Heroin's comeback: busts at levels not seen since the '70s.

Mexican dealers are flooding the market with a cheap form of heroin that is more potent than its predecessors, snaring younger users.

From California to New York, law enforcement agents are reporting a troubling rise in the use of heroin as availability of the drug rises and prices drop.

• In Sacramento on July 30, federal prosecutors indicted 21 people on charges of trafficking 440 pounds of heroin into California.

• On July 25 in New York's Suffolk County, police arrested two men with 17 pounds of uncut heroin in the biggest such bust in that county's history.

• On July 21, authorities nabbed an East Palo Alto, Calif., gang member with 70 pounds of heroin stashed inside a Lincoln Town Car.

The growing number of arrests – and deaths – reported around the country point to a resurgence of the drug not seen since the 1970s. But unlike three decades ago, authorities say that today's heroin is much more potent. It is also finding its way to younger users, who are moving from prescription pills to harder drugs.

"One thing with higher purity is that ... kids can get hooked much faster," says Special Agent Michelle Gregory, spokeswoman for the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.

What's more, she says, the purer heroin that is being sold on the streets today can be snorted – making it a more "user-friendly" for needle-averse addicts.

Heroin trafficked into California is largely coming across – or under – the Mexican border. While heroin is produced in Afghanistan and Myanmar, most of the heroin sold in the US is cultivated in Mexico and South America and is typically known as "black tar" because of its stickiness, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). But, the agency says, a more potent form of powdered heroin is becoming more prevalent.

But regardless of where the drug is originating, the rise in its availability here is pushing prices down dramatically. Special Agent Bob Cooke of the San Jose, Calif., office of the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, says that cost of an ounce of heroin hovers around $250 compared with $800 a decade ago.

This could be because Mexican drug trafficking organizations have a backlog of dope because of the deadly government-led crackdown on the drug trade there, say California drug enforcement officers. This means traffickers may be pressuring stateside dealers to buy heroin along with other drugs, resulting in the heroin market being flooded.

The growth of the heroin trade in Afghanistan could also be having an effect. In a 2006 DEA report obtained by the Los Angeles Times, the agency said Afghanistan's poppy cultivation is becoming the fastest growing source of heroin in the United States.

Others say that the price drop may be a simple matter of the economics – as the recession is affecting the illegal drug trade, too.

Heroin is appealing to many younger drug users who have become hooked on prescription pills – such as Oxycontin – because the two drugs produce a very similar high, says Agent Cooke.

With the increase in heroin trafficking comes a rise in overdose deaths, as well, say law enforcement agencies around the country. In the first six months of 2009, officials in New York's Nassau County have reported 25 heroin deaths, compared with 46 in all of 2008 and 27 in 2007. Suburban Chicago has recorded some 31 heroin-related deaths this year.

Earlier this year in Roanoke, Va., after a heroin-dealing ring that dealt to young people was broken up by police, local prosecutors told The Roanoke Times that the arrests signaled a disturbing trend in southwestern Virginia.

A US attorney said, "It's like this wave has washed over the Roanoke area. It's different than we've seen before."


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