A CCIR Investigation | Smack Comes Back
Story by ALEX ROSLIN and BILBO POYNTER Special to The Gazette|December 11, 2010
This story was also published in The Montreal Gazette
It’s just before 1 p.m. on a cool, sunny Monday afternoon in late November. On a quiet residential street in Montreal’s east end, half a dozen heroin addicts are waiting by office phones and cellphones in the Méta d’Âme drop-in centre and residence for opiate users and recovering addicts.
Their fingers are poised to hit the speed dial button. At precisely 1 p.m. each Monday, the phone lines open at the city’s main opiate addiction treatment centre, the Centre de recherche et d’aide pour narcomanes.
CRAN is so overwhelmed with demand, only the first caller to get through each week gets a coveted treatment spot.
For everyone else, the wait will continue another week. CRAN is the only provincially funded opiate treatment centre in the city where heroin users even have a shot at help any time soon. At other centres, the waiting lists are six to 12 months long.
“We have to come up with all kinds of tricks to help our clients (work the system),” says Guy-Pierre Lévesque, Méta d’Âme’s director and a former heroin user himself.
The city’s treatment centres are struggling to cope with a surge of addicts – many younger than ever before – who are hooked on a rising tide of heroin pouring into Canada from war-torn Afghanistan.
It’s a similar story across Canada – and, indeed, much of the rest of the world. After years of declining use in the 1990s, heroin and other opiates have made a startling resurgence around the globe – thanks in large part to a 37-fold increase in Afghan opium production since 2001, when Canadian soldiers helped the U.S. overthrow the country’s Taliban government. Afghanistan now supplies 92 per cent of the world’s opium.
Increased heroin supply in Canada, Europe and Asia and falling prices of the drug are the little-noticed side effects of the Western presence in Afghanistan since 2001.
While the Taliban had banned opium production, the poppy now flourishes in Afghanistan under the noses of Canadian and other Western officials – and sometimes directly under the boots of Canadian soldiers who are occasionally pictured in newspaper photos sauntering through poppy fields while on the prowl for Taliban rebels.
Opium generated $3.4 billion for Afghanistan’s economy in 2008 and accounted for a third of its GDP, employing about two million Afghans. It prompted Hillary Clinton to call Afghanistan a “narco-state” during her confirmation hearing as U.S. secretary of state last year.
Despite this, critics say Canadian and other Western governments have entertained close ties with Afghan warlords and officials suspected or known to be involved in the opium business and have turned a blind eye to a devastating drug that kills 100,000 people worldwide each year.
These concerns were heightened earlier in December when whistle-blowing site WikiLeaks released a U.S. diplomatic cable that said Afghan President Hamid Karzai had intervened in several drug cases, including one in which he pardoned five Afghan policemen convicted of transporting 124 kilos of heroin.
Another cable said the president’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, the most powerful official in Kandahar province where Canadian Forces are headquartered, “is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker.”
. . . .
Guy-Pierre Lévesque knows all about the consequences of heroin addiction. Now 55 years old, he started doing morphine at age 20, then heroin a year later. It consumed his life. He lost his job, his car, his house. He stole for years to support a habit that lasted until he was 39.
While getting clean, he found a new obsession: helping other addicts. He spearheaded the creation of the pioneering Méta d’Âme centre, which opened its doors last summer in the Sainte-Marie district.
Lévesque’s small office is crammed with books and paperwork. On the wall in the adjoining meeting room are paintings that clients drew as part of the facility’s art class. He is frequently invited to speak internationally about the facility – the world’s only peer-run drop-in centre and residence for opiate users and ex-users.
The centre offers clients 26 small apartments and works with them and walk-in visitors to help turn their lives around. Also available are laundry facilities, computers with Internet access, a rooftop veggie garden, cooking classes and warm meals prepared by residents and volunteers.
The facility also accompanies addicts to appointments and helps them find one of those ever-elusive treatment spots.
Demand for Méta d’Âme’s services has shot up. At the beginning of the decade, when it operated only as a drop-in centre, four or five clients would come in per day. Earlier this year, before it moved into its new digs, 15 to 20 clients were coming in each day.
And the clientele is getting younger. “When I started doing heroin, people began to use when they were 19 or 20 years old. Today, some are 14,” Lévesque said.
Sylvie Des Roches has noticed the same trend. “We’re seeing an increase in abuse among young people, and we’re seeing them start at a younger age,” she says.
Des Roches is director of CRAN, the city’s largest opiate-addiction treatment centre, located at the corner of Prince Arthur and St. Urbain Sts.
The growing addiction problems have swamped her centre and others across the province, she said.
CRAN now has 90 opiate users aged 18 to 34 enrolled in its most intensive treatment program for hard-core addicts. That’s more than double the 34 who were in the program in 2007.
“We find ourselves with clients who ask for treatment whom we can’t help,” Des Roches said.
“It’s a problem because when a young person wants treatment, they can’t be on a waiting list since they can overdose or commit suicide.”
Indeed, that’s what appears to be happening. The Quebec coroner’s office has reported a 20-per-cent jump in accidental opiate overdose deaths since 2006, when the office started to track the data. The number of deaths went up from 64 in 2006 to 76 in 2008.
The opiate abuse is also leading to other problems. More than two-thirds of injection drug users have hepatitis C, while 18 per cent have HIV, said the Public Health Agency of Montreal in a report last week. It said the rates of both infections have gone up since 1998 (although no data was given on how much).
“It’s really an epidemic,” Lévesque said. One cause, he said, is the younger age of today’s users, who are less likely to be aware of the need to use clean needles to avoid passing on infections. “There’s more contamination among young people.”
Another growing problem, he said, is Afghan heroin is often less pure than the product from other countries. Wholesalers cut – or dilute – heroin with various products to fatten up their profit margins. They use everything from benign substances like flour and baby powder to more dangerous products like disinfectants, plaster and sawdust that can cause infection, poisoning and even death.
Other Canadian cities are also seeing a resurgence of heroin. In Toronto, 10,500 students in Grades 7 to 12 – or 1.1 per cent of all students in those grades – reported using heroin in the previous year in 2007, according to the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
That was nearly two times the 0.6 per cent of students who reported the same thing in 2001.
Heroin use among Toronto students is now nearly back at the levels seen during the heroin heyday of the 1980s and early 1990s. That was when a global glut of cheap “junk” spawned the undead “heroin chic” look on fashion catwalks and claimed the lives of celebrities like actor River Phoenix and Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvion.
In B.C., there is less exact data, but an adolescent health survey in 2008 noted a “small but significant increase” in heroin use among students in the previous five years. Quebec doesn’t publish data on heroin use rates among Montreal youth.
Canada is far from being the only country hit by the flood of Afghan opium. Among the worst-hit countries is Afghanistan itself, which has an estimated one million opiate addicts – eight per cent of the population. The number of heroin users has doubled in the past five years.
Ground zero of the impacts is Russia, a major transhipment route for Afghan heroin to Europe. There, the number of heroin addicts has exploded 10-fold in the past decade. President Dmitri Medvedev last year called the drug a threat to national security and accused Western nations of not doing enough to stop Afghan opium production.
A UN report last year put the problems in stark perspective. “The number of people who die of heroin overdoses in NATO countries per year (above 10,000) is five times higher than the total number of NATO troops killed in Afghanistan in the past eight years,” it said.
“We need to go back to the dramatic opium addiction in China a century ago to find comparable statistics.”
. . . .
Heroin in Montreal used to be white – a mark of the highly refined smack that used to dominate the streets. It came from Southeast Asia’s so-called Golden Triangle – Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Montreal’s heroin is now a less refined, beige-coloured product from Afghanistan.
The price has also fallen thanks to Afghanistan’s booming opium supply. A point of heroin (a tenth of gram, the most commonly purchased quantity for street users) has dropped from $35 to $30 in the past decade, said Méta d’Âme’s Lévesque.
André Michalski started shooting heroin at age 15 and eventually turned to smuggling it between Montreal and New York to support his habit. He lost promising jobs as a network cameraman and film location scout and was arrested for heroin trafficking in 2005. Now 45, he is on probation and getting treatment while he lives at Méta d’Âme.
He tallies the toll the drug took on his life: “No career, no job, a lot of broken relationships.”
He said heroin is now easier to find in the city and that the wholesale price of heroin in Montreal has fallen from $90,000 a kilo a decade ago to $70,000 today.
Heroin also appears to be more prevalent nationwide. Canadian police seized 92 kilos of heroin in 2008, up from 67 kilos in 2001 – a 38-per cent increase, according to Health Canada, which tests seized drugs for police forces. They also seized 67 per cent more raw opium.
Quebec and Ontario both saw fourfold increases in the total amounts of heroin and opium seized in each province between 2001 and 2008.
In Alberta, the seizure data has gone through the roof. Police in the province seized 42 times more heroin and opium each year on average between 2002 and 2008 than in the 1995-2001 period.
Heroin and opium are also now popping up in parts of Canada where they were unheard of before, like Nova Scotia, despite the fact that RCMP reports say the main heroin entry points are Toronto, Vancouver and to a lesser extent Montreal. It comes in concealed on passengers and in courier parcels, by air cargo, regular mail and ship cargo.
Nova Scotia didn’t have any heroin or opium seizures in the seven years up to and including 2001. Then, in 2002, the province saw a whopping 21 kilos of heroin seized, nearly half of the total in the entire country that year, along with another 52 kilos of opium in 2004.
. . . .
Canada is also seeing new types of opiates for the first time. Like doda.
Vicky Dhillon is a limo driver-turned-city councillor in the Toronto suburb of Brampton. He first heard about the doda coming to Canada when his teenage son told him kids were using it in his high school and buying it openly.
The highly addictive brownish powder, made by grinding the seed pods of opium poppies, is mixed with tea or hot water and is known as “poor man’s heroin” because it’s so cheap. Last year, police arrested 22 Toronto-area doda dealers and seized 432 kilograms of suspected doda – enough to get 432,000 people high.
Doda has now spread across Canada and is available in Montreal, Quebec City, Edmonton and Vancouver, Dhillon said.
Addiction workers in Vancouver said in a CBC report this year that doda is as common today as marijuana in some city neighbourhoods and that doda abuse has become a “big problem” in the city’s South Asian community.
The face of heroin traffickers is also changing. In Montreal and elsewhere, new Southwest Asian-linked crime groups now dominate heroin and opium smuggling and have elbowed out Italian and East Asian organized crime that used to dominate the heroin market, according to former users and RCMP drug situation reports.
Their methods are innovative. Canadian police have found heroin and opium hidden inside cricket bats, the inner lining of briefcases, hollowed-out women’s shoe soles, chocolates and a tombstone.
In Vancouver, Indo-Canadian crime gangs that sell Afghan heroin are fighting a violent war over drug turf that has seen 100 shootings.
Indo-Canadian gangs have also branched out to become involved in smuggling prescription opiates into Canada, like oxycodone and codeine, RCMP drug situation reports say. That has helped feed an explosion in prescription opiate abuse among Canadians.
. . . .
The profits from all this heroin are fantastic. Cocaine pales in comparison as a money-maker.
A kilo of heroin that goes for $2,500 U.S. in Afghanistan wholesales in Montreal for $70,000 and has a street value of $300,000. It’s six times more valuable than the same amount of gold.
By contrast, cocaine selling for $2,000 in Colombia wholesales for about $40,000 in Montreal and is worth $120,000 on the street.
But little of that profit goes to the Afghan opium farmers who tend all those poppies. Even the Taliban rebels, who are widely accused of profiting from the opium trade, make only about $110 to $150 million a year off taxing opium farmers and shipments, according to UN estimates – small change compared to the $3.4 billion that opium generated in Afghanistan in 2008.
Much of those profits go into the pockets of Afghan warlords and officials allied with Canadian and Western forces, said one Canadian government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said the Canadian government has done little to curtail the Afghan warlords’ drug activities or even question Afghan politicians thought to be involved with drugs. “We’ve been very passive. We haven’t taken controversial positions on these kinds of questions.”
The official tells one particularly grim story. In one province, an Afghan district chief convinced the British to send him troops, saying he needed protection from the Taliban.
Right away, the British soldiers who arrived faced withering attacks and were forced to withdraw. They later learned that the district chief was actually an opium trafficker and that he had merely wanted the Brits to help him fight a rival drug gang. The attackers weren’t Taliban after all; they were the rival gangsters.
“The British ended up intervening in a gang war. This happens all the time,” the Canadian official said.
“We’re propping up crooks.”
Amir Attaran agrees. “Opium is the problem in Afghanistan. A corrupt narco-elite runs the country,” he said.
Attaran is a University of Ottawa law professor and development expert who has studied Afghanistan’s drug trade.
He said both sides in the country’s war have an interest in perpetuating the conflict because of their involvement with opium. “You cannot grow opium and traffic it on a large scale in peacetime. You need a fog of war,” he said.
“If you want to understand the conflict in Afghanistan, you have to understand this is a gang war.”
Attaran’s solution: legalize Afghan opium and sell it for medical uses, joining countries like India and Turkey that grow legal opium crops for the pharmaceutical market.
The result, he thinks, would be to turn warlords into regular businessmen and reduce the country’s violence and corruption. “I don’t really see an alternative that would succeed,” Attaran said.
Halfway around the world, back at Méta d’Âme, Lévesque is on the receiving end of Afghanistan’s problems and is also trying to come up with answers. He and other treatment workers would like a supervised injection site to be created in the city where users can get clean needles and meet intervention workers.
With heroin users waiting six months or more for a place in a treatment program, Lévesque says new solutions are needed in Canada, too.
This story was done with research assistance from the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting, a charitable non-profit dedicated to producing investigative reporting. Alex Roslin is the CCIR’s president, and Bilbo Poynter is its executive director. Read more about Afghan opium and its impacts at the CCIR’s site: www.canadiancentreinvestigates.org/
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Some reports suggest there could be a problem. In 2007, a Canadian military police report on Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan said there had been “13 investigations including importation of heroin” involving Canadian Forces personnel.
“One area of concern, which will continue to be a focal point for criminal intelligence resources, is the accessibility to illicit drugs,” the report said.
Canadian soldiers have also been hit with greater rates of criminal charges related to drugs since Canada’s large-scale deployment to Afghanistan started in 2003.
Charges for conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline relating to drugs and alcohol shot up from an average of 75 per year during the four years prior to the Afghan mission to 99 per year since 2003, according to data from the Defence Department’s judge advocate general’s office.
Charges for trafficking of substances climbed from 5.8 per year on average before the Afghan mission to 11.2 per year since 2003.
Charges for possession of substances rose from two a year before the mission to 3.5 since.