Sustained Outrage

Black tar heroin: From Mexico to Huntington, W.Va.

heroinart.jpgToday’s must read comes from the Los Angeles Times, which just published a remarkable three-part series by Sam Quinones that traces the path of a particularly powerful brand of heroin from an obscure part of Mexico all the way to Huntington, W.Va., where it led to a rash of overdose deaths in 2007.

Here are links to all three articles: A lethal business model targets Middle AmericaBlack tar moves in, and death follows (which includes extensive coverage of how the drug moved from Columbus, Ohio, to Huntington, with deadly consequences); and The good life in Xalisco can mean death in the United States.

There’s also a powerful audio slideshow by Gina Ferazzi here, in which Teddy Johnson, a Huntington plumbing contractor, talks about the death of his son, Marshall University freshman Adam Tyler Johnson, from an overdose of black tar heroin.

Part of the strategy was steer clear of major cities and aggressively market an inexpensive brand of heroin to middle- and working-class whites, Quinones reported. In addition to providing door-to-door delivery service, the dealers actively targeted recovering addicts at clinics.

The dealers have been especially successful in parts of Appalachia and the Rust Belt with high rates of addiction to OxyContin, Percocet and other prescription painkillers. They market their heroin as a cheap, potent alternative to pills.

Additionally, university towns have proved to be especially fertile markets for Xalisco heroin, Quinones noted.

Xalisco networks are decentralized, with no all-powerful boss, and they largely avoid guns and violence. Staying clear of the nation’s largest cities, where established organizations control the heroin trade, Xalisco dealers have cultivated markets in the mountain states and parts of the Midwest and Appalachia, often creating demand for heroin in cities and towns where there had been little or none. In many of those places, authorities report a sharp rise in heroin overdoses and deaths.

Before the string of fatal overdoses in 2007, “we didn’t even consider heroin an issue,” said Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook.

Xalisco dealers have been particularly successful in areas where addiction to prescription painkillers like OxyContin was widespread. Many of those addicts, mainly young middle- and working-class whites, switched to black tar, which is cheaper and more powerful.