It’s just before 1 p.m. on a cool, sunny Monday afternoon in late November. On a quiet residential street in Montreal, half a dozen heroin addicts are waiting by office phones and cellphones in a drop-in centre and residence for opiate users and recovering addicts.
Their fingers are poised to hit the speed dial button. At precisely 1 p.m. each Monday, the phone lines open at the city’s main opiate-addiction treatment centre, the Centre de recherche et d’aide pour narcomanes.
The centre is so overwhelmed with demand, only the first caller to get through each week gets a coveted treatment spot.
Treatment centres in cities around Canada are struggling to cope with a surge of addicts — many younger than ever before — who are hooked on a rising tide of heroin pouring into this country from war-torn Afghanistan.
It’s a similar story across much of the rest of the world. After years of declining use in the 1990s, heroin and other opiates have made a startling resurgence around the globe — thanks in large part to a 37-fold increase in Afghan opium production since 2001, when Canadian soldiers helped the U.S. overthrow the country’s Taliban government. Afghanistan now supplies 92 per cent of the world’s opium.
Increased heroin supply in Canada, Europe and Asia and falling prices of the drug are the little-noticed side-effects of the Western presence in Afghanistan since 2001.
While the Taliban had banned opium production, the poppy now flourishes in Afghanistan under the noses of Canadian and other Western officials — and sometimes directly under the boots of Canadian soldiers who are occasionally pictured in newspaper photos sauntering through poppy fields while on the prowl for Taliban fighters.
Opium generated $3.4 billion for Afghanistan’s economy in 2008 and accounted for a third of its GDP, employing about two million Afghans. It prompted Hillary Clinton to call Afghanistan a “narco-state” during her confirmation hearing as U.S. secretary of state last year.
Despite this, critics say Canadian and other Western governments have entertained close ties with Afghan warlords and officials suspected or known to be involved in the opium business and have turned a blind eye to a devastating drug that kills 100,000 people worldwide each year.
These concerns were heightened earlier in December, when whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks released a U.S. diplomatic cable that said Afghan President Hamid Karzai had intervened in several drug cases, including one in which he pardoned five Afghan policemen convicted of transporting 124 kilograms of heroin.
Another cable said the president’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the most powerful official in Kandahar province, where Canadian Forces are headquartered, “is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker.”
As a former addict, Guy-Pierre Levesque, knows all about the consequences of heroin addiction. Now 55 years old, he started doing morphine at age 20, then heroin a year later. It consumed his life. He lost his job, his car, his house. He stole for years to support a habit that lasted until he was 39.
While getting clean, he found a new obsession: helping other addicts. He spearheaded the creation of the Meta d’Ame drop-in centre in Montreal, which opened its doors last summer.
The centre offers clients 26 small apartments and works with residents and walk-in visitors to help turn their lives around. Also available are laundry facilities, computers with Internet access, a rooftop vegetable garden, cooking classes, warm meals prepared by residents and volunteers, and help booking appointments and finding ever-elusive treatment spots.
He said the clientele he sees is getting younger.
“When I started doing heroin, people began to use when they were 19 or 20 years old. Today, some are 14,” Levesque said.
Sylvie Des Roches, director of the city’s main opiate addiction treatment centre, says she’s noticed the same trend.
“We’re seeing an increase in abuse among young people, and we’re seeing them start at a younger age,” she says.
The growing addiction problems have swamped her centre and others, she said.
The Centre de recherche et d’aide pour narcomanes now has 90 opiate users age 18 to 34 enrolled in its most intensive treatment program for hard-core addicts — a figure that’s doubled since 2007.
“We find ourselves with clients who ask for treatment whom we can’t help,” Des Roches said.
“It’s a problem because when a young person wants treatment, they can’t be on a waiting list since they can overdose or commit suicide.”
The Quebec coroner’s office has reported a 20 per cent jump in accidental opiate overdose deaths since 2006, when the office started to track the data. The number of deaths went up from 64 in 2006 to 76 in 2008.
The opiate abuse is also leading to other problems. More than two-thirds of injection drug users have hepatitis C, while 18 per cent have HIV, said the Public Health Agency of Montreal in a report last week. It said the rates of both infections have gone up since 1998 although no data was given on how much.
Other Canadian cities are also seeing a resurgence of heroin. In Toronto, 10,500 students in Grades 7 to 12 — or 1.1 per cent of all students in those grades – reported using heroin in the previous year in 2007, according to the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
That was nearly two times the 0.6 per cent of students who reported the same thing in 2001.
Heroin use among Toronto students is now nearly back at the levels seen during the heroin heyday of the 1980s and early 1990s. That was when a global glut of cheap “junk” spawned the undead “heroin chic” look on fashion catwalks and contributed to the deaths of celebrities such as actor River Phoenix and Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin.
In British Columbia, the data is inexact, but an adolescent health survey in 2008 noted a “small but significant increase” in heroin use among students in the previous five years.
“It’s really an epidemic,” Levesque said.
One cause, he said, is the younger age of today’s users, who are less likely to be aware of the need to use clean needles to avoid passing on infections. “There’s more contamination among young people.”
Another growing problem, he said, is Afghan heroin is often less pure than the product from other countries. Wholesalers cut — or dilute — heroin with various products to fatten up their profit margins. They use everything from benign substances such as flour and baby powder to more dangerous products such as disinfectants, plaster and sawdust that can cause infection, poisoning and even death.
The price has also fallen thanks to Afghanistan’s booming opium supply. A point of heroin (a tenth of gram, the most commonly purchased quantity for street users) has dropped from $35 to $30 in the past decade, said Levesque.
Canada is far from being the only country hit by the flood of Afghan opium. Among the worst-hit countries is Afghanistan itself, which has an estimated one million opiate addicts – eight per cent of the population. The number of heroin users has doubled in the past five years.
Ground Zero of the impacts is Russia, a major transshipment route for Afghan heroin to Europe. There, the number of heroin addicts has exploded tenfold in the past decade. President Dmitry Medvedev last year called the drug a threat to national security and accused Western nations of not doing enough to stop Afghan opium production.
A UN report last year put the problems in stark perspective.
“The number of people who die of heroin overdoses in NATO countries per year (above
10,000) is five times higher than the total number of NATO troops killed in Afghanistan in the past eight years,” it said.
“We need to go back to the dramatic opium addiction in China a century ago to find comparable statistics.”
Andre Michalski started shooting heroin at age 15 and eventually turned to smuggling it between Montreal and New York to support his habit. He lost promising jobs as a network cameraman and film location scout and was arrested for heroin trafficking in 2005. Now 45, he is on probation and getting treatment while he lives at Meta d’Ame in Montreal.
He tallies the toll the drug took on his life: “No career, no job, a lot of broken relationships.”
Heroin seizures appear to be more prevalent nationwide. Canadian police seized 92 kilograms of heroin in 2008, up from 67 kilograms in 2001 — a 38 per cent increase, according to Health Canada, which tests seized drugs for police forces. They also seized 67 per cent more raw opium.
Quebec and Ontario both saw fourfold increases in the total amounts of heroin and opium seized in each province between 2001 and 2008.
In Alberta, the seizure data has gone through the roof. Police in the province seized 42 times more heroin and opium each year on average between 2002 and 2008 than in the 1995-2001 period.
Heroin and opium are also now popping up in parts of Canada where they were unheard of before, such as Nova Scotia, despite the fact that RCMP reports say the main heroin entry points are Toronto, Vancouver and to a lesser extent Montreal.
It comes in concealed on passengers and in courier parcels, by air cargo, regular mail and ship cargo.
Nova Scotia didn’t have any heroin or opium seizures in the seven years up to and including 2001. Then, in 2002, the province saw a whopping 21 kilograms of heroin seized, nearly half of the total in the entire country that year, along with another 52 kilograms of opium in 2004.
Canada is also seeing new types of opiates for the first time. Such as doda.
Vicky Dhillon is a limo driver-turned-city councillor in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, Ont. He first heard about the doda coming to Canada when his teenage son told him kids were using it in his high school and buying it openly.
The highly addictive brownish powder, made by grinding the seed pods of opium poppies, is mixed with tea or hot water and is known as “poor man’s heroin” because it’s so cheap.
Last year, police arrested 22 Toronto-area doda dealers and seized 432 kilograms of suspected doda — enough to get 432,000 people high.
Doda has now spread across Canada and is available in Montreal, Quebec City, Edmonton and Vancouver, Dhillon said.
Addiction workers in Vancouver said in a CBC report this year that doda is as common today as marijuana in some city neighbourhoods and that doda abuse has become a “big problem” in the city’s South Asian community.
The face of heroin traffickers is also changing. New Southwest Asian-linked crime groups now dominate heroin and opium smuggling and have elbowed out Italian and East Asian organized crime that used to dominate the heroin market, according to former users and RCMP drug situation reports.
Their methods are innovative. Canadian police have found heroin and opium hidden inside cricket bats, the inner lining of briefcases, hollowed-out women’s shoe soles, chocolates and a tombstone.
In Vancouver, Indo-Canadian crime gangs that sell Afghan heroin are fighting a violent war over drug turf that has seen 100 shootings.
Indo-Canadian gangs have also branched out to become involved in smuggling prescription opiates into Canada, such as oxycodone and codeine, RCMP drug situation reports say. That has helped feed an explosion in prescription opiate abuse among Canadians.
The profits from all this heroin are fantastic. Cocaine pales in comparison as a money-maker.
A kilogram of heroin that goes for $2,500 U.S. in Afghanistan wholesales in Montreal for $70,000 and has a street value of $300,000. It’s six times more valuable than the same amount of gold.
By contrast, cocaine selling for $2,000 in Colombia wholesales for about $40,000 in Montreal and is worth $120,000 on the street.
But little of that profit goes to the Afghan opium farmers who tend all those poppies. Even the Taliban rebels, who are widely accused of profiting from the opium trade, make only about $110 to $150 million a year off taxing opium farmers and shipments, according to UN estimates — small change compared to the $3.4 billion that opium generated in Afghanistan in 2008.
Much of those profits go into the pockets of Afghan warlords and officials allied with Canadian and Western forces, said one Canadian government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said the Canadian government has done little to curtail the Afghan warlords’ drug activities or even question Afghan politicians thought to be involved with drugs.
“We’ve been very passive. We haven’t taken controversial positions on these kinds of questions.”
The official tells one particularly grim story. In one province, an Afghan district chief convinced the British to send him troops, saying he needed protection from the Taliban.
Right away, the British soldiers who arrived faced withering attacks and were forced to withdraw. They later learned the district chief was actually an opium trafficker and that he had merely wanted the Brits to help him fight a rival drug gang. The attackers weren’t Taliban after all; they were the rival gangsters.
“The British ended up intervening in a gang war. This happens all the time,” the Canadian official said.
“We’re propping up crooks.”
Amir Attaran agrees. “Opium is the problem in Afghanistan. A corrupt narco-elite runs the country,” he said.
Attaran is a University of Ottawa law professor and development expert who has studied Afghanistan’s drug trade.
He said both sides in the country’s war have an interest in perpetuating the conflict because of their involvement with opium. “You cannot grow opium and traffic it on a large scale in peacetime. You need a fog of war,” he said.
“If you want to understand the conflict in Afghanistan, you have to understand this is a gang war.”
Attaran’s solution: Legalize Afghan opium and sell it for medical uses, joining countries such as India and Turkey that grow legal opium crops for the pharmaceutical market.
The result, he thinks, would be to turn warlords into regular businessmen and reduce the country’s violence and corruption. “I don’t really see an alternative that would succeed,” Attaran said.
This story was done with research assistance from the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting, a charitable non-profit dedicated to producing investigative reporting. Alex Roslin is the centre’s president, and Bilbo Poynter is its executive director.
By Alex Roslin and Bilbo Poynter
December 12, 2010 7:30 AM
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