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."