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By ALICIA A. CALDWELL, JIM SALTER
Associated Press Writers
updated 11:39 a.m. PT, Mon., May 24, 2010
WINFIELD, Mo. - Mexican drug smugglers are increasingly peddling a form of ultra-potent heroin that sells for as little as $10 a bag and is so pure it can kill unsuspecting users instantly, sometimes before they even remove the syringe from their veins.
An Associated Press review of drug overdose data shows that so-called "black tar" heroin — named for its dark, gooey consistency — and other forms of the drug are contributing to a spike in overdose deaths across the nation and attracting a new generation of users who are caught off guard by its potency.
"We found people who snorted it lying face-down with the straw lying next to them," said Patrick O'Neil, coroner in suburban Chicago's Will County, where annual heroin deaths have nearly tripled — from 10 to 29 — since 2006. "It's so potent that we occasionally find the needle in the arm at the death scene."
Authorities are concerned that the potency and price of the heroin from Mexico and Colombia could widen the drug's appeal, just as crack did for cocaine decades ago.
The Latin American heroin comes in the form of black tar or brown powder, and it has proven especially popular in rural and suburban areas.
Originally associated with rock stars, hippies and inner-city junkies, heroin in the 1970s was usually smuggled from Asia and the Middle East and was around 5 percent pure. The rest was "filler" such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, even brick dust. The low potency meant that many users injected the drug to maximize the effect.
But in recent years, Mexican drug dealers have improved the way they process poppies, the brightly colored flowers supplied by drug farmers that provide the raw ingredients for heroin, opium and painkillers such as morphine. Purity levels have increased, and prices have fallen.
'Different group of users'
Federal agents now commonly find heroin that is 50 percent pure and sometimes as much as 80 percent pure.
The greater potency allows more heroin users to snort the drug or smoke it and still achieve a sustained high — an attractive alternative for teenagers and suburbanites who don't want the HIV risk or the track marks on their arms that come with repeated injections.
"That has opened up heroin to a whole different group of users," said Harry Sommers, the agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency office in St. Louis.
Among the drug's casualties was William Henderson, a 29-year-old welder from rural Missouri who died in his sleep in 2009, hours after snorting heroin. A bear of a man at 6-foot-1 and 300 pounds, he had tried the drug only a few times.
His wife recalled waking up to find the alarm buzzing. Her husband's body had turned blue, and his stomach was cold to the touch.
"I kept telling him, 'Will, you're late — get up!" said Amanda Henderson of Winfield, Mo., northwest of St. Louis. "But he wasn't moving, wasn't breathing. I called 911, but I knew it was too late." She and her three small boys were left destitute.
An increasing amount of the deadliest heroin appears to be coming from Mexico. Although the vast majority still arrives from overseas, Mexican dealers appear to be chipping away at the U.S. market.
As recently as two years ago, state and federal drug agents saw heroin arriving from Colombia, Asia and Mexico. But as the availability and quality of cocaine and methamphetamine have declined, Mexican smugglers have stepped up heroin shipments to the U.S.
Overdose deaths rise
Independent Mexican smugglers have the market largely to themselves because the major drug cartels only dabble in heroin, preferring to focus on locally grown marijuana and Colombian cocaine, according to a DEA official in El Paso, Texas. The agent spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing security concerns and his ongoing role in active drug investigations.
Heroin metabolizes in the body so quickly that medical examiners often cannot pinpoint the drug as a cause of death unless there is other evidence to back it up — say, a needle or a syringe found near the body. Also, many victims use multiple drugs and alcohol, so citing a specific substance is often impossible.