U.S. Losing Colombia Heroin Fight

Lawmakers say a U.S.-funded anti-drug program in Colombia is doing little to eradicate the country's opium, the raw material for most of the heroin used in the United States.

While gains have been made in stopping Colombian cocaine, fewer opium crops are being sprayed this year than had been before Colombia began receiving $1.8 billion in helicopters and other anti-drug assistance from the United States, they said.

Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of the Government Reform Committee, said in remarks prepared for a hearing Thursday that the government is focusing on eradicating coca, the raw material for cocaine, at the expense of opium.

"The result has been an increase in Colombian heroin availability in the U.S., an increase in hospital admissions for overdoses, and an increase in overdose deaths in nearly every big city and small town east of the Mississippi,'' said Burton, R-Ind.

Rep. Ben Gilman, R-N.Y., denounced "the lack of any political will, leadership and any strategic thinking,'' by anti-drug authorities.

A State Department official said poppy is difficult to eradicate because it is easy to plant and easy to hide. Because it grows on mountains, it is also difficult to fumigate.

The amount of opium planted year-to-year varies dramatically, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In 2000, before most of the U.S. anti-drug aid was delivered, pilots sprayed about 22,700 acres of opium. That figure fell to about 3,950 acres last year

This year, U.S. officials expect to spray about 12,350 acres, according to the committee.

Colombia accounts for most of the world's cocaine, but only a tiny fraction of its heroin. But almost all Colombian heroin is sold in the United States, especially in the East. Cocaine is much more popular than heroin in the United States, but heroin accounts for more fatal overdoses.

Colombian heroin tends to be purer than the Mexican heroin that dominates the western United States. Because of its purity, it is often inhaled, making it more appealing to people who don't want to use needles.

Police and anti-drug officials say Colombian heroin is tied to what they see as increased use of the drug.

In Westmoreland County, Pa., near Pittsburgh, 12 people have died of overdoses this year, compared with five fatal overdoses over the five previous years, Detective Tony Marcocci, of the county's district attorney's office, said in his prepared remarks.

Detective Sgt. Scott Pelletier of the Portland, Maine, Police Department, said heroin seizures and arrests have surged in his state.

"There has historically been a heroin problem in Maine, but over the last five years it has become nothing short of an epidemic,'' he said.