WASHINGTON -- Booming Asian production of opium, from which heroin is made, has increased the supply of the drug in the United States and fueled fears of a rise in addiction.
"We have seen a sustained increase in the availability of heroin in the U.S. during the past five or six years," Ronald J. Caffrey, a top Drug Enforcement Administration official, told a congressional panel yesterday.
"The purity and potency of the U.S. heroin supply has also steadily increased," Caffrey added. "In the major metropolitan areas of the U.S., heroin is more affordable than it was a decade ago."
The chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., warned of a "growing heroin crisis in this country."
Maryland has long been a major market for heroin, with an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 addicts, most in Baltimore. Law enforcement officials in Maryland say that about two years ago they began committing more resources to fighting heroin after detecting an increase in trafficking.
"The suppliers were once again becoming more organized and receiving more supplies and higher purities of heroin," Harvey E. Eisenberg, who heads a Baltimore-based regional federal drug task force, said in a recent interview.
"Heroin is readily available in the metropolitan area," said Jack Taylor, the agent in charge of the DEA's Baltimore office.
Federal officials can't quantify the surge in heroin supplies. U.S. Customs' seizures of heroin and opium jumped nationwide from 1989 to 1990.
Federal officials told the congressional committee that Asian production of opium increased sharply in recent years. They presented a pessimistic assessment of the United States' ability to stop production or interdict drugs before they reach American communities.
Burma, or Myanmar as the country now calls itself, produces enough opium to meet world demand by itself. The military regime there "has reached a political accommodation with some major narco-insurgent groups" and "does not control the territory in which the narcotics producers operate," said Melvyn Levitsky, assistant secretary of state for narcotics matters.
Thailand, Laos, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Mexico and Guatemala are other major sources of opium or centers of heroin refining and trafficking. Most of the heroin sold in Maryland and elsewhere in the Eastern U.S. originates in Southeast Asia, especially Burma, Thailand and Laos, the so-called "Golden Triangle," authorities say.
Burmese production of opium in 1990 totaled an estimated 2,200 metric tons, double the amount in 1988, Levitsky reported. Worldwide, there was an estimated 10 percent decrease in opium production last year, but authorities attributed most of the decrease to poor weather plaguing opium poppy growers in Southeast Asia.
The Bush administration has prepared a new international heroin strategy that includes diplomatic initiatives to gain cooperation abroad, intensified law enforcement programs and funding for programs to persuade poppy farmers to raise other crops. But officials aren't very optimistic.
"The countless number of ethnic groups who have in recent years entered the very lucrative heroin trade pose linguistic, cultural and political problems which at times seem insurmountable," Caffrey said.
"In addition, the public concern over the crack and cocaine problem and the attendant violence has forced law enforcement to direct most of its resources towards addressing that problem."
The cocaine and heroin problems are linked: Traffickers often deal in both and federal officials fear that the decline in the cocaine epidemic in the U.S. will be replaced by increased heroin use.
"Stimulants such as cocaine wear people out," Dr. Herbert D. Kleber, a treatment and prevention expert with the national drug policy office, told the committee. "As a result they often turn to sedatives like heroin to calm their nerves and to achieve a more soothing high."
Kleber said the increased purity of heroin in some cities may encourage more people to use it in a smokable form.
"Nevertheless, while I believe careful attention is warranted, alarm is not," Kleber said. "Both historical patterns and the data I have seen suggest that while there may be some rise in heroin use in the next few years, the numbers will not be anywhere near the scale of the current crack epidemic."
Increased supply does not necessarily translate into increased demand, Kleber said. He noted that drug use in general is declining in the U.S., according to government surveys and other data, and that "heroin in general is still widely regarded as a dirty, highly addictive and anti-social drug."
But Rangel was less sanguine. He said the increase in supply and purity, combined with the possibility that burned-out cocaine users will switch to heroin, "contributes to our fears of heroin's resurgence."
Drug arrests in Baltimore
Year ... All drugs ... Heroin
1988 ... 15,985 ... 2,899
1989 ... 18,291 ... 4,756
1990 ... 15,416 ... 4,659
Source: Baltimore Police Department