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Black-Tar Heroin Lures New Users
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February 18, 2010

Rewind: HBO's Black Tar Heroin is a 1999 documentary directed by Steven Okazaki. Filmed from 1995 to 1998 in the Tenderloin, San Francisco, California, the documentary offers the viewer a sobering dose of reality about the lives of black tar heroin addicts.
Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Quinones has written a three-part series exploring how the recent trend in cheap, less-refined heroin from Mexico is displacing Colombian heroin and attracting new users in places where no demand existed. Many addicts got hooked on narcotics through Oxycontin and other prescription drugs. Quinones says the dealers want to maximize profits in the shortest time period with minimum risk.


Listen to the Story
Now to a Mexican export that's riddled communities all over the U.S. It's black tar heroin - cheap, plentiful and deadly. A lot of the sticky black heroin is brought in from the tiny Mexican county of Jalisco and it's created an insatiable demand for heroin in places where little or no demand existed before.

Sam Quinones of the Los Angeles Times has written a three-part series on black tar, called "The Heroin Road." He joins me now. And, Sam, this black tar trade in the U.S. follows a very different business model. You compare it to operating like a pizza delivery services. Describe what happens.

Mr. SAM QUINONES (Journalist, Los Angeles Times; Author, "The Heroin Road"): Right. These guys, well, from Jalisco will come to town and they'll setup a telephone number. They'll pass along the telephone number to addicts, a lot of which whom they meet at methadone clinics and drug treatment centers. And these addicts will spread it throughout the rest of the drug-using community.

And soon, they'll be - these folks from Jalisco will be taking orders, as if they were pizza deliverers. And then they have a series of drivers tooling around town with small balloons of heroin in their mouths, making these deliveries. And so it's a kind of a system that is very reliable for the user and also avoids the police, in large measure. And that's what makes it attractive to the dealers.

BLOCK: You point out that this trade in black tar heroin from Jalisco in Mexico is quite different from the Colombian heroin trade in that they're targeting a very different clientele.

Mr. QUINONES: These guys are farm boys. They are interested in making a lot of money in a short amount of time with the least amount of risk and the least amount of notoriety. And so what they do is they will target cities where there really is not much heroin to speak of. And I'm talking about Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Columbus, Nashville. Oftentimes they really are focused on white customers. They don't like dealing with blacks or Latinos. They're going for the path of least resistance, really.

BLOCK: Why is it called black tar heroin?

Mr. QUINONES: Because it looks like kind of gooey. It's heroin that has not been fully processed.

BLOCK: And how cheap would it be?

Mr. QUINONES: I've heard it getting down as much as $6, $8 a hit, you know?

BLOCK: And that would mean that for communities that may have a problem or have had a problem with prescription pills, pain pills like OxyContin, this would be way cheaper than that.

Mr. QUINONES: Yes. The OxyContin is really kind of the gateway drug into black tar heroin. A lot of people have become addicted to it. Apparently, it's been way over prescribed in many parts of the country, and, in time, becomes an enormously expensive habit to maintain. You're talking about pills that can cost $40 to $80 on the street and that would be you'd take four to six or eight of them a day sometimes.

Along comes black tar with $6 a dose, $12, $15 a dose and you need two or three of them a day. You're satisfying your addiction at about the 10th the cost.

BLOCK: One tragic side of this that you track in your reporting is huge spikes in deaths from overdose from black tar heroin.

Mr. QUINONES: Correct. And where you're finding this oftentimes is in small towns that really aren't prepared for it. What'll happen is users from these small towns oftentimes - again, OxyContin users - will begin to see that if they travel maybe an hour or two to the nearest big city, they can find black tar heroin and they can bring it back home. They can make enough to pay for their own use. And they'll maybe even make some money.

But the problem is this black tar arrives and a lot of times people don't know how to use it. A lot of times, it's way too potent. A lot of times they don't know how to deal with people who are ODing and they'll just abandon the people that - as they begin to OD because they'd never seen anything like that.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the supply side of this equation. You went over the border. You went to Jalisco and reported on how the drug trade has transformed these very poor farming communities, completely turned them upside down.

Mr. QUINONES: That's correct and this is an area that is dependent on sugarcane. And sugarcane is, of course, a very low-cost product. You're never going to get any kind of economic development, in my view. But this county now is doing quite well. A lot of new houses going up. You see a lot of big trucks, very new. A lot of very nice horses. Because the people who are going north to sell this stuff are the poorest of the poor, the most marginalized folks in that county. And all of a sudden they're coming back and they have money.

So that has also transformed the social relationships, in a way I thought was very interesting and important. Because if you go north after a lifetime of being humiliated and looked down on, and you come back with money in your pocket, that's almost a narcotic in itself.

BLOCK: Sam Quinones of the Los Angeles Times whose series is called "The Heroin Road." Sam, thanks very much.

Mr. QUINONES: My pleasure. Thank you.

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