At the Loudoun Crime Commission luncheon last week, guest speaker Jack Riley, Director of Operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), stated,[read_more]
“This is an enemy which we have never seen, with 70 to 80% [of heroin] coming right from Mexico and very sophisticated Mexican cartels.”
A quick education on Heroin
- Heroin is an opioid drug that is synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring pain killer extracted from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant. Heroin usually appears as a white or brown powder or as a black sticky substance, known as “black tar heroin.”
- Over 5 million Americans aged 12 or older (or nearly 2 percent) have used heroin at least once in their lives. It is estimated that over 23 percent of individuals who use heroin become dependent on it.
- Heroin can be injected, inhaled by snorting or sniffing, or smoked. All three routes of administration deliver the drug to the brain very rapidly, which contributes to its health risks and to its high risk for addiction, which is a chronic relapsing disease caused by changes in the brain and characterized by uncontrollable drug-seeking no matter the consequences.
- Heroin overdoses frequently involve a suppression of breathing. This can affect the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, a condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia can have short- and long- term psychological and neurological effects, including coma and permanent brain damage.
In addition to the effects of the drug itself, street heroin often contains toxic contaminants or additives that can clog blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain, causing permanent damage to vital organs.
Chronic use of heroin leads to physical dependence, a state in which the body has adapted to the presence of the drug. If a dependent user reduces or stops use of the drug abruptly, he or she may experience severe symptoms of withdrawal.
“The cartels have distribution points in most every major city,” says Riley. Basically, there are distribution points and there are user hubs. Locally, Loudoun Sheriff Mike Chapman says,
“Loudoun is a user hub location, the heroin comes from outside of the area, where the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office does not have jurisdiction.” Chapman added, “That is why it is absolutely critical for us to work closely with our area counterparts to identify sources of supply and distribution networks, outside of the area, to local users.”
Just an hour north of Loudoun is Baltimore, Maryland–a major distribution hub. In fact, Baltimore is now known as the U.S. Heroin Capital according to Carter Yang’s article at ABC News. This is because Baltimore has the highest per capita heroin addiction rate in the country. In a city of 645,000, the Baltimore Department of Health estimates there are 60,000 drug addicts, with as many as 48,000 of them hooked on heroin, Yang reports. Where there is opportunity, there are cartels feeding the problem. So, Baltimore is both a distribution and a user hub.
One thing is for sure, we DO NOT want Loudoun (or surrounding jurisdictions) to become a distribution and user hub.
So, if the drugs come from elsewhere, Baltimore and New York for example, and local law enforcement does not have jurisdiction, what can be done?
This is where you hear the term “task force.” While local busts of users or street dealers may provide a community with a sense of relief about “cleaning up the streets,” the more important focus is to obtain information on their suppliers. In practically all local cases, the area of origin of heroin is Baltimore. Washington, DC, New York and several cities in Florida also serve as distribution points for the East Coast. Regardless of how many users or low level street dealers you take off the street, the drug highway keeps flowing if distributors are not disrupted. A local bust in this arena is like a single-car traffic accident—quickly cleared and traffic simply continues–the road does not close.
Cartels and their higher level distributors count on local law enforcement to not have a comprehensive plan of attack. In fact, they count on local jurisdictions 1) not coordinating, sharing information, or becoming involved in multi-jurisdictional task forces, and 2) pacifying the public with the arrests of users and street pushers to “clean up the streets.” Unfortunately, that has only marginal impact on overall operations.
“To effectively fight the growing heroin problem it is critical, absolutely critical, that local jurisdictions join in tasks forces to share information and work to eliminate the higher level distributor network” says Riley.
Again, because the flow of heroin will simply continue unless you stop it at the distribution points.
Riley agrees with Sheriff Chapman (a former DEA Special Agent) the on importance of incorporating community education through drug awareness seminars, a practice the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office has partnered with the DEA on over the last two years. “A comprehensive approach incorporating multi-jurisdictional enforcement, education and prevention is critical if we want to get a handle on this problem,” said Chapman. “We cannot defeat an enemy we don’t fully understand,” he added.
“Leveraging both state and federal judicial systems to make the largest judicial impact” is also critical so these out of area distributors are put away,” Riley added.
These cartels are not like those of 10 or 15 years ago, as often represented on TV—they are very sophisticated operations which have become savvy and opportunistic. Now, exploiting the growing trend of prescription drug abuse in the US and abroad, Riley asserted, “we are just seeing the first stage of this problem.”
Heroin has been around for some time, why is it at epidemic proportions now?
Often, heroin addiction starts with prescription drug abuse. When legitimate users of opiate based drugs go beyond the medical necessity of their use and become dependent on these drugs (such as oxycontin, hydrocodone or oxycodone), and when they can no longer obtain prescription opiates through proper means, they often resort to collateral crimes such as theft, robbery and/or stealing prescription pads and writing fake prescriptions for themselves, says Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman. Alternatively, they move to, seek out or are introduced to street based heroin as Riley suggests.
Monitoring prescription use by the medical community and limiting the availability of prescription drugs to curb abuse (which leads to related criminal activity and heroin use) is critical in addressing this problem.
There is also the community that was never prescribed these drugs, but able to come across them in their parents medicine cabinets or have purchased them through illegal means. This is why the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and most other jurisdictions along with the DEA coordinate Prescription Drug Drop Off Days where they collect thousands of pounds of old prescription drugs sitting around the average home. Family members, especially kids and teens, often experiment with what is in the house—prescription drugs found in cabinets.
Consequently, it is critical that parents monitor their use and when these drugs are no longer legitimately needed, they must be disposed of. Exposure to these drugs may lead teens to addiction and later to heroin use. Monitoring prescription drugs at home is key to making sure that downward spiral never starts.
Can it get worse?
Yes. While it has been around for some time, the next generation problem is the cartels and distributors upping the ante by lacing heroin with Fentanyl, a narcotic pain reliever. This is what is suspected in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death and known as “China White.”
Equally, the more informed user counts on a controversial situation coming into play—some law enforcement agencies and other first responders are arriving at overdose 911 calls carrying a substance that reverses the effects of heroin, called Naloxone. This saves lives, but may act as a disincentive to heroin users to stop their self-destructive addiction. Knowing that Naloxone is but a 911 call away, heroin users may see first responders as their life line. Basically, rolling the dice that a tremendous high will be followed by a lifesaving dose of Naloxone may be a drug user’s ultimate roller-coaster experience.
In the midst of this heroin epidemic, Director Riley stated, Loudoun County has done “Great work over the last few years—especially on the heroin issue—we are proud to be associated with them.”
More to come as the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and first-responders deal with this tremendous problem.