Heroin and North America; Tracking the spread of Afghan Opium

Here at the sprawling complex where PanAmerican Crime is conceived considerable time and effort is applied to understanding how organized criminal behaviour affects society today. Such efforts include plotting power struggles between rival transnational criminal groups (TCOs) or documenting major arrests. However, our other major goal, besides recognizing what is transpiring in the now, is to presuppose and understand what may be. In a world where political and social trends change yearly, people and their ideas can move at astonishing speeds. The consequence of this rapidity is that attempting to conceive of what may be becomes increasingly difficult. Subtle changes in government policy in Canada can have positive or devastating effects on the lives of villagers in Malaysia or Nigeria. In a similar fashion, this global relationship can be applied to criminal behaviour as well. The foci of PanAmerican Crime have always been the relationships between major TCOs within North and South America, their ensuing conflicts and, most importantly, the supply networks of illicit narcotics that maintain these groups. Yet, while the points of drug production have historically played a crucial part in delineating the nature of the drug trade itself, it becomes important to recognize that supply lines, such as cocaine from the Andes, travel to destinations throughout the World, not just the Americas. Such is the nature of the narcotics trade. Therefore, when attempting to understand the movement of drugs within the Americas it also becomes important to understand the importation of narcotics into the Americas. And, no greater example of this dynamic exists than the international movement and sale of heroin. This issue of PanAmerican Crime will therefore provide an overview of the North American, specifically Canadian, heroin trade. Most importantly, it will discuss the changing nature of the trade in opiates due to the involvement of poppy production in Afghanistan, as well as whether and how the new Afghan supply may influence the drug trade in North America.

Heroin, since the dawn of the 20th Century, has always enjoyed a negative public image. Since the early days of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics under Harry Anslinger in the United States, Heroin was public enemy number one. As marijuana was demonized by this governmental department as being a troublesome habit of America’s marginalized African American population during the first half of the 1900’s, heroin had long been perceived as the drug of the Orient or Cathay. Heroin, and its earlier cousin opium, were assumed to be the product of the supposedly malicious and morally bankrupt immigrant Chinese population, which flooded lower Manhattan and San Francisco throughout the 1900’s. While the racial and social motivations of American government policy are not the current point of issue, it is important to recognize that the market for opiates had existed long before the development of the traditional heroin pipeline, which was developed by the American Cosa Nostra (Mafia) during the 1950s.

By the middle of the century the market for the drug was booming. No longer was it the plaything of artists or the frequenters of opium dens, rather, it had developed as the drug of choice for the urban poor. As its popularity soared so did the demand for a cheap supply. This problem was solved by the development of poppy fields close to European travel hubs and the involvement of the Italian mafia smugglers who sold it. The scheme was elaborate but effective. The opium producing poppies would be grown in Turkey, where the opium paste would be removed and sent by ship to heroin manufacturing laboratories located on the southern coast of Sicily. However, this setup soon proved too risky for the Sicilian mafia families involved and the processing of the poppy was eventually moved to the French port city of Marseille. In southern France the finished product would be packaged and smuggled by Corsican gangsters on ships to key ports in Canada and the United States. As discussed in earlier PanAmerican Crime issues, the Bonanno Crime Family developed a route through the harbour of Montreal and on into the New York Metropolitan area. The Genovese and Gambino families also developed their own pipelines using legitimate industries to hide their movement and sale of the drug. Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s every single Cosa Nostra family in New York, or in America for that matter, reaped the benefits of selling heroin. It’s sale was concentrated within America’s growing urban centres, using small drug dealing organizations or individuals, who were generally not actual mafia members, to distribute the drug to the end users. Most importantly, the increase in the availability of the drug coincided with the gradual disintegration of the American working class. And, while such social destruction was inevitably the result of devastatingly short-sighted free trade policies, it can clearly be seen that the development of the heroin trade occurred as the American urban environment experienced a considerable contraction in economic opportunity and social stability. Consequently, while not the underlying cause, heroin trafficking became a symbol of the dilapidated and dangerous neighbourhoods of North American cities during this time period.

Yet, as discussed earlier, all things change. By the beginning of the 1980s the majority of the traditional heroin smugglers and their routes of choice had been shut down by authorities. During this era the FBI launched its own anti-mafia manhunt and succeeded in seriously hindering the extensive reach once enjoyed by America’s mafia families. Consequently, new drugs and dealers emerged, the primary example being cocaine. Indeed, the development of the cocaine industry has proceeded to unprecedented levels and has become the major obstacle to America’s near-futile “war on drugs.” Colombian and, later, Mexican cartels developed to control the industry and continue to exert their dominance throughout the illicit narcotics market in the Americas to this day. But what happened to all of those heroin users? While it is true that the numbers of American and Canadian heroin addicts have markedly decreased over the past three decades, that does not mean that they no longer exist. In fact, what is generally seen by law enforcement is that the regions that are most devastated by the sale of narcotics continue to have significant numbers of heroin users.

Today the face of the heroin trade has indeed changed, however, the purpose and general strategy has remained the same. Firstly, international smugglers conceal their shipments in shipping containers or hide their product on “mules,” who bring the heroin into Canada or the United States. Once through customs the mules or containers are unloaded, with the product being distributed to other local drug trafficking organizations, typically classified as “mid-level” dealers, to use the parlance of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) or FBI. These mid-level drug trafficking organizations then repackage or further cut down their shipment using precursor chemicals, a process which increases the amount of the drug that is then available for sale. Once this process is completed the heroin is distributed to street-level dealers or street gangs, which then supply the product to the end user.

The only problem in this equation remains the origin of the drug itself. If the major heroin pipelines and players were shut down by the 1980’s who is supplying the drug and where is it coming from? The second part of this question is apparently easier to answer. According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the United Nations, as the Taliban government collapsed in Afghanistan in the face of American intervention in 2001 the cultivation of the poppy proceeded to unprecedented levels. The plant became such an effective money-making source that authorities were able to claim by 2005 that Afghanistan was responsible for 89 percent of the World’s total opium and heroin supply. Indeed, the statistics provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for the previous year are startling: all 32 provinces in Afghanistan now experience some form of poppy cultivation; over 161,000 hectares, or 2.9 percent of the arable land is directly being used to grow poppies; and, over 2.3 million Afghans were now involved in the trade of opium. The worst aspect of these numbers is their comparison with previous years. From 2003 to 2004 cultivation was up 50,000 hectares and 600,000 more people had become dependent on the trade. Consequently, between 2001 and 2011, the world-wide supply of heroin had apparently jumped over 900 percent and law enforcement agencies in North America – the continent with consistently the largest market for illicit drugs in the World – waited for the expected onslaught of a new heroin epidemic throughout the poorer urban areas of Canadian and American cities. However, this epidemic still hasn’t emerged and authorities are beginning to wonder where all of the Afghan heroin has gone.

Although it is unbelievable in many respects that drug-addicted North America has not yet experienced a rise in heroin usage due to the apparent availability of Afghan heroin, when looking at the entire picture it is not all that surprising. Afghan criminal networks do not have ready access to, or an established working relationship with large criminal organizations in North America. Although immigration from Afghanistan and Pakistan has undoubtedly occurred in Western countries, criminal subcultures from these countries have not emerged in North America to foment the development of a major narcotics pipeline from this region, which is known to law enforcement as the Golden Crescent. But if it hasn’t found its way to North America then where has the Afghan heroin gone? The answer resides in a simple case of geography. Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1980, which proceeded to prop up a despotic communist Afghan government for over eight years. During this time period, corruption, which had already become endemic within Russia itself, reached to all levels of the Soviet military and Afghan national government. In this environment smuggling networks developed from Kabul, Afghanistan, through the satellite Soviet states such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and on into major Russian cities, specifically Moscow and Saint Petersburg. After the Soviets’ war in Afghanistan came to a close the Russian soldiers went home, but the black market networks that were erected during the war remained due to the fact that they had become a continuing source of revenue for both Afghan poppy suppliers and Russian organized crime. Consequently, the question of the Afghan heroin continues to begin and end with Russia.

Today, it is believed that Russian organized crime accounts for well over half of the heroin that is produced and smuggled out of Afghanistan. These organized criminal groups export their drugs throughout Europe, where heroin use is on the rise in many eastern and southern European countries as a result. The presence of Afghan heroin in Europe is believed to be responsible for the dramatic drop in price for the drug on the continent, which authorities believe will only allow more people access to it. In Great Britain alone the price has fallen in recent years from over 100 Euros a gram to just over 50 Euros a gram, allowing poorer consumers greater exposure. Afghan heroin is also sold in Russia itself, which is now believed to have over 1.5 million heroin users, although this number is thought to actually be much higher. Drug usage is also thought to be on the rise in many Middle Eastern and former Soviet states as well, simply because of their proximity to the source. Iran, which shares a long and porous border with south-western Afghanistan, is now believed to have over a million heroin or opium users, although data on this subject is hard to come by in the conservative state. Afghanistan is also becoming a problem country for drug consumption, with authorities claiming that nearly 2 million people regularly use opium or opium products. As can be witnessed by this explosion in usage throughout Europe the Middle East, it is not that this new source of the drug isn’t being consumed, it is just that a new market for opiates has emerged in the developing World over the past decade.

To further understand why this new source of heroin hasn’t yet hit the streets in North America requires a look at the current narcotics pipelines that exist in Canada and America at this moment. In the United States the supply and sale of most narcotics remains under the purview of Mexican organized crime. Cocaine, methamphetamines, MDMA, marijuana, and, increasingly, heroin, are all shipped in by Mexican cartel groups. And, according to the American Drug Enforcement Administration and UNODC, the source of the heroin supplied by the Mexican Cartels isn’t the Golden Crescent of Pakistan and Afghanistan, instead, it originates in the Sinaloa region of Mexico or in the jungles of Colombia. This rudimentary form of the drug – sometimes referred to as “black tar” heroin – has become just the latest cash crop for the cartels in their efforts to diversify their operations away from the lucrative but incredibly dangerous cocaine trade. The other major source of heroin in North America, and particularly Canada, comes from another traditional poppy-growing region of the globe, referred to by cognoscenti as the Golden Triangle. This region, which consists of Burma, Thailand and Laos, has long been a source of opium and has been the source of heroin for east Asian street gangs operating in North America for over fifty years. Burma specifically, according to the UNODC, remains a source of extremely pure heroin. Once the poppy is processed into the drug in jungle laboratories in the Golden Triangle it is smuggled across the Pacific Ocean into port cities in North America, including, but not limited to, San Francisco and Vancouver, British Columbia (BC).

In Canada, the heroin supplied from the Golden Triangle has created an epidemic in an area of Vancouver, known as the “downtown eastside.” Centred around a group of streets that surround Hastings Street, this area has become known as the largest drug market in Canada, and one of the largest “open-air drug markets” in the entire continent. This market is increasingly being contested by different mid-level trafficking organizations that operate in British Columbia. And, while control of the supply of cocaine in BC is generally believed to be the cause of the ongoing violence between these groups, the sale of heroin in downtown Vancouver remains a staple for many organized crime organizations that operate on the lower mainland of BC. However, according to the RCMP, less than two tons of heroin are required to meet Canada’s heroin needs for an entire year. Therefore, the supply of east-Asian dope easily meets the requirements of the addicts of the downtown eastside. On the east coast of the United States the situation is relatively the same as it is in Vancouver. In major American cities the heroin trade is limited to certain urban areas where the supply of the drug is controlled by established organized crime networks, who receive their heroin from established Mexican and east-Asian suppliers. On both the east and west coasts of North America there is simply no room for the introduction of a new major source of heroin at this time.

Yet, as is the apparent theme of the illegal narcotics trade, change always comes and, despite the current lack of a need for a new source of heroin in North America, this situation may already be changing. Besides opium and heroin, other narcotics are also considered members of the opiates family, and these drugs are increasingly available by prescription. Over-the-counter pain killers, including medication with codeine or the increasingly popular Oxycodon, have become the highest source of drug overdoses in North America. Millions of users have either taken or are currently addicted to strong pain-killer medications throughout Canada and the United States, and, consequently, authorities have launched a crackdown on the suppliers of these drugs. These operations include arrests and seizures as well as a campaign to educate the public on the risks of abusing pain medication. However, if such sources are depleted or halted then health officials fear that these users will move on to other opiates to feed their addiction. If this trend in usage occurs then the amount of heroin that is consumed in North America could markedly increase in just a few short years, with new smuggling routes and organizations forming to supply the drug. Ergo, just because there is no supply of Afghan heroin present in Canada today does not mean that there won’t be a market for it in the near future. As occurred in the mid-1900’s, the economic climate is again trending downwards, with government investment and infrastructure quickly falling by the wayside. And, if a large, reliable supply becomes present in the cities of North America there is no way of guessing how quickly a new heroin epidemic could begin. As with all narcotics, heroin usage is not simply a case of supply and demand, it is also a reflection of public perception and social stability. While many populations in North America and Europe have been enjoying marked economic and social prosperity it appears that those times may soon be at an end. Law enforcement may therefore soon be fighting a battle it thought it had won in the 1980s.

– Scott Paulseth, Editor, PanAmerican Crime


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