Little-noticed heroin revival hits close to home
In a nondescript three-storey building on Cambie Street in the Downtown Eastside, Sherry Grant is at ground zero of a little-noticed heroin revival.
She hasn’t seen so many kids doing heroin since the Nexus substance-abuse program, which she runs, started tracking detailed statistics in 2005.
Nearly two times more of the program’s young clients aged 14 to 24 say they’re using heroin—35 percent today compared to 19 percent in 2005. “It’s crazy. We have definitely noticed an increase in heroin use among youth we work with,” said Grant, whose program is part of the Boys and Girls Clubs of South Coast B.C. “It’s cheaper and more accessible.”
The clients are getting younger, too. “It used to be their first time was 18 or 20,” she said. “Now it’s somebody who’s 15.”
After years of declining use, smack is back. A new generation of addicts—many younger than before—are getting hooked on a rising tide of heroin pouring into Canada from strife-ridden Afghanistan.
In Vancouver, the number of heroin-related criminal charges has shot up more than sixfold, from 72 in 2003—the year Canada sent its first large military contingent to Afghanistan—to 445 in 2009, according to Vancouver Police Department figures.
The B.C. Coroner’s Office warned on May 5 that the province saw 20 heroin-related overdose deaths in the first four months of 2011, more than twice the number last year for the same period. The coroner said that unusually potent heroin may be to blame. But other provinces are also seeing more heroin and more ODs. And the story is similar across the U.S., Europe, and Asia.
Canada-wide, police seizures of opium shot up threefold between 2001 and 2008, from 31.5 kilograms to 96.9 kilos, according to Health Canada, which tests seized drugs for police forces. Seizures of heroin, an opium derivative, doubled from 66.6 kilos in 2001 to 133.4 kilos in 2008.
According to UN figures, much of the blame lies with a 15-fold increase in Afghan opium production since 2001, the year Canadian soldiers helped the U.S. overthrow the country’s Taliban government. Afghanistan now supplies 90 percent of the world’s opium.
Increased heroin supply worldwide and falling prices are the little-noticed side effects of the western presence in Afghanistan.
Opium, banned under the Taliban regime, now flourishes in Afghanistan under the noses of Canadian and U.S. personnel—and often directly under the boots of Canadian soldiers, who are occasionally pictured in newspapers walking through poppy fields while on the prowl for Taliban rebels.
Opium generates $1.5 billion to $4 billion for Afghanistan’s economy each year and accounts for 10 to 50 percent of the country’s GDP, depending on harvests, according to reports from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Depending on various factors, the poppy employs between 1.5 million and 3.3 million Afghans at different times of the growing season.
A big part of all those billions goes into the pockets and Dubai bank accounts of Afghan officials and warlords who are our allies. The Taliban rebels, who are widely accused of profiting from the opium trade, take in only two to 12 percent of total opium revenue, mostly by taxing shipments, according to an April 2011 analysis by the journal Foreign Policy.
One of the most conspicuous manifestations of opium’s huge role is the Kabul neighbourhood of Sherpur, the country’s wealthiest enclave. An empty hillside as recently as 2001, Sherpur now boasts extravagant mansions that Afghans dub “poppy palaces” and “narcotecture”.
All this prompted Hillary Clinton to call Afghanistan a “narco state” during the confirmation hearing prior to her appointment as U.S. secretary of state.
But that hasn’t stopped Canadian and other western governments from cultivating friendly ties with Afghan officials and warlords known or strongly suspected to be involved in the flourishing opium trade.