Why Is Heroin Becoming More Deadly?
An Innovative Industry
With multi-trillion dollar global market for illicit narcotics, drug traffickers have a clear incentive to get their products down the supply chain to their customers, despite the legal and moral objections to their activities. As traffickers are increasingly put under pressure by authorities looking to shut down such enterprises, entrepreneurial drug smugglers are constantly inventing new, unusual and often outrageous means of crossing borders unchecked.
In what might be the most sophisticated means of transportation ever employed by drug traffickers, this submarine was used by smugglers based out of Timbiqui, Colombia, until the Colombian army seized the vessel earlier this year. Capable of transporting roughly 8 tons of cocaine in each trip, the submarine would leave from Colombia and drop off its contents in Mexico, which would then be broken up and transported in smaller quantities across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Modern technology may not be the only means of getting illegal drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border. More primitive tools may be enough to do the trick. Last month, the Mexican Army seized two catapults that were use to launch marijuana into Arizona from the Mexican city, Agua Prieta, according to a report from the Associated Press. Oddly enough, this seizure was actually the second time that authorities uncovered this method of smuggling. In January, two other catapults were discovered in Naco, a city that shares both sides of the border.
If drug smugglers can't get over the fence that stands between them and the southwestern United States, there no reason that they couldn't just tunnel under. Since the 1990s, more than 100 such tunnels have been discovered, many of which originate in Tijuana, Mexico, and lead into San Diego, Calif. Some tunnels are so sophisticated that they have lights and climate control, according to a report by CNN in 2009. The tunnels help smugglers not only bring drugs across the border, but also people, money and weapons.
Smuggling drugs in clams might make sense if taken on a fishing boat. A plane, however, is another story. On Sept. 8, 2011, 26-year-old David Pocasangre Vaquiz from El Salvador arrived in Washington-Dulles International Airport. In his luggage, Customs and Border Protection officials found more than 150 grams of cocaine concealed inside 15 clams, all of which had been glued shut to conceal their cargo.
Once You Pop...
A Pringles can may not seem like the most thoughtful means of hiding small quantities of narcotics. However, in 2006, police in Texas found a Pringles can containing what were essentially molded wafers of solid cocaine that were thinly sliced and shaped to resemble potato chips.
A Small Stash
Even the smallest object can be used to contain a hidden drug cache. In August 2011, authorities with the Federal Public Revenue Administration of Argentina found cocaine concealed in tiny screws carried by a Peruvian man flying from Buenos Aires to South Africa. In total, the smuggler had some 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of cocaine hidden among screws and other items on his person.
Credit: Getty Images
A Casket Case
Hiding narcotics in a coffin may seem like an especially grim means of smuggling illegal cargo. But this tactic has been used successfully by smugglers, most famously by trafficker Frank Lucas during the Vietnam War to ship heroine in the caskets of dead American soldiers. In fact, even tombstones have concealed hidden caches of marijuana and cocaine.
Credit: Drug Enforcement Agency
Not Appropriate for All Ages
Few would have expected to see Elmo on the other side of the law. But in 2006, agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration's Rocky Mountain Field Division seized more than 40 pounds of crystal methamphetamine. Traffickers used Elmo plush dolls, which were capable of holding around four pounds of meth each, to conceal their product.
When Oscar Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was discovered dead on Sunday with a needle in his arm, the apparent heroin overdose underscored the new dangers of the drug: more people than ever are using it, and a new mixture of heroin and Fentanyl makes overdoses easier and deadlier.
The number of heroin users almost doubled between 2007 and 2012, from 373,000 to 669,000, according to a 2012 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey. It’s reached epidemic proportions, said Nancy Knott, an interventionist and treatment counselor at the Scripps Treatment program near San Diego.
“We’ve always had this picture of heroin being in the worst parts of town, in the shadows,” Knott said. “It’s come out of the shadows with a vengeance. There’s no stereotypical heroin user anymore.”
That’s partly because of another drug addiction crisis: prescription pain killers. Drugs such as oxycontin and vicodin are synthetic opiates; when people get addicted to them and can’t get a new prescription, heroin makes an easier-to-get -- and cheaper -- substitute.
And unlike an oxycontin pill, a user has no way of knowing how much of an illegal drug they’re getting -- or exactly what’s in it, said Dr. Kyle Kampman, medical director of the Treatment Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Addiction.
The bags found with Hoffman were marked Ace of Spades and Ace of Hearts, labels that could mean anything, Knott said.
Recently, heroin has been mixed with fentanyl, which can make the drug an entire order of magnitude more potent, Knott said. Fentanyl is a super-strong painkiller usually used in end-of-life situations. The combo has just recently become a public health crisis in certain areas.
“When heroin users hear there’s something very very powerful available, they’ll often seek it out,” Kampman said. “They believe they are smarter than those who overdosed, and that they can do it correctly.”
When shot into the arm, heroin hits almost instantly, increasing the risk of overdose.
“They usually are somnolent, or sleepy, when overdosing,” said Dr. Marvin Seppala, Chief Medical Officer at Hazelden, a preeminent treatment center for alcohol and other drug addiction.
“This is something they are used to from regular use of heroin, eliminating the ability to monitor or notice the decrease in respiratory rate. This also undermines any other way for the individual to recognize their own overdose. It is much easier for others to recognize, but, unfortunately, the people surrounding the individual who is overdosing are also using heroin. The fear of being arrested prevents them from calling for help.”
There is a drug that can reverse the effects of heroin, if administered at the right time: naloxone binds to the opiate receptor, knocking off the heroin and preventing the activity of the receptor, Kampman said.
Hoffman, who had been in drug treatment recently, may have been particularly vulnerable to an overdose. If a user has a relapse, they usually return to the level of drug they used before they quit, Knott said. But after detox, the body no longer has any tolerance to a drug. When Hoffman went to rehab last year, he admitted he’d relapsed after not using for 23 years.
“It’s one of the most dangerous times for an overdose, when someone has recently left treatment,” Knott said.
At least 50 envelopes of suspected heroin were taken from Hoffman’s West Village apartment. An ongoing autopsy on Hoffman’s body may show whether fentanyl was involved in the suspected overdose.