Nastier heroin arrives in U.S.

  • Mon May 24th, 2010 10:34pm
  • News

By Jim Salter and Alicia A. Caldwell Associated Press

WINFIELD, Mo. — Mexican drug smugglers are increasingly peddling a form of ultra-potent heroin that sells for as little as $10 a bag and is so pure it can kill unsuspecting users instantly, sometimes before they even remove the syringe from their veins.

An Associated Press review of drug overdose data shows that so-called “black tar” heroin — named for its dark, gooey consistency — and other forms of the drug are contributing to a spike in overdose deaths across the nation and attracting a new generation of users who are caught off-guard by its potency.

“We found people who snorted it lying face-down with the straw lying next to them,” said Patrick O’Neil, coroner in suburban Chicago’s Will County, where annual heroin deaths have nearly tripled — from 10 to 29 — since 2006. “It’s so potent that we occasionally find the needle in the arm at the death scene.”

Authorities are concerned that the potency and price of the heroin from Mexico and Colombia could widen the drug’s appeal, just as crack did for cocaine decades ago.

Originally associated with rock stars, hippies and inner-city junkies, heroin in the 1970s was usually smuggled from Asia and the Middle East and was around 5 percent pure. The rest was “filler” such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, even brick dust. The low potency meant that many users injected the drug to maximize the effect.

But in recent years, Mexican drug dealers have improved the way they process poppies, the brightly colored flowers supplied by drug farmers that provide the raw ingredients for heroin, opium and painkillers such as morphine. Purity levels have increased, and prices have fallen.

Federal agents now commonly find heroin that is 50 percent pure and sometimes as much as 80 percent pure.

An increasing amount of the deadliest heroin appears to be coming from Mexico. Although the vast majority still arrives from overseas, Mexican dealers appear to be chipping away at the U.S. market. To hook new users, dealers are selling heroin cheap — often around $10 a bag.

At the start of the decade, roughly 2,000 people a year died from heroin overdoses nationwide, according to records kept by the Centers for Disease Control. By 2008, the drug was blamed for at least 3,000 deaths in the 36 states that responded to records requests from the AP. Deaths from 2009 have not yet been compiled.