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.
One of Canada’s closest allies in Afghanistan is the so-called King of Kandahar—Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half brother of President Harmid Karzai. Often known by his initials, AWK, he is the powerful head of the provincial council in Kandahar province, where Canada’s 2,800 soldiers are headquartered.
He is also widely suspected of being linked to opium trafficking. An October 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable released by the whistle-blowing group WikiLeaks in November 2010 said AWK “is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker”.
Reports about Wali Karzai go back years. A 2006 Newsweek investigation quoted sources saying AWK was a “major figure” in the opium trade. One Afghan Interior Ministry official said he “leads the whole trafficking structure” in the country’s south.
(Wali Karzai has denied the claims of drug involvement, saying there’s no proof.)
He has also been accused of vote-rigging in the 2009 Afghan presidential election and engaging in widespread corruption.
And despite it all, U.S. and Canadian officials have entertained cozy ties with Wali Karzai. He has reportedly received payments from the CIA, the New York Times stated in 2009. He was also said to be renting a large compound outside Kandahar to the CIA and U.S. special forces. “He’s our landlord,” one U.S. official was quoted as telling the newspaper.
Wali Karzai has denied he’s on the CIA payroll, but he acknowledges passing intelligence to coalition forces. “I’m the only one who has the majority of intelligence in this region,” he told the Times last year. “I’m passing tons of information to them.”
That intel seems to have helped shield Wali Karzai from awkward questions about his alleged drug ties. “U.S. and Canadian diplomats have not pressed the matter, in part because Ahmed Wali Karzai has given valuable intelligence to the U.S. military, and he also routinely provides assistance to Canadian forces, according to several officials familiar with the issue,” the Washington Post reported in 2009.
Wali Karzai is far from being the only Karzai with seemingly dirty hands. Another U.S. diplomatic cable, from April 2009, also released by WikiLeaks last November, said that President Karzai has personally intervened in several drug cases. In one, he reportedly pardoned five Afghan policemen convicted of transporting 124 kilos of heroin.
President Karzai also raised eyebrows in 2007 when he appointed a convicted heroin dealer, Izzatullah Wasifi, as his government’s anticorruption chief. “The Kabul government is dependent on opium to sustain its own hold on power,” wrote Thomas Schweich, the former U.S. counternarcotics coordinator in Kabul, in a New York Times Magazine story in 2008.
Canada’s largest development project in Afghanistan may actually be fuelling the opium boom. Ottawa calls it Canada’s “signature project” in the country: a $50-million scheme to rebuild the country’s second-largest dam, the Dahla Dam, and a long-neglected network of irrigation canals in Afghanistan’s main breadbasket region.
This region of fertile farmland also happens to be Kandahar’s main opium-growing belt, according to the UN’s 2010 Afghan Opium Survey.
One of the districts that have benefited from the Canadian irrigation scheme is Zhari, just west of Kandahar City. Since 2008, when the Canadian project began, Zhari has emerged as one of Afghanistan’s key opium-growing areas. Opium cultivation there shot up by 70 percent from 2,923 hectares in 2008 to 4,978 in 2010, according to the UN survey.
The Dahla Dam itself is located in a district called Shah Wali Kot, just northeast of Kandahar City. Opium cultivation there has risen 45 percent since the Canadian project started, from 560 hectares in 2008 to 813 hectares last year.
In Kandahar province as a whole, opium production remained flat from 2005 to 2008, averaging about 14,000 hectares. Then it suddenly shot up to 20,000 hectares in 2009 and almost 26,000 last year.
Findings from the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime show that opium growers are benefiting from the rebuilt irrigation canals and ditches. Its 2007 Afghan Opium Survey reported that 37 percent of villages getting irrigation aid or other external assistance were cultivating opium.
Halfway around the world, more and more of this opium is finding its way to Canada. Our heroin used to come mostly from Southeast Asia’s “golden triangle”: Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. That started to change after 2001 when Afghanistan emerged as Canada’s number one supplier, according to the RCMP’s annual drug reports.
By happy coincidence, B.C. has been partially buffered from the impacts. Vancouver Coastal Health had already started to ramp up spending on addiction treatment due to a spike in heroin overdoses in the 1990s.
VCH also funds and operates (with the PHS Community Services Society) the Downtown Eastside’s Insite supervised-injection facility, which cut OD deaths in the surrounding area by more than one-third, according to a study published on April 18 in British medical journal the Lancet. (That hasn’t stopped the Harper government from trying to close Insite. The Supreme Court of Canada is expected to rule later this year on whether or not Ottawa can revoke Insite’s permit to operate, which has been upheld in two lower-court decisions.)
Meanwhile, there are signs of a heroin comeback. “Heroin is making a bit of a resurgence,” Sgt. Shinder Kirk of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit–B.C. said by phone from his office in Surrey.
The number of Native people in Vancouver who died of illicit-drug overdoses went up from eight in 2001 to 14 in 2005 (the latest available data), according to a 2007 report for the Canadian Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use.
B.C. students saw a “small but significant increase” in heroin use between 2003 and 2008, the nonprofit McCreary Centre Society’s “Adolescent Health Survey” reported in 2008.
Despite the extra money for addiction services, fewer heroin users are getting treatment. In 2001, only 18 percent of injection-drug users in Vancouver had access to services like detox, a recovery house, counselling, or a treatment centre. That number fell to seven percent in 2007, according to a 2009 report from the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
The centre’s report also found that more injection-drug users were homeless (13 percent in 2001 versus 24 percent in 2007), and more had HIV (0.6 percent in 2001 compared to 2.4 percent in 2007).
The numbers underscore growing problems for heroin users, said Dave Murray, a volunteer at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. Murray himself used heroin for 15 years. “I lost everything I owned. I generally went into a ditch,” he said, speaking over his cellphone as he walked through the Downtown Eastside, where he lives.
He gave up heroin three or four years ago and now advocates for better services for heroin users.
Based on what he sees on the streets, Murray said, he believes that more young people have been doing heroin in Vancouver in recent years. And he said it’s getting harder for them to find help, especially since the closure of the Miracle Valley substance-abuse treatment centre outside Mission last year. “There are not enough treatment spaces, that’s for sure,” he said.
Heroin users typically wait one to three months for a spot in a provincially funded treatment centre, Murray said. “What do we do with the person while they’re waiting?” he asked. A user who has gone through detox should have a “seamless” entry into a residential treatment facility to have any chance of getting clean, he said. “If the person goes back out into the community, chances are he will fail.”
After finishing a treatment program, users can stay at a recovery house—a residence where they can try to get back on their feet, find a job, and get away from old habits. But Murray said many recovery houses in B.C. are “terribly run”, and recovering users there live in “poor conditions”. Instead of closing, Murray said, Insite should be expanded. The centre has room for only 12 injectors at a time—hardly enough for the neighbourhood’s estimated 5,000 injection-drug users.
Murray is also troubled by the fast-rising number of heroin-related arrests by Vancouver police. He thinks it suggests there’s a new generation of heroin users out there who aren’t showing up yet in other data. It also means the city is flouting its Four Pillars drug strategy of prioritizing treatment, prevention, and harm reduction rather than criminalizing users, he said.
“They’re putting more money into enforcement; they’re building more prisons. Vancouver talks about Four Pillars. It’s one pillar and three toothpicks. Three-quarters of the money goes to enforcement,” he said.
Vancouver police didn’t respond to a Straight request for comment.
Other provinces in Canada are also seeing a growing heroin problem. In Toronto, the portion of Grade 7 to 12 students who reported using heroin in the previous year almost doubled, from 0.6 to 1.1 percent, between 2001 and 2007, according to the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
But Canada’s heroin woes pale beside those of Afghanistan itself. It has an estimated one million opiate addicts—eight percent of the population. It’s another way the fates of ordinary Canadians and Afghans have become joined in the past 10 years. After all, a poppy palace doesn’t come cheap.
This story was done with research support from the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting.