Regions of origin of heroin into the U.S. from, 1977-2012. Photo courtesy Drug Enforcement Administration
Regions of origin of heroin into the U.S. from, 1977-2012. Photo courtesy Drug Enforcement Administration

A conference in Asheville convened law enforcement officers and health care professionals concerned about drug trafficking in Western North Carolina, offering a glimpse of heroin’s prevalence.

By Taylor Sisk

Law enforcement officers, health care providers, behavioral health specialists and a variety of other concerned people gathered in Asheville last week to get a ground-level view of the why, where, how and what next of heroin in Western North Carolina.

And what they heard was a lesson in customer service – a lesson that comes from Mexican drug dealers.

Richard Hutchinson, a DEA intelligence research specialist, presented on heroin’s path to Western North Carolina
Richard Hutchinson, a DEA intelligence research specialist, presented on heroin’s path to Western North Carolina. Photo credit: Taylor Sisk

The conference, held at the Wilma M. Sherrill Center on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Asheville, was hosted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina and was co-sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, the Asheville Police Department and Smoky Mountain LME/MCO. About 175 people attended.

Addressing the “why heroin” question, Stephen Loyd – in a rousing, emotional presentation that borrowed equally from big-tent revival and stand-up comedy – spoke of the power of opioid addiction, the neurobiology of its effects on the brain and how a range of commonly held attitudes and misguided practices exacerbate the issue.

Loyd is a physician, chairs the board of a treatment facility in Johnson City, Tenn. and is a recovering addict.

‘Ground zero’

The clear response to where in Western North Carolina heroin is found is “everywhere.” Richard Hutchinson, a DEA intelligence research specialist, shared maps illustrating where particular types of heroin are most prevalent.

For about a decade and a half, until 1995, the majority of heroin entering the country came from Asia.

Then traffickers in Colombia, and later Mexico, hired Asian chemists to teach them the secrets to producing the heroin known as China White, revered for its potency. The Latin Americans now reliably provide it.

Meanwhile, Mexican black tar heroin continues to move across the border. Black tar is generally believed to be cheaper to reproduce, but, like China White, can vary considerably in quality.

Hutchinson said his office now sees very little Asian-sourced heroin. By 2012, slightly more than half of heroin entering the country was coming from Colombia, slightly less than half from Mexico and about 5 percent from southeast Asia.

As for North Carolina, DEA intelligence indicates that China White is easily found in the Triangle, the Triad, Wilmington, Fayetteville and Charlotte. Black tar is plentiful in Raleigh, Asheville and, especially, Charlotte.


Regions of origin of heroin into the U.S. from, 1977-2012. Photo courtesy Drug Enforcement Administration
Regions of origin of heroin into the U.S. from 1977 to 2012. Photo courtesy Drug Enforcement Administration

“In all the southeast,” Hutchinson said, “Charlotte is essentially ground zero for Mexican black tar heroin…. That’s the primary type of heroin that we see.”

But he also described the emergence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid believed to be anywhere up to 50 times more potent than heroin. Fentanyl, and a supercharged version called furanylfentanyl, is now apparently well entrenched in the state.

“Why does fentanyl show up? Hutchinson asked. “Because there’s so much demand for heroin that they can’t make enough.” So dealers cut it, increasingly with fentanyl. The result is often fatal.

Home delivery

Hutchinson shared law enforcement’s perspective on black tar heroin’s path to Western North Carolina.

As many as 80 percent of the bosses, coyotes, dispatchers, runners and others who comprise the network that supplies the U.S. with black tar heroin come from the central west coast Mexican state of Nayarit. It’s a network that’s well documented in journalist Sam Quinones’ book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.

Men, most often young men, leave Nayarit, an agricultural state, for the U.S. to work as runners for perhaps a six-month rotation, then return home. The networks use the pizza-deliver model, by which runners are set up in cities and towns from coast to coast. They’ll deliver an order most anywhere requested – though they prefer to rendezvous in tonier neighborhoods, where it’s easy to spot a police tail.

Heroin being trafficked to North Carolina these days is shipped to the U.S. largely by gangs headquartered in the western-Mexican state of Nyarit.
Heroin being trafficked to North Carolina these days is shipped to the U.S. largely through networks headquartered in the western Mexican state of Nayarit. Map courtesy WIkimedia Creative Commons

They often drive their routes with single-dose quantities inside small balloons, never holding much at any given time. If stopped by the police, they swallow the balloons.

“The customer service is amazing,” Hutchinson observed. The runner’s boss in Mexico might call a trusted user and ask, “How long did it take for you to get your product?” “Was he nice to you?” “Was the product acceptable?”

“Literally, they reach out from Mexico to make sure the seller here is doing the right thing,” he said. “If they’re not, the next phone call goes to the cell head, and there’s a little chewing that goes on.

“It’s all about customer service. If they don’t make their customer happy, that customer is going to the next dealer down the road.”

The operator of a local trafficking cell must pay his workers expenses: salaries of maybe $800 to $1,000 a week, housing, cars, tags, gas. A typical parcel of heroin smuggled across the border, Hutchinson said, is 2.5 kilos, with a wholesale price of about $120,000. The head of the cell might then net between $100,000 and $115,000 a month – a ton of money here, much more in Mexico.

Hutchinson presented a case study of an intelligence operation and bust conducted by the DEA and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department: A confidential informant supplies a phone number known to be used for drug operations. The agents get a subpoena for the phone records and connect it with other numbers associated with sellers and users, perhaps even back to Mexico.

But, Hutchinson said, agents are constantly playing catch up with phone numbers. The numbers are regularly retired, and traffickers now often use other means of communication: texting through sources that are difficult to trace, for example, or using voice over Internet options.

An undercover agent uses the number to buy drugs. Through that transaction, the agents identify, say, a red Chevy Blazer, and now have a tag number to try to trace. They make another buy. The Blazer shows up again. They follow the Blazer to a residence – a “home where these dudes are laying their heads,” Hutchinson said – and watch.

Soon, a runner or two and a dispatcher are busted. Hopefully, one of them will name names – the names of higher-ups.

But while these networks tend to avoid gang turf and seldom carry weapons, operating relatively free of the threat of violence in the U.S., there is a decided threat of violence back home: Given that so many of them are from the same state, Hutchinson explained, the higher-ups know the runners’ families. The price of doing them wrong can be prohibitive – the dark flipside of a close-knit community.

Breaking the pattern

But, as law enforcement officers now regularly acknowledge, arrest is not the answer. The heroin epidemic continues to heighten.

President Obama participated in a panel discussion at a similar event in Atlanta the prior day, saying, “The only way that we reduce demand [for heroin] is if we’re providing treatment and thinking about this as a public health problem and not just a criminal problem.”

Capt. Nathan King, who heads the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s heroin task force, shared some alarming demographics from his agency’s Health and Life Impact Survey, presented to drug offenders.

The survey indicates almost 30 percent of heroin users said they first sampled the drug between the ages of 16 and 18. Thirty-five percent said they spend $100 to $300 a week on it. And 61.5 percent said they could reliably access heroin in 30 minutes or less.

As for what must be done, King’s priorities include treatment for minors, more treatment options for the uninsured, drug counselors in the schools and organized efforts to provide information within communities.

In his presentation on the need for peer support for those recovering from addiction, Richie Tannerhill of Smoky Mountain quoted Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

The reality with heroin, most all of Wednesday’s speakers confirmed, is that the introduction of a new model founded in prevention, treatment and harm reduction is a matter of life and death.

[box style=”2″]This story was made possible by a grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation to examine issues in rural health in North Carolina. [/box]

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Taylor Sisk

Taylor Sisk is a writer, editor, researcher, producer and documentary filmmaker who served as the rural health reporter from 2015 into 2016. He has served as a managing and contributing editor of The Carrboro...

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