Heroin’s fictional comeback
For a drug that has never ever gone away, heroin sure has a talent for coming back every couple of years. On Tuesday, the New York Times advanced the belief that a “flood of heroin” is flowing into New York City in a Page One story titled “New York Is a Hub in a Surging Heroin Trade.”
One difference between a conventional flood and a heroin flood is that a conventional is easier to measure: Plant a tall pole next to the body of water you’re observing, mark the pole with hash-marks in feet or meters, and record the rising water levels. But no such simple technology exists to accurately measure the flow of heroin into or out of a city. To use rising seizure statistics to estimate a surge in the heroin trade is like drawing a bath, stepping into it, and declaring that a flood has ravaged your tub.
The government statistics the Times cites sound impressive. “The amount of heroin seized in investigations involving the city’s special narcotics prosecutor has already surpassed last year’s totals, and is higher than any year going back to 1991,” the paper declares. In the first four months of 2014, we’re told, the city’s special narcotics prosecutor has recorded the seizure of 288 pounds of heroin, which does not include everyday seizures on the streets.
While 288 pounds of heroin over four months sounds like a staggering stash, how big is it really? In 1997, authorities seized 1,200 pounds of heroin in a Hayward, Calif., warehouse. In 1993, the Times reported the single seizure of 424 pounds of heroin (packed into five suitcases) in a Manhattan apartment tower. In 1989, federal agents and New York police confiscated 820 pounds of heroin in Flushing, Queens, in just one raid. The year before, Bangkok customs officials discovered 2,822 pounds of heroin on a New York-bound freighter, just before it sailed.
But according to a Nexis search, none of these substantial seizures elicited heroin-flood warnings from the Times.
Again, how staggered should we be by a 288-pound seizure? Based on a rule-of-thumb formula published by the Times in 1993, 288 pounds might have sated the city’s heroin appetite for about three weeks. Of course, this is just an estimate as heroin users neither submit to a census nor share consumption details with authorities. The real number could be twice or half that amount. Nobody knows. As likely as not, the average heroin importer’s business plan factors in the occasional seizure and makes distributional adjustments when police make what they consider to be a “big” bust.
A rise in drug seizures can’t be taken as a reliable marker of an increased supply of drugs for several reasons. Record seizures might indicate good luck on the part of police, and low seizures might indicate bad luck. A change in figures might indicate an increase or decrease in drug enforcement man-hours or know-how, or a change in smuggler tactics. In 1997, federal agencies were befuddled when seizures of cocaine and heroin dropped 12 percent and 16 percent respectively, despite an increase in interdiction efforts. The Chicago Tribune let unnamed government sources speculate that the cause might be smugglers taking new routes to evade detection. In other words, a decline in seizures was assumed to indicate an increase (or no change) in the amount smuggled.
If you step outside the micro of the New York City heroin market and into the macro of the world market, the 288 pounds seized in New York shrinks into insignificance. In 2008, a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report estimated world heroin consumption in 2008 at 340 metric tons of heroin (750,000 pounds) and seizures at 90 to 110 metric tons (200,000 to 242,000 pounds). The U.N. also pegged U.S. and Canada annual consumption of heroin at about 22 metric tons. If you put any faith in these official numbers, the 288 pounds stored in New York evidence lockers look more like a heroin trickle than a flood.
What’s driving the Times coverage, of course, is the national rise in drug-related deaths over the past two decades, about which I intend to write more. But for now, leave your galoshes in the closet. Reports of a New York heroin flood are greatly exaggerated.
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PHOTOS: An undated handout picture shows 127 pounds of heroin seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers in Laredo, Texas. REUTERS/Public Affairs office of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office/Handout
An Afghan man works on a poppy field in Jalalabad province April 17, 2014. REUTERS/ Parwiz