Black-tar heroin making big comeback
by Staff Writer
When the officers staffing the new High Intensity Drug Task Force met for the first time in October in an office building near SouthPark, they didn’t discuss the best way to stop the flow of cocaine or marijuana. They talked about the area’s fastest growing illegal drug: black-tar heroin.
They didn’t discuss trailing strung-out junkies in dim alleys looking for a fix. They talked about how to set up surveillance in the parking lots of trendy shopping centers such as Birkdale Village, Northlake Mall, SouthPark and Stonecrest at Piper Glen.
Though the problem remains relatively unknown to the public, law enforcement officials have seen the surge in demand for black-tar heroin beginning about five years ago, coinciding with the rising abuse of prescription drugs. Those abusing prescription drugs – and ultimately heroin – are more often than not young people from middle- to high-income families, according to Jeffrey W. Ferris, group supervisor for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who is leading the High Intensity Drug Task Force.
Like a major airline, drug trafficking organizations have turned the Charlotte area into a hub for heroin, and every day, Ferris said, people are driving from throughout the region to Charlotte to buy enough black-tar heroin to supply themselves and their friends or customers for a few weeks.
Though they are intent on busting organizations bringing black-tar heroin to Charlotte, “we know that we can’t arrest our way out of the problem,” Ferris said. For that reason, task force members also are reaching out to civic groups and, particularly, schools to educate adults and teenagers about the epidemic of prescription drug abuse and the dangers of heroin addiction.
“We want to use awareness and education in an attempt to dry up demand,” Ferris said recently, sitting in his office filled with sophisticated cameras and surveillance and recording equipment. “We want to talk to Parent-Teacher Associations, faculties, as well as students.”
Though north Mecklenburg police departments don’t have officers on the federal-state-and-local task force, leaders from Huntersville and Cornelius agree with the group’s target and say the agency has helped their agencies with valuable intelligence on drug organizations.
“We probably deal more with prescription drug abuse than cocaine now,” Huntersville Police Capt. Ken Richardson said last week. “In the late ’90s and early 2000s, I would have bet that crack cocaine was going to destroy our society. … Who would have ever thought heroin would ever come back?”
Local law enforcement leaders in Mecklenburg, Gaston and Union counties recognized the growing heroin phenomenon when they asked federal officials to create a multi-agency task force to attack the problem. With grant money from the Office for National Drug Policy and cooperation from local agencies, Ferris has 15 officers focused on stopping black-tar heroin. In addition to three Drug Enforcement Administration agents, Ferris has officers from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Gastonia, Matthews and Monroe police departments, the Union County Sheriff’s Office, State Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Agency.
People have a hard time making the connection between prescription drugs and black-tar heroin, but it’s all about price points. With the growing use of prescription painkillers, especially Oxycontin, many teenagers have learned they can experiment with less risk of arrest by stealing painkillers from their parents or grandparents’ medicine cabinets, according to Ferris and Richardson. Or they might get injured playing sports and get a prescription themselves, which turns into a habit. Or friends might bring pills to a party and pressure others into trying them.
“But it’s a very expensive habit,” Ferris said, usually costing about $80 a pill. So as demand for painkillers increased, drug cartels saw a new market and stepped in with cheaper black tar heroin, which costs $10 to $12 for a balloon. Black tar heroin is crudely refined from poppy plants grown in Latin America, mostly on the western mountain slopes of Mexico. Because it’s sticky, suppliers roll it on plastic grocery bags, cut it in squares and tie the squares off like a balloon, Ferris said. Dealers offer balloons in a variety of colors: white and yellow for cocaine and red for heroin.
Though investigators can’t be sure about a specific cartel, Ferris said almost all black-tar heroin comes from Mexico and follows various routes to hubs like Charlotte and Columbus, Ohio, which appears to be Charlotte’s sister city for the black-tar heroin trade. The drug organizations keep tight controls on their product, rotating handpicked staff from Mexico in and out of Charlotte, investigators have found. A distributor sets up in a stash or work house, where shipments of heroin arrive, get diluted – or cut – with everything from flour to dirt and packaged as balloons.
The distributor never leaves the house but takes calls for orders and dispatches runners to meet customers, “just like pizza delivery,” Ferris and another officer noted.
Because many of the customers are teenagers or young adults with spare cash, the runners often arrange to first meet a customer in the parking lot of an upscale shopping center. The two then drive their cars to a nearby residential neighborhood, where they often exchange cash and drugs through the windows of the cars, with little notice to anyone around, Ferris said.
The Huntersville department has recorded an increasing number of heroin arrests in 2010 and 2011, Richardson said. “A lot of people get into it, from the really young to the really old,” he said. But officers are seeing more young people involved. Cocaine became harder to get and more expensive, and prescription drugs took its place, Richardson said.
“There’s no doubt that prescription drugs have become the drug of choice now,” he said. “… There’s a huge, huge market.”
Black-tar heroin – and all opiates – are particularly dangerous because they are highly addictive, physically and psychologically, “and once you’re addicted, nothing else matters,” Ferris said.
He and members of his team have seen people who used marijuana and cocaine recreationally over a long period of time – but never an occasional heroin user. Young people can function as addicts, but they won’t escape the drug by themselves.
So the education outreach of the task force becomes even more important. Possibly the task force’s greatest educational tool is a young adult – Ferris doesn’t want to identify the person by gender – who has accompanied task force members to several speaking engagements and talked about becoming addicted.
Though in his or her early 20s now, the former addict talks about starting as a teenager after stealing pills from his or her parents. Then, when visiting friends’ homes, the teen began stealing from their parents’ medicine. The person grew up in “a good home and went to a good school,” Ferris said, and the teen hid the addiction from family and friends for years, until that person was finally arrested buying heroin.
The person got help, married and now speaks to parents, teachers and young people so they can understand the threat of heroin, Ferris said. Officers and the former addict also advise students and adults to watch for telltale signs, like a piece of foil or missing money or medicine.
Interested in getting a member of the High Intensity Drug Task Force to speak to your school or community group? Email Jeffrey Ferris at firstname.lastname@example.org.