AFTER more than a decade of decline, heroin use is causing new concern among drug authorities. In some cities, use of the drug is on the rise. According to federal drug authorities, heroin is more abundant than ever, cheaper, and sold in purer forms.
This new influx is fanning fears of a new drug epidemic in the United States.
``The heroin situation currently is a matter of increasingly serious concern,'' Ronald Caffrey, a deputy assistant administrator for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told a House Select Committee in Washington on July 19. ``Both the supply of heroin, and the purity of that supply, have increased steadily.''
World production of opium, which is used to make heroin, has more than doubled, from 1,458 metric tons in 1985 to 4,209 metric tons in 1989, the DEA estimates. Some federal law enforcement officials say the larger supplies might lead to more users. ``The potential is there ... for more people to use it,'' says Joe Keefe, a DEA spokesman.
But for various reasons, the outlook appears less alarming: Yes, more cocaine users are turning to heroin, say a number of researchers familiar with street-level drug-dealing. But young people are staying away.
In Chicago, for example, heroin's new recruits are people already using drugs, particularly crack cocaine, says Wayne Wiebel, a drug-abuse epidemiologist at the University of Illinois School of Public Health in Chicago.
It's the same story in New York, says Terry Williams, an ethnographer with the Russell Sage Foundation and author of a book on drug-dealers called ``The Cocaine Kids.'' Crack addicts are turning to the depressant heroin because, after the rush of cocaine, they want something to soothe them.
Young people, meanwhile, are not experimenting with heroin for several reasons, these researchers add. Although the drug sold on the street is pure enough to achieve results by sniffing, snorting, or smoking it, the more common method is by hypodermic needle injection. Potential users are scared off by the link between contaminated needles and acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
In addition, Williams says, the anti-drug message seems to be getting through.
According to David Musto, a Yale University professor and a leading historian of drug abuse in the US, the nation is in a period of declining drug use.
``It's really a very broad change of attitude ranging from beef and cholesterol to alcohol and cocaine,'' he says. In short, people are increasingly wary of what is going into their bodies, and more alarmed about drugs.
Statistically, it is still too early to confirm that heroin use is rising across the country, or that cocaine use is dropping. For example, New York City saw the number of its cocaine-related deaths fall from a peak of 453 in 1988 to 321 last year; emergency-room episodes fell from 7,674 to 6,382 during the same period, according to the New York State Division of Substance Abuse Services.
But treatment admissions for cocaine actually went up last year, as did cocaine arrests, 80 percent of them crack-related.
Heroin statistics present an equally mixed picture. In New York, heroin deaths declined 22 percent last year, while emergency-room episodes stayed virtually the same as in 1988. Nationally, heroin and morphine deaths fell 31 percent between 1988 and 1989.
On the streets of New York, however, the change is clear. Philippe Bourgois, author of an upcoming book on drug use, began noticing tandem use of crack and heroin last winter in the East Harlem section of New York.
Even in Denver, crack users are beginning to talk about ``speedballing,'' which is a method of taking both heroin and crack, says Steve Koester, an anthropologist with the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Eventually, the heroin addiction tends to take over the cocaine addiction, these researchers say. This leaves the addicts in more trouble than before.
``I just see that core group [of heroin addicts] getting deeper and deeper,'' Mr. Williams says. ``In the next couple of years we are you are going to have a much more seriously addicted population [of drug users] than we did 10 years ago.''
One reason is that the purity of the heroin on the street is rising. The traditional purity level of 3 percent to 5 percent has now climbed to the point that the DEA has found purity levels at 50 percent in two major East Coast cities and 35 percent to 40 percent in two other cities.
``The drug of choice around here is still cocaine,'' says Earl Buford of the Pittsburgh police narcotics office. ``The difference is that the heroin coming in is stronger in more cases.''
Since June 7, the county coroner's office has confirmed 10 deaths from heroin overdose and has three other cases pending.