How The Heroin Drought Will Affect The UK
The UK is currently in the midst of a well documented heroin drought after a fungus dramatically reduced the most recent opium crop in Afghanistan. The drug has traditionally been widely available on the black market here but illicitly imported supplies are slowly starting to dry up.
There are an estimated 300,000 heroin addicts living in the UK meaning that one in two hundred people will be feeling the effect of the drought. While various agencies strive tirelessly to eradicate the illegal trade in heroin, a temporary lull in supply can have potentially devastating consequences.
At least 10 people were hospitalized in Surrey last month after injecting a substance being sold as heroin which actually contained a potentially lethal sedative called alprazolam. In Hastings a contaminated batch of heroin also led to a high number of people seeking hospital treatment.
Dr Russell Newcombe is a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University and has specialized in drug research for 27 year. He feels that these hospitalizations are a direct byproduct of the drought,
“The main danger during a drought is that people will start shooting up heavily adulterated ‘gear’ containing anthrax and powerful sedatives. The worst scenario is that users will buy powders cut with sedatives and other nasty substances which may put them in hospital. There are already cases being reported of overdosed junkies turning up in hospital, being injected by doctors with the opiate antidote naloxone, but not coming round and even dying because the ‘gear’ they overdosed on contains sedatives other than heroin,” he said.
A 2007 Drugscope survey found the average purity of heroin in Liverpool to be 25 per cent. According to the same organization common cutting agents include paracetamol related compounds, caffeine and lactose. Virtually all heroin sold on the street is adulterated but as purity drops to negligible levels dangerous sedatives such as alprazolam are more likely to be introduced to the mix to accentuate the effect.
Shane Levene is a writer who has battled with heroin addiction for the best part of a decade. He warns that unsafe injecting practices, associated with the spread of certain diseases such as HIV, are likely to be more prevalent during a drought,
“If an addict is in withdrawal and is desperate he will do the most idiotic and dangerous things. Heroin is a habit, a cycle and everything to do with maintaining a life of addiction also becomes a cycle. When that cycle is broken for days or weeks and then, out the blue one evening, someone’s phone lights up and they can suddenly score everyone is left unprepared. So they’ve got heroin but only one needle amongst the lot of them to use it with. What will they do? Remain ill? No, they will share a needle,” he said.
He doubts whether the drought will be a catalyst for existing addicts to stop but feels it might discourage prospective users from experimenting with the drug,
“From my experience a period of forced abstinence only makes ones appetite for heroin even stronger. The last drought was in 2000 and I was one of the addicts stuck with no substitute. It didn’t encourage me to stop using, just made me try to scheme around the problem and search out new contacts. New users are definitely less likely to get introduced to heroin during a drought though. If there are only small amounts of heroin available the current addicts will not score for a new user because they want to preserve the supply for themselves,” he said.
Afghanistan produces an estimated 90 per cent of the world’s heroin and the fungus is believed to have halved this year’s crop of opium, the plant from which the drug is derived. Some have suggested that a fungal species known as Pleospora Papaveracea, was intentionally introduced by US agents but evidence remains inconclusive.
A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODCO) survey estimated Afghanistan’s 2010 opium production as amounting to 3,968 tonnes, a decrease of 48 percent on the previous year. As a result the cost of opium has tripled causing the UNODCO to express concern that, ‘the current high sale price of opium may encourage farmers to go back to opium cultivation’.
Afghan farmers have historically been encouraged to cultivate wheat which provides a viable, if considerably less lucrative, alternative to opium. In the past year the average gross income from wheat has fallen 36 per cent from US$ 1,200 to US$ 770 per hectare. Meanwhile gross income from opium has increased from US$ 3,600 to US$ 4,900 per hectare.
In a 2009 UNODCO survey 24 per cent of Afghan farmers who had ceased cultivating opium cited either falling opium prices or rising wheat prices as the reason. When the price of an agricultural commodity rises, farmers are likely to plant more acreage with that crop. With the financial incentives for farmers to grow the poppy increasing, there is likely to be a corresponding rise in opium cultivation.
Dr Newcombe warns that when heroin does become widely available again it could lead to an increase in potentially fatal overdoses,
“A drought lowers the tolerance of heroin addicts making them more likely to overdose when the drought ends and the purity of heroin improves. Good quality heroin will most probably be back in the first half of 2011 and when that happens there are likely to be a lot of overdoses,” he said.
According to a 2006 Home Office survey 13 per cent of people arrested in the UK admitted taking heroin in the month prior to their arrest. Of those that made this admission 85 per cent were assessed as being dependent on the drug.
Another Home Office survey in 2003 discovered a close correlation between acquisitive crime and heroin use. 63 per cent of those arrested for shoplifting, 38 per cent of those arrested for burglary, 34 per cent of those arrested for handling stolen goods and 29 per cent of those arrested for theft from a motor vehicle were found to test positive for opiates.
Heroin has become synonymous with crime and statistics suggest that there are a significant number of users who steal to support their habits. The Australian Institute of Criminology reported that in the wake of the 2000 heroin drought there was a dramatic drop in both heroin use and expenditure. The UK might be set to witness a similar phenomenon but it is only likely to be a temporary respite.
Unless there is credence to conspiracy theories suggesting that the fungus is a biological weapon strategically unleashed on the crop the current lull in heroin supply is unlikely to last. Rising opium prices will encourage more Afghan farmers to cultivate the increasingly profitable poppy which could lead to a handsome harvest in 2011.
There is a danger that the drought could prove to be no more than a pyrrhic victory for those engaged in waging the war on drugs. With the quantity of available opium likely to increase in the new year falling heroin prices could encourage a new generation of potential addicts to experiment with the drug.Tagged in: Afghanistan, crime, drugs, heroin, overdose
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