From grower to user, use has doubled in 20 years
Not a pinch of heroin is produced in the United States, yet thousands of pounds of the drug infiltrate our communities every year.
The story of how heroin gets here has all the hallmarks of a best-selling novel. It involves big money, murder, high-tech espionage, international politics, puppies, and people from across the economic and social spectrum.
The plot begins in a fertile Latin American field, where a peasant farmer illegally plants exotic, eye-catching opium poppy flowers to make money to feed his family. Months into the growing process, the flower pods are scored five times with a knife. Within days, black opium gum oozes from the flower's wounds.
The gum is harvested, sold to a criminal organization, transported to a refinery, and converted by a series of chemical processes into morphine. That drug is then pressed into bricks and blended with more chemicals. The end product is pure heroin.
The late 1980s saw enterprising Latin American drug lords supplement their burgeoning cocaine trade by enticing curious Americans with a form of heroin cheaper and purer than had been seen before. Abiding by a term familiar to economic majors — vertical integration — the crime organizations devoted fields to growing the opium poppy flower, knowing they could get their product to the United States quicker and easier than their competitors in Asia and the Middle East.
In the two decades since Latin America increased heroin production, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy says the number of addicts in the United States has doubled.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Afghanistan produced 92 percent of the world's heroin in 2004, while Latin America accounted for just 2 percent. Yet 84 percent of the heroin that reached the United States that year came from either Colombia or Mexico (60 and 24 percent, respectively).
Most of Mexico's heroin — a lower-potency, sticky form called "black tar" — heads to the West Coast, while Eastern states receive Colombian high-grade: a light brown, powdery substance.
"The majority of our heroin here in the Northeast is Colombian," DEA spokesman Anthony Pettigrew said. "Our goal at the DEA is to work with local police on cases and track the heroin as far back as possible, all the way to Colombia. We're always trying to work it back to the original source, to nab everyone involved in the chain."
After production, heroin reaches U.S. soil by couriers, whose techniques are limited only by their imagination. It's sewn into luggage, hidden in porcelain dolls, or stashed in the soles of shoes. Teenage girls swallow bags of it, board planes and land in U.S. airports, where they later excrete it and exchange it for cash; that is, if the bag doesn't burst in their stomachs and kill them.
DEA agents regularly find heroin hidden inside cars crossing the border and in cargo hulls on ships. A recent border patrol in Texas uncovered $5 million worth of the drug stuffed in a human corpse that had been stolen from a hospital. In one instance, six puppies were found with a total of three kilograms of liquid heroin baggies implanted beneath their skin.
Once the journey to the United States is complete, the drug is cut. Some dealers add minimal cutting agents, leaving the purity levels high to attract customers. On the tame side, the dilutants can be powdered milk, baking soda or caffeine. On the dark side, heroin can be bulked up with strychnine, crushed prescription pills or rat poison. As many times as it passes hands, it could be cut with a different substance, yielding a mishmash of mystery chemicals.
The DEA said a kilogram — 2.2 pounds — of pure heroin costs Colombian cartels $8,000 to produce. By the time it ends up in a heroin corridor such as Holyoke, it's sold for $55,000. And by the time it's cut, packaged in small, glassine baggies and sold for $5 — in 0.025 gram bags (a pinch of salt) — it can fetch $250,000.
Dealers, using the marketing skills of "dopenomics," stamp flashy labels on the bags — names like Mo Money, Bad Habit or Sniper — along with logos of dollar bills, handguns or naked women. If users try a bag of Mo Money heroin and like it, they know exactly what to ask for when they come back for more.
Average drug traffickers can lose 90 percent of their product to police or thieves and still remain profitable.
U.S. Army personnel and the DEA work with South American governments to eradicate the poppy crops, spraying chemicals and busting the drug organizations, but the drug still seeps into our communities.
"We're doing all we can do to fight the drugs," said Pittsfield Police Detective Glenn F. Decker. "In the end, we lose the war on drugs because we can't protect our borders."