Europe's Great Heroin Drought

By Tony O'Neill 05/10/11

The sudden scarcity of dope in cities across the continent is spurring frightened addicts to increasingly desperate tactics.

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A desperate hunt for heroin is pushing Europe's junkies's to the brink

Turns out that the U.K. is currently in the grip of a massive heroin drought, a story that’s been getting quite a bit of play in the British press. Far from being a side effect of successful seizures by the authorities, the drought’s roots are in a fungus that has decimated the most recent poppy crop in Afghanistan, reducing it by half.  This deadly drought has sent scores of desperate addicts to the street in pursuit of an elusive fix. Since the drought began, the price of heroin is said to have doubled to 40,000 GPB a kilo, according to Britain’s Serious Organized Crime Agency [SOCA]. The problem has been compounded by strengthening ties between SOCA and the Turkish authorities, leading to increased police pressure on what has long been a key supply route to Great Britain.

On the street, this has translated into vastly inflated prices and intense competition for whatever heroin is making it through.  For the vast majority of addicts, there is no heroin to be found at all.  Europe’s biggest drug testing company, Concateno, has reported that the number of positive tests for heroin amongst addicts in treatment and the court system has dropped dramatically—from a 48% average to just 22% when the drought started to bite in December of 2010.  As the Concateno report says, the figures “indicate a disturbing trend—with the true drug in short supply, users move to more adulterated forms.”

The situation has provoked a deadly health crisis among England’s already ailing addicts. As The Guardian reported back in November, the shortage of heroin has resulted in unscrupulous dealers selling a potentially lethal combination of “a powerful sedative, caffeine and paracetamol” to desperate customers. Many “have become unconscious very soon after injecting or smoking” the concoction while others have reported “vomiting, flu-like symptoms and amnesia.”

In Ireland, authorities have noticed an influx of amateur drug dealers—many of them women—stepping in to fill the void left by the heroin market.  Their stock in trade are painkillers and sleeping pills, smuggled in from Pakistan and China via Europe. The unfortunate combination of a country in an economic crisis and the potential easy money to be earned from desperate addicts has lured many people—previously outside of the traditional milieu of addicts and dealers—into the potentially lucrative business of drug dealing.

Far from resulting in more people getting clean, a heroin shortage usually leads to a spike in risky behavior by addicts.  The Scottish Drugs Forum has listed factors for increased risk in light of the current situation, including “increased poly-substance use (including benzodiazepines, illicit methadone and alcohol), reduced tolerances, and switching to injecting by people who usually smoke heroin (with additional potential bloodborne virus risks).  While it may still be too early to judge how the drought will affect crime rates, we can look toward the experience of the Australians: a report released by the Australian Institute of Criminology showed that rates of homicide, robbery, burglary and motor vehicle theft all declined over a period that coincided with their own heroin drought, which started in 2000.

The last heroin drought that directly affected me—in 2001—was certainly an eye-opening experience.

I had returned from Los Angeles to London in 2001 in an unsuccessful effort to get clean. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October of 2001, the price of heroin suddenly dropped and the quality improved.  The word was that the Taliban had released most of their stockpiled opium in preparation for the invasion.  However, a few months after the invasion, the supply suddenly dried up.  The first clue came when my connection’s phone was turned off without warning. Out on the street, the usual scoring spots around Shepherds Bush, Kings Cross and the West End were full of sick, pensive addicts all forlornly waiting for any kind of deal to materialize. Rip-offs became commonplace as gangs of dealers started selling overpriced, overly-cut heroin, or bags filled with nothing more than gravy granules or chalk dust. One friend of mine found himself viciously razored in East London on the way out of a block of flats. A gang of kids had slashed his face because he refused to hand over a ten-pound bag he had just managed to buy. The veneer of civility on the dope scene vanished overnight.

The methadone clinics were suddenly overflowing. Addicts who were scornful of what was commonly referred to as “the old liquid handcuffs” were suddenly begging to be taken on, but there simply wasn’t room in the clinics to accommodate the new demand. Those lucky enough to have prescriptions were no longer willing to sell a little “juice” on the side. Instead, many heroin addicts resorted to heavily using crack, and for a few months, madness ruled the smack scene in London.

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.