Loudoun has quickly become an international melting pot. People are emigrating from countries like India and China who improve the county’s businesses and education systems, some are only visiting to experience the scenic view of western Loudoun. But one foreign-made, high-demand product has a long journey to get into desperate users’ hands – heroin.
According to the Office of National Drug Control policy, foreign sources of opium are responsible for the entire supply of heroin consumed in the United States.
The trail begins in Latin and South America, particularly Colombia, where the long days and dry atmosphere give poppies an optimal environment to grow. Poppies are a key ingredient in making heroin. After being harvested, the pods are scored with a blade and the raw opium collected. Drug cartels then transport the product north toward Mexico. Experts say that an estimated 80 percent of the heroin that is bought on American streets came from these transports.
But things have changed in recent years and Mexico is starting to grow more of its own poppies. According to the DEA, Mexican organizations have increased their opium-poppy cultivation to 42,008 acres in 2014, which would produce 46.3 tons of heroin. In contrast, Colombia only had 1,977 acres of opium-poppy cultivation for the same year, which could produce 2.2 tons of heroin.
Much of the opium production in Mexico takes place on the mountainous west coast region which is dominated by the powerful Sinaloa cartel which as of 2015, is the most active drug cartel involved in the transportation of illicit drugs into the United States.
Cartels then transport the drug over the border in whatever way they can.
“They’re coming in vehicles and underground tunnels,” said Jack Riley, Deputy Administrator for DEA, a federal law enforcement agency under the U.S. Department of Justice tasked with combating drug smuggling and use within the United States.
Catching drugs at this stage is difficult for law enforcement as cartels can conceal their product in the fabric seats on buses or inside the engine of a car.
“There have been times where we were told where in a vehicle the drug was and it still took us a day to find it,” said Tom Carr, Executive Director of the Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Program.
Once inside U.S. borders, cartels typically traffic the heroin to larger metropolitan areas east of the Mississippi River where demand for the drug is the highest. A common method is through rented vehicles, which make it difficult to track the repeated driving behaviors of smugglers because they use a different vehicle each time.
Another method of transportation is, ironically, through a government agency.
“One of the biggest facilitators is the U.S. Postal Service,” said Carr. “Heroin is being packaged and mailed making it very hard to track because there are so few signs that a package might have narcotics in it.”
Once in a major eastern city like New York, the heroin is given to people identified by law enforcement as ‘choke points,’ people working as an intermediary between cartel members and gang members who typically further transport the drug.
These choke points are often the target of law enforcement to put a stop to the trafficking.
“We target these people in the middle because they have the most information,” Riley said. “They communicate with both the buyers and sellers and if we catch them, we can trace their communication to identify people and organizations on both sides.”
Communication is typically done over electronics like smartphones and mobile messaging which law enforcement can seize. According to Riley, a majority of income for street gangs comes from selling drugs.
Gang members from the Northeast then traffic the drug southward, going through Philadelphia, Trenton, New Jersey and eventually to Baltimore and Washington, where heroin users in Loudoun County commonly make their purchases.
Loudoun, being a high income county might seem like a strange place for heroin to end up, but the demographics for heroin users has changed in recent years.
“Heroin was more common in poorer urban communities, but prescription drugs have changed who’s buying and has increased the demand,” said Carr. “Many prescription drug users are older and more wealthy and are looking for a stronger high.”
Bringing heroin into Loudoun is different than transporting it between cities.
“Our dealers are commuter dealers,” said Richard Fiano, Commander of the Criminal Investigations Division for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and a 34-year veteran of the DEA. “There are circles of heroin users, sometimes five or six friends, who take turns going to out Baltimore or Washington to buy for their group. We call them runners.”
Adam Dooley was one of those runners. After graduating from Loudoun County Public Schools Dooley was put on OxyContin after a car accident in 2009. After he recovered, Dooley started to seek a stronger high and got involved with people who were using heroin.
“We knew each other from high school and they told me how much better heroin was,” Dooley said. “I started running with them and sometimes they got caught and we had to get more people to bring it home.”
Dooley’s friends first made the connection with the supplier when they were looking to buy opioids in Loudoun and couldn’t find a reliable supplier, so they went to Baltimore where the supply is higher and easier to get on the street.
“The first time I went to buy I was 20, alone, and I entered a really sketchy area of east Baltimore,” said Dooley. “I knocked on a door, slide my money under and they slid heroin back. Going into it I had no idea if I was going to be shot or killed.”
Eventually the fear of being caught or harmed was enough for Dooley to change. He has since gotten clean and has been off of heroin for three years.
Partnership between the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies has helped the county’s efforts to cut down on heroin-related crime. In 2015, as part of the HIDTA Task Force, Loudoun Sheriff’s detectives assisted in investigations resulting in the arrest of 16 members of drug trafficking organizations impacting our area, and seized nearly 25 pounds of heroin.
“At the local level, we’ve employed rapid response units to areas where heroin is more prevalent,” said Sheriff Mike Chapman. “With the information exchange between ourselves and HIDTA, we’ve been able to learn more about trafficking methods and gang movement.”
Getting heroin from poppy fields to the needles of users in counties like Loudoun takes a complex transportation network, a heroin highway. Blocking that highway is a work in progress. In Part 3 of this series the Tribune will look more closely at local interdiction efforts, and at longer term solutions that go beyond law enforcement.