Potent 'white' heroin gaining in use, St. Louis officials warn

Monday, January 5, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- A more potent form of heroin apparently has made inroads into the St. Louis area, according to federal authorities, who are worried the drug's increased use could increase violence and the number of addicts, particularly young ones.

Officials say the switch from black tar heroin from Mexico to so-called white heroin from Afghanistan and southwest Asia comes as use of the drug in St. Louis is growing, apparently spreading to younger addicts.

White heroin is of particular concern to law enforcers because it does not need to be injected, appealing to users who may be squeamish about injecting themselves.

"Traffickers are able to market this heroin better by saying you can snort it or smoke it," William Renton Jr., special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in St. Louis, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a story Sunday.

Twice as pure

The white heroin found in the St. Louis area this year is as high as 28 percent pure morphine, nearly twice the purity commonly found in the black tar variety, Renton said.

Statistics from drug treatment now reflect users from all racial groups, and include more young people than in the past, said Dr. Heidi Israel, a Saint Louis University School of Medicine assistant professor who studies heroin abuse. "There is a younger population that is being represented in the treatment data, more 18- to 24-year-olds."

Federal prosecutors in St. Louis brought heroin trafficking charges against 53 people in the year that ended Sept. 30. That was up from 45 the prior year, which itself represented an increase from 21 the year before.

The DEA says it learned of the growing presence of white heroin through its trends-tracking Domestic Monitoring Program. Under that effort, the agency uses informers to make 10 purchases of heroin on the streets of each of an array of major cities four times a year. Lab testing determines the samples' purity and origin.

Representative sample?

For years, black tar predominated in St. Louis, with white heroin showing up about once a year, Renton said. But in last year's first three months, five of the 10 purchases in the St. Louis area were white heroin, more typically found in larger cities, such as New York and Chicago, he said.

To Israel, it's "premature" to conclude that white heroin is widely available, noting that what undercover informers are able to buy may not represent a true proportion of what's for sale on the streets.

Still, heroin sales in the area appear to be thriving, regardless of the type. Federal authorities said that a gang sold an estimated $100,000 worth of black tar each week in a small area of St. Louis until police broke it up last year.

"Heroin peddlers are known to have a special propensity for violence, given that such traffickers seem to have a more aggressive stance in controlling their operations than some of the other narcotics groups," police chief Joe Mokwa said.

In 1993, seven people died from heroin -- or a mixture of heroin and cocaine and other substances -- in St. Louis County, according to the county medical examiner's office. That number has risen erratically over the past decade, reaching 24 by 2002. Of those 24, officials said 21 were white and three were black.

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