CRIME

Cheap-and deadly

Heroin usage is up because of a price drop

DIANE BRADY April 5 1993
CRIME

Cheap-and deadly

Heroin usage is up because of a price drop

DIANE BRADY April 5 1993

Cheap-and deadly

CRIME

Heroin usage is up because of a price drop

DIANE BRADY

By the age of 28, Sally Snow was taking desperate measures to help forget a past filled with incest and to relieve the pressures of raising three children alone. During the mid-1980s, while the media’s attention was focused on cocaine,

Snow was fading into a bone-thin heroin junkie who would pawn her daughter’s jewelry or steal from friends to finance her $600-a-day habit. In 1991, after she had contracted chronic hepatitis from a dirty needle, Snow finally broke her addiction by entering a treatment program and replacing heroin with the synthetic substitute, methadone. But last year, she had a relapse that nearly took her life. The reason: the quality of heroin had changed, dramatically. “The purity of the stuff almost killed me,” said the 35-yearold Toronto social worker, who has stayed clear of drugs for about a year. Indeed, the in-

But, according to drug officials, bumper crops of Asian poppies, which are used to produce heroin, have sent prices crashing down 50 per cent to as low as $300 per gram for highgrade white heroin. At the same time, producers in countries such as Pakistan and Lebanon have increased supplies of brown heroin, a less refined opiate. For hard-core addicts, the erratic quality can be frightening. Said Joel, a 32-year-old heroin user in Toronto’s west end, who declined to be fully identified: “It’s hard to know if your regular hit will get you high or send you to heaven for good.”

creased supply of inexpensive, purer—and deadlier—heroin has caught drug officials’ attention across the country.

As cocaine started to take over as the recre-

ational hard drug of choice during the early 1980s, heroin appeared to be a ripe candidate for extinction. “It didn’t seem as innocent as marijuana or as glorified as cocaine,” says Const. Robert Bouchard, of the Montreal Urban Community Police narcotics unit. At the time, heroin was also priced beyond most first-time users at about $600 per gram—or between $35 and $50 for an average fix. And heroin’s demise seemed assured during the mid-1980s after researchers established a link between intravenous drug use—the preferred way of taking the drug—and AIDS.

For a growing number of heroin

users, the addiction has had tragic

consequences. Former Vancouver coroner Kenneth Pitt said that about 200 people died from overdoses last year—a dramatic increase from 1989, when 67 users died. But he

added that emergency medical assistance saved several hundred other addicts from death by overdose. Said Pitt:

“In some of them, the spike is still stuck in their arms.”

Before reaching the user, suppliers usually mix the drug with icing sugar, powdered baby laxative or another filler. Like alcohol, heroin is too lethal to ingest in its purest form: the drug suppresses the part of the brain that controls breathing, potentially causing death. Until recently, addicts based their dosage on standard assumptions about the purity. But because of a glut of heroin on the market, dealers are selling a much purer form of the drug. “Those people who have been using threeto five-per-cent purity suddenly get 30 per cent or 35 per cent,” said Sgt. Gary Dalton of the Vancouver city police drug squad. “As soon as the needle’s in the arm, they’re dead.”

But cracking down on illegal drug suppliers alone does not curb usage, according to Montreal’s Bouchard. “When you double your manpower and you end up quadrupling your seizures of drugs, you can pat yourself on the back, but you’re not doing much at street level,” he added. “Eighty-five per cent of the stuff makes it through.” As a result, police in

Montreal are targeting elementaiy-school children and their parents in an education program about drugs. “The idea behind it is that if you can shut down the demand side a little bit, you’re going to take away the incentive to make a profit,” explained Bouchard. “But it’s dreaming in Technicolor to think you’re going to get rid of the problem considerably.”

So far, the most effective way to get heroin addicts off their habit has been with methadone, an oral medication that prevents withdrawal symptoms but does not provide a euphoric effect. The drug reduces the craving for heroin and blocks its effect if it is used. But some say that officials have been slow to sup-

port extensive programs, which can cost as much as $16,000 a year per person, because of the addictive properties of methadone itself. Although about 15,000 of the country’s 30,000 heroin addicts are in Ontario— most of the rest live in Vancouver and Montreal— only about 250 receive methadone treatment.

Still, demand for the cong troversial treatment has I increased dramatically in i recent years. At the g Toronto-based Addiction ^ Research Foundation alone, the waiting list for methadone has more than tripled to 109, from 30 last year. Responding to the demand, the Ontario government last year announced plans for a new clinic that will treat another 100 people. “At the moment,” said Bruce Skeaff, spokesman for the province’s health ministry, “there is no money to get beyond this, even if we want to.”

But thousands of addicts still reject any substitutes for the real thing. “I want something to feel good, not just something that stops me from being sick,” said Joel. “I can get good stuff now. Really good.” He sighed, “I’ve just got to be more careful.”

DIANE BRADY