U.S. anti-drug officials Thursday rejected lawmakers' claims that they are doing little to eradicate Colombia's opium, the raw material for most of the heroin sold in the United States.

Members of the House Government Reform Committee said a $1.8 billion anti-drug program in Colombia is so focused on eradicating coca, little is being done about opium. Fewer opium crops are being fumigated this year than before U.S. helicopters and other anti-drug aid began arriving two years ago.

The result has been a surge in heroin in the United States, lawmakers said. "Plain and simple, the heroin that is flooding the United States and is killing our citizens comes from Colombia," said Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga. "It is a weapon of mass destruction and we must help the Colombian government eradicate it, before it gets to the United States."

A top State Department antidrug official, Paul E. Simons, told lawmakers that the United States is fighting opium as well as coca in Colombia.

"We know the enemy and what we need to do," he said. "We have assets in country deployed to do the job, and we have effective and strong leadership in Colombia prepared to do its part."

In 2000, pilots sprayed about 22,700 acres of opium. That figure fell to about 3,950 acres last year. U.S. officials hope to spray about 12,350 acres this year. Simons said opium spraying was hindered last year by a lack of spray planes and pilots, interruptions in the flow of money and bad weather. With coca eradication requiring fewer resources than opium eradication, it was a higher priority.

In a visit Thursday to Washington, Colombia's foreign minister, Carolina Barco, noted the difficulty of fumigating opium.

Opium poppies "are cultivated at much higher altitudes than coca and we need to find ways to eradicate them and find economic alternatives" for opium farmers, she said.

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, mostly 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 testimony.

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.


Pubdate: Thu, 12 Dec 2002
Source: Sarasota Herald-Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2002 Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Contact: editor.letters@herald-trib.com
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