Yesterday, the Associated Press moved a story completely devoid of historical context. The piece, titled “Deadly, Ultra-Pure Heroin Arrives in U.S.,” claims that in “recent years”—a time frame that goes undefined—Mexican dealers have started peddling “ultra-potent” black tar heroin and are selling it for as little as $10 a bag.
In alarmist prose, the article asserts that the ultra-smack’s purity ranges from 50 percent to 80 percent heroin, up from the 5 percent purity of the 1970s, and this potency is “contributing to a spike in overdose deaths across the nation.” But reports of high-potency heroin being sold in the United States are anything but “recent.” My source? The AP itself. Over the decades, the wire service has repeatedly reported on the sale of high-potency heroin on the streets. Here are a few examples of AP coverage culled from Nexis.
Aug. 15, 2006: “Mexican black tar heroin, a dark and sticky substance, is usually only 30 percent to 40 percent pure, well below the purity of Colombian heroin. But some heroin seized in this case was 85 percent pure, officials said.”
Dec. 12, 2004: “Federal Drug Enforcement [Administration] tests of heroin samples obtained from New Jersey streets showed 71.4 percent purity in 2002, nearly twice the national average.”
July 4, 2004: “New England heroin can be up to 90 percent pure, while the national average is 57 percent. …”
Nov. 16, 2002: “Officers recently intercepted a ‘significant’ amount of white heroin that was 87 percent pure. …”
Dec. 9, 2001: “Some heroin being sold is as much as 95 percent pure.”
June 16, 2001: “The DEA was alarmed to find that the ring was selling $10 street doses of heroin, weighing .05 grams, that were 60 percent to 85 percent pure heroin. …”
June 16, 2000: ” ‘This is the first time we’ve seen a Mexico-based criminal organization go coast-to-coast, also hitting Alaska and Hawaii, with heroin at 60 to 90 percent purity levels,’ Donnie R. Marshall, DEA administrator, said. ….”
June 15, 2000: “A user could buy a half-gram of 60 percent to 85 percent pure heroin for $10.”
July 15, 1999: “While heroin trafficking is not a new phenomenon in northeast Massachusetts, [U.S. Attorney Donald] Stern said recent shipments of confiscated heroin have shown purity levels of more than 90 percent.”
Jan. 17, 1999: “While South Florida heroin tests 30 percent pure, the [Florida Department of Law Enforcement] crime lab in Orlando routinely finds street-level doses up to 97 percent pure.”
July 23, 1998: “We were finding heroin up there that was 37 to 70 percent pure,” [Julio] Mercado [head of the Dallas DEA office] said.”
July 2, 1998: “Mexican heroin now averages at 50 percent to 60 percent purity, according to U.S. DEA figures.”
July 15, 1996: “Tests done on traces of heroin found in the musicians’ room at the Regency Hotel revealed a purity of 60 to 70 percent, police said. Most street heroin hovers between 50 and 60 percent—considered high enough to snort or smoke, yet low enough to inject, which is riskier.”
Sept. 30, 1994: “A decade ago, purity levels of heroin sold on the street averaged 7 percent. Most street heroin hovers between 50 and 60 percent—considered high enough to snort or smoke, yet low enough to inject, which is riskier.”
Aug. 31, 1994: “Today, the purity of street heroin hovers between 45 percent and 65 percent—high enough to smoke or snort, yet still low enough to inject with syringes.”
Sept. 21, 1992: ” ‘This is kind of scary,’ said [Boston] Deputy Police Superintendent James Wood, commander of drug control. ‘All of a sudden we’ve got 65 percent purity on the street at $20 a bag.’ “
Oct. 3, 1989: “Tests showed the heroin had a 36 percent to 38 percent purity, said [San Francisco Police Department] Lt. Jim Mollinari.”
Dec. 26, 1988: ” ‘When I first joined the force you’d see heroin 5, 10 percent pure. Now it’s 50 to 60 percent pure,’ said [New Bedford, Mass.] Detective Richard Spirlet.”
Jan. 20, 1985: “Two men died from 57 percent pure heroin on Jan. 11 and one on Jan. 14, compared with only one heroin-related death in all of 1984, [Miami] authorities said.”
Also, the AP article makes a botch of its attempt to connect heroin potency with a “spike in heroin overdose deaths across the nation.” To begin with, 25 years of AP reporting indicates that high-potency heroin has been widely available for some time, so it’s silly to start blaming it for a recent increase of deaths. And second, the AP gives no sense that its methodology, in which it counts 3,000 heroin deaths in 36 states in 2008, is the same as that used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to count 2,000 deaths a year at the beginning of the decade. The comparison could be apples to oranges—or apples to salamanders. We just don’t know.
Another problem with the AP piece is that it never defines death by heroin overdose. Is that a death in which only heroin is consumed? Or does it include deaths in which other drugs are taken in combination with heroin?
The question isn’t pedantic. As it turns out, death by heroin alone is relatively uncommon, according to a 2008 study by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Medical Examiners Commission. The study (PDF) analyzed the cases of all 8,620 people 1) who died in the state during 2007; 2) whose death led to a medical examiner’s report; and 3) who had one or more major drug (including alcohol) onboard when they died.
In only 17 of the 110 heroin-related deaths was heroin the only drug onboard. In most cases of heroin-related death, decedents take other drugs that depress the central nervous system—other opiates, alcohol, sedatives, etc. The dangers of “polydrug use,” as some call it, have been well understood for some time. A survey of the medical literature published in Addiction in 1996 titled “Fatal Heroin ‘Overdose’: A Review” warns against attributing all deaths in which evidence of heroin is present as “heroin overdoses.” The authors write:
In a substantial proportion of cases, blood morphine levels alone [the body converts heroin into morphine] cannot account for the fatal outcome of a heroin “overdose.” It appears that a great many “overdoses” are in fact fatalities due to multiple drug use. … For a substantial number of heroin-related fatalities, then, heroin “overdose” may be a misnomer.
Moral of the story: Don’t take heroin, but if you must, never mix it with other drugs.
A final point. The AP story makes a big deal about how falling heroin prices make the drug irresistible. “To hook new users, dealers are selling heroin cheap—often around $10 a bag,” the story reports. But there’s nothing new about that price. As an AP story cited above reports, bags of “60 percent to 85 percent pure heroin” were selling for $10 in 2000.
Thanks to Riverfront TimesEditor Tom Finkel and his staff for the ultra-potent tip. Send your ultra-potent tips to email@example.com and OD on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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Previously, Jack Shafer dinged NBC’s Today Show, the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and Newsweekfor their stupid drug coverage. The Washington Postand USA Todayare repeat offenders. He has also scolded the press corps for its stupid coverage of mothball abuse and Salvia divinorum. Why does drug reporting suck, he asked in 2005.