Cheap, strong and chic: heroin is back with a bang Cheap and pure heroin's stock rises on the Street

David Usborne reports that heroin from Colombia has become the smart new drug of choice in New York
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The Independent Online
Deals do not come much more wicked than this; not in New York City. Find yourself a friendly vendor, perhaps down in Veterans Park near Wall Street or in Manhattan Valley on the Upper West Side, and a one-dose bag of heroin heaven - or hell - will be yours for less than the price of a cinema ticket.

And it is not just the cost that amazes - maybe $6 (pounds 3.75) for a single bag or even less - but the insanely good quality. Most likely, your purchase will be fresh in, not from Afghanistan or Burma, but from Colombia. And the purity will be unbeatable, not 5 per cent pure like in the old days but 75 per cent. Phew.

Do this and, trust me, you will not be alone. Of course they may be a few of the old crowd - bums and no-hopers - but otherwise it's a cool gig. Wall Street guys, bright kids from college and high school (a few of the baggy jeans brigade too) and heaps of entertainment insiders. And fashion people galore.

This is how it is in New York: crack cocaine has hardly disappeared, but heroin, the drug that was meant to have faded away, along with pre- Aids innocence and bell-bottoms, is making a comeback. And it is trickling along the interstate highways to other cities and towns across the country. From New England to Florida, to Texas and to California, the cry is going out: the white-powder devil has returned.

"Over the last several years we had indications that we were going to see an increased use of heroin, perhaps an epidemic. Now we know we were right," says Dr Robert Millman, the head of the narcotics treatment programme at New York's Cornell University Medical Center. "There is no question that we are looking at a significant rise and it might continue to rise. There is no reason to think it will not."

In the five boroughs of New York alone, hospital emergency admissions for heroin crises more than doubled between 1988 and 1995 from around 5,400 admissions to more than 11,000. Figures for 1996, which are not yet available, are expected to be more shocking still. Nationwide, up to 2 million Americans may now be regular users, compared with half a million at the height of the last heroin era in 1970.

It was the fashion connection that prompted President Bill Clinton to add his own voice to the chorus of anguish last week. He was himself provoked by belated publicity given to the death in February - from a heroin overdose - of one of the fashion world's youngest and brightest photographers, Davide Sorrenti.

The allegation was clear: the industry, and editors of fashion magazines especially, have not only condoned the consumption of heroin among their own, they have projected their heroin-numbed world onto the rest of us with the images on their pages. It is dubbed "heroin chic": young models splayed on bathroom floors or in alley corners with that all-strung-out look washed across their cheekbones.

For Dr Millman, the repositioning of heroin as mainstream, even hip, and the correlation between that and increased consumption is clear. "It used to be we would associate heroin use with poor people, losers, people who were going to get Aids. Middle-class people didn't want to get near it. Now, it has attained a certain chic, that's true. It has acquired an aura of romance, excitement and darkness."

More critical, however, are the changed market mechanics. Whereas Asia used to be the source, now Colombia has control. While the tiny country produces 1.5 per cent of the world's opium, its drug lords are believed by US officials to have captured no less than 80 per cent of the New York heroin market.

They have succeeded partly by taking the distribution network established for cocaine and simply switching the product. Meanwhile, they are gradually persuading the customers themselves to move on from cocaine to heroin, as if they are changing car models.

"Colombian trafficking organisations are now providing free samples of South American heroin as part of their cocaine transactions in order to introduce users to their high potency and relatively inexpensive product," Tom Constantine, the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, recently warned Congress.

Price and potency: the wicked deal. For little outlay, well-to-do Manhattanites or a 15-year-old in Oklahoma with some spare pocket money can get very high very quickly. The new levels of purity also mean that heroin can be taken effectively through the nose, by snorting and sniffing. The inconvenience of needles, not to mention associated health hazards, can be forgotten.

Says Dr Millman: "You can just sniff it and overdose. And die."