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U.S. Department of State
1996 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, March 1997

United States Department of State

Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs


Heroin and Opiates

A deadly partnership between cocaine and heroin has been developing over the past few years. Though cocaine long ago displaced heroin as America's most dangerous illegal drug of choice, heroin has been gradually creeping back onto the US drug scene, not as rival, but as a partner Taken along with cocaine, it can moderate cocaine's stimulant effects. By itself, it can provide a mellow euphoria. Once dÈclassÈe as the drug of dead-end derelicts, heroin unfortunately may be acquiring a false respectability among younger drug users.

Though just as deadly and addictive as cocaine, heroin, as an opiate, has a special property that appeals to the drug trade and the addict alike: it permits many addicts to develop a long-term tolerance to the drug. Whereas constant cocaine use may kill a regular user in five years, a heroin addiction can last a decade or more, as long as addicts have access to a maintenance "fix." Some heroin addicts on maintenance doses have been known to preserve the facade of a normal life for years. For the drug trade, this insidious property holds out the long term promise of a steady customer base.

Unfortunately the US customer base may be on the rise. Estimates of the US heroin addict population, which for two decades had remained steady at 500,000 individuals, are being revised upward. Evidence of combined drug use suggests that more of the US's 2 million-plus hard-core cocaine addicts are using heroin to cushion the "crash" that follows the euphoria of using crack. Moreover, the heroin addict no longer need be the archetypal junkie shooting up heroin with a dirty needle. The high purity Colombian heroin now available in the US can be snorted like cocaine. This not only frees the user from the need for syringes but from the fear of contracting AIDS from infected needles. In order to develop an assured and profitable market in the United States, the drug trade seems to be counting on a new generation's ignorance of the devastating consequences of heroin use.

Heroin's popularity elsewhere in the world seems assured. Since opium poppies can grow in almost any country, there is no dearth of heroin. The USG estimates for 1996 place potential opium production at nearly 4,300 metric tons, probably a record amount. Sixty percent of that quantity grows in Burma, which by itself probably could satisfy world heroin demand. A bumper crop in Southeast Asia more than offset a drop in Southwest Asian production, which by itself meets most of Europe's heavy heroin needs, while satisfying important domestic demand in many of the source countries. As the chapters in this report indicate, heroin availability--and addiction--is rising throughout Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union. The Balkan Route's northern, central, and southern branches form the artery carrying high quality Afghan heroin into every important market in Europe. With Nigerians controlling much of the intercontinental heroin trade, Africa is an important region for not only heroin trafficking but for transshipment to European destinations. Southeast Asia, the world's largest source of heroin, not only contributes to the bulk of world supply but is an important consumer of heroin itself. As the region's economies boom, we can expect to see an even greater rise in heroin consumption. Even China, which once had all but eliminated heroin addiction, is experiencing a serious rise in teenage addiction. In short, except from the vantage point of the heroin trade, the near-term outlook is not encouraging.

Source and Transit Country Highlights.

In Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle region, the world's major source of opium, opium poppy cultivation increased for a second consecutive year. Burma remains the bread-basket of the opium trade, since it accounts for 65 percent of estimated total world opium poppy cultivation and 60 percent of estimated total potential opium gum production. Estimated production in Burma increased by nine per cent in 1996, for an estimated total of 2,560 metric tons, sufficient to produce 256 metric tons of heroin-probably more than enough to meet most of the world's heroin needs. Production in Laos also increased by 11 per cent, for an estimated total of 200 metric tons, or about 7 per cent of the Southeast Asian total. Production in Thailand increased in 1996 despite an aggressive eradication campaign, but remained minimal, accounting for only about one per cent of Southeast Asian production. From these figures it is clear that Burma remains the leading producer of heroin worldwide, and it remains the main overall source for heroin sold in the U.S. The USG's first survey of drug cultivation in Vietnam revealed 3,150 hectares of opium poppy, potentially capable of yielding 25 metric tons of opium gum.

Opium poppy cultivation dropped by 9 percent in Southwest Asia, after a 45 percent rise the year before. Afghanistan's poppy crop, the largest in the region, declined marginally. Pakistan's cultivation, on the other hand, fell by more than half following extension of the poppy ban in the Northwest Frontier Provinces. Afghan opium is the source of most of Europe's heroin. Sophisticated Pakistani trafficking organizations operating out of Quetta, Pakistan, smuggle heroin base and morphine out of Afghanistan to the international market. These groups place orders with the Afghani processors and arrange for transshipment of the drugs from Afghanistan through Pakistan and to Iranian or Turkish buyers who move it through Iran and into international drug channels. Most Afghan opium is destined for processing into heroin in Turkey. The finished heroin is sold primarily in Europe, while a limited quantity goes to the United States

Southwest Asian heroin continues to pour into Europe along the Balkan Route. With the branching of the route--northwards to Romania, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak Republics; southwards through Croatia, Slovenia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Greece and Albania--each of these countries now faces important domestic drug problems. Turkish trafficking groups, with distributors in ethnic enclaves in major European cities, control much of the Balkan Route heroin trade.

Russia is playing an increasingly pivotal role in Europe and Central Asia. Criminal organizations that had successfully operated under the Soviet regime entered the post-Cold War era with smuggling and distribution networks already in place. Using heroin sources established during the Soviet Union's war with Afghanistan, ethnically based gangs--many from the Caucasus--have burgeoned into major players in the European drug trade. They can use their networks to move Southwest Asian heroin through Central Asia to Russia and then onto destinations in the Baltics and Western Europe. Russian authorities noting a rampant increase in domestic drug use believe that there are now over 2 million drug users in Russia, with the numbers growing every year.

The Central Asian countries of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, formerly important poppy growing regions for the Soviet Union, are well placed to be conduits for much of this drug traffic. Kazakstan provides a bridge for Southeast Asian heroin to move to Europe and Russia from Asia. The other countries offer profitable access routes for Southwest Asian, primarily Afghan, heroin into Russia, the NIS and Europe. Heroin, which can fetch high prices in Russia and Europe, has been a tempting source of cash to finance the civil wars in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Nigeria is critical to the heroin trade. Nigeria is Africa's most significant transshipment point. But Nigerians also surface as the heroin traffickers par excellence on every continent. Though they are among the principal smugglers of Southeast Asian heroin into the United States, Nigerians are regularly arrested in Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Moscow, Riyadh, Bombay, etc. Unfortunately, rampant corruption at all levels of government in Nigeria virtually assures Nigerian trafficking organizations a favored place in the heroin trade.

Colombia is the Western Hemisphere's largest grower of opium poppies. Colombian heroin is being sold in greater quantities in the United States, and poses a particular threat because of well established marketing strategies and channels developed by cocaine traffickers. In addition, Colombian heroin is of high purity. For 1996, USG estimates showed Colombian opium poppy cultivation at 6,300 hectares, four percent less than last year, but enough to yield an estimated 63 metric tons of opium gum, or 6.3 tons of heroin, assuming no losses. Venezuela's border with Colombia has made it a potential poppy growing country. So far, however, USG-assisted eradication efforts have kept growth to insignificant levels. Over the past three years, the eradication program has destroyed over 3,000 hectares of opium poppy in the Sierra de Perija region along the Colombian border.

Mexico is Latin America's second largest cultivator of opium poppies. The 1996 crop was almost identical to the previous year's. After Mexican government eradication operations destroyed 7,900 hectares of poppy, there were 5,100 hectares available for exploitation by the drug syndicates, with an estimated potential yield of 54 metric tons of opium gum, or 5.4 metric tons of heroin. Though most of this heroin is destined for US markets, a USG-supported national drug use survey revealed a significant rise in intravenous heroin use in Mexican cities along the northern border with the US.

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