the United States are 
growing so fast that the pure white powder is rapidly overtaking 
lower-quality Mexican heroin, prompting fears of increased addiction 
and overdoses.

Heroin-related deaths in Los Angeles County soared from 137 in 2002 
to 239 in 2005, a jump of nearly 75% in three years, a period when 
other factors contributing to overdose deaths remained unchanged, 
experts said. The jump in deaths was especially prevalent among users 
older than 40, who lack the resilience to recover from an overdose of 
unexpectedly strong heroin, according to a study by the county's 
Office of Health Assessment and Epidemiology.

"The rise of heroin from Afghanistan is our biggest rising threat in 
the fight against narcotics," said Orange County sheriff's spokesman 
Jim Amormino. "We are seeing more seizures and more overdoses."

According to a Drug Enforcement Administration report obtained by The 
Times, Afghanistan's poppy fields have become the fastest-growing 
source of heroin in the United States. Its share of the U.S. market 
doubled from 7% in 2001, the year U.S. forces overthrew the Taliban, 
to 14% in 2004, the latest year studied. Another DEA report, released 
in October, said the 14% actually could be significantly higher.

Poppy production in Afghanistan jumped significantly after the 2001 
U.S. invasion destabilized an already shaky economy, leading farmers 
to turn to the opium market to survive.

Not only is more heroin being produced from Afghan poppies coming 
into the United States, it is also the purest in the world, according 
to the DEA's National Drug Intelligence Center.

Despite the agency's own reports, a DEA spokesman denied that more 
heroin was reaching the United States from Afghanistan. "We are NOT 
seeing a nationwide spike in Afghanistan-based heroin," Garrison K. 
Courtney wrote in an e-mail to The Times.

He said in an interview that the report that showed the growth of 
Afghanistan's U.S. market share was one of many sources the agency 
used to evaluate drug trends. He refused to provide a copy of DEA 
reports that could provide an explanation.

The agency declined to give The Times the report on the doubling of 
Afghan heroin into the U.S. A copy was provided by the office of U.S. 
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate Caucus on 
International Narcotics Control.

This potent heroin, which the DEA says sells for about $90 a gram in 
Southern California, has prompted warnings from some officials who 
deal with addicts that they reduce the amount of the drug they use. 
Many addicts seeking the most euphoric high employ a dangerous 
calculation to gauge how much of the drug they can consume without 
overdosing. An unexpectedly powerful bundle of heroin, therefore, can 
be deadly.

"I tell people, 'If you're using it, only use half or three-quarters 
of what you used to,' because of the higher potency," said Orlando 
Ward, director of public affairs at the Midnight Mission on Los 
Angeles' skid row.

Health workers in boutique rehab centers as well as health clinics 
for the homeless say increasing numbers of clients are addicted to 
more powerful heroin.

"My patients say it's more available and cheaper," said Michael H. 
Lowenstein, a doctor at the Waismann Method detoxification center in 
Beverly Hills.

Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs 
and Crime, warned world health authorities in October of the increase 
in Afghan heroin.

"This, in turn, is likely to prompt a substantial increase in the 
number of deaths by overdose, as addicts are not used to injecting 
doses containing such high concentrations of the drug," he said.

 From 1980 through 1985, Afghan heroin dominated the U.S. market, 
with a 47% to 54% share, according to the DEA.

AFGHANISTAN'S share dwindled to 6% for much of the 1990s, as 
competition from Southeast Asia and Colombia grew. Meanwhile, the 
Taliban was cracking down as it gained territory, virtually 
eliminating poppy production after taking over the country.

Once the fundamentalist Islamic government was overthrown in 2001, 
Afghans turned once again to the poppy trade to survive in one of the 
poorest countries in the world.

A report released Nov. 28 by the World Bank said U.S. and European 
efforts to end Afghanistan's $2.3-billion opium business were failing.

The production of opium used to produce heroin reached its highest 
level ever in Afghanistan this year. It accounted for more than 
one-third of Afghanistan's gross domestic product and 90% of the 
world's supply of illicit opium, mainly going to Asia and Europe, 
according to the report.

The poppy crop now drives the economy in some regions of the 
embattled nation, helping to fund a Taliban resurgence.

In the United States, Afghan and Mexican poppies tied for second 
place among sources of heroin in 2004, according to the DEA's Heroin 
Signature Program. South America, led by top supplier Colombia, held 
69% of the market.

That figure had dropped 19 percentage points from the 2003 level as 
U.S. and Colombian efforts to eradicate the trade enjoyed success and 
as Afghanistan's share increased, according to the DEA.

The Department of Homeland Security also has found evidence of 
increasing Afghan heroin in this country. The agency reported 
skyrocketing numbers of seizures of heroin arriving at U.S. airports 
and seaports from India, not a significant heroin-producing country 
but a major transshipment point for Afghan drugs.

The seizure of heroin packages from India increased from zero in 2003 
to 433 in 2005 -- more than 80% of total mail seizures of heroin 
arriving in the U.S. that year.

In the meantime, although they may not recognize the product as 
coming from Afghanistan, addicts across the country are increasingly 
coming into contact with more powerful heroin.

"There is a different kind of heroin now," said Eric Wade, a 
32-year-old recovering addict in Portland, Ore. "It is very, very 
strong, and it is cheaper than the other stuff. Not everybody has 
access to it, but I've seen more people overdose ... on that stuff."

In Ballwin, Mo., an affluent suburb of St. Louis, two sisters were 
arrested in the spring, accused of selling "China white" heroin 
between classes at their high school.

Capt. Tom Jackson, who leads the St. Louis County Police Department's 
bureau of drug enforcement, said investigators thought the heroin 
traveled to the campus from Afghanistan with the help of Nigerian 
traffickers, a Chicago gang and a downtown St. Louis drug dealer.

"This China white is so pure that they can snort it or smoke it," 
Jackson said. "So, no needles or track marks."
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