New surge of heroin from abroad

A recent assessment of the continuing US battle to stem the flow of illegal drugs to this country shows some major successes -- and some new danger signs. Latest among the negative developments: a projected increase in the flow of heroin from abroad, especially from what one top drug official calls the "golden crescent" of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The current political situations in those three countries have not diminished their production of opium poppies (from which heroin is derived), according to Peter Bensinger, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

In fact, Mr. Bensinger said during a stopover here, the un[Word Illegible] in Iran has meant less police attention to poppy growing. Until the fall of the Shah, the United States had worked losely with Iran to combat such growth.

Even in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan there has been "no iminution in the opium trade," says Mr. Bensinger. Rebel fighters may even be bartering opium for weapons, he says.

Another danger sign: The already massive illegal flow of marijuana to the US from Colombia shows every sign of increasing, according to DEA officials. This has prompted Mr. Bensinger and others to call for stiffer criminal penalties against marijuana dealers.

Ironically, it was the success of US-Mexican efforts against both heroin and marijuana in Mexico that led to the current influx from the Mideast.

These shifts in the sources of illegal drugs reaching the US now the need for more effective approaches, says Tom Bryant, former head of the Drug Abuse Council, a private organization supported by the Ford Foundation. "If you block off one route, one source, some other supply route will come into being.

"There are no simple solutions," he suggests. The best, but often slighted, long-range response to drug abuse, he says, is to reduce some of its underlying problems, such as the hopelessness among many unemployed black youth.

As for stiffer penalties for drug dealers, Mr. Bryant says, "I don't think there is any evidence that Draconian penalties do much to affect the larger picture." Arrested dealers are replaced by others, he says.

Due largely to the US-aided Mexican program to destroy poppy fields, the supply of heroin reaching the US was cut nearly in half, dropping from about seven tons a year in 1975 to about four tons last year, according to the DEA.

And the DEA estimates the number of heroin addicts in the US has dropped since 1975 from about 700,000 to fewer than 450,000.

Much of the "golden crescent" supply of heroin now is being absorbed by Europe. But the European sponge is getting full, and the US is likely to get the overflow soon, Mr. Bensinger says.

Meanwhile, the amount of marijuana entering the US each year -- now primarily from Colombia -- is estimated at 10 to 15 thousand tons and may be nearing 25, 000 tons, says Mr. Bensinger.

US Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia recently introduced a bill to allow Internal Revenue Service intelligence agents to provide the DEA with drug-related information.The bill could face opposition from those concerned about the issue of privacy.

Senator Nunn's subcommittee on investigation has been assessing mandatory prison sentences and stricter bail requirements for drug dealers. There are currently about 2,700 fugitives from federal drug charges.

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