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.