WASHINGTON — In an apparent indication of shifting currents in the international drug trade, growers in cocaine-rich Colombia for the first time have begun to cultivate the opium poppies used to produce heroin, according to U.S. officials.
"It looks as if the world's most successful dope traffickers are now planting their own opium," a senior State Department official said.
Evidence of this cultivation raises concerns that Colombia's powerful cocaine cartels may be experimenting with heroin production to meet a burgeoning American demand for that drug, the officials said.
Any large-scale entry by the Colombians into the heroin trade could pose a serious challenge to the U.S. interdiction effort, because their sophisticated distribution networks could significantly increase the volume of heroin available in this country at cheap prices.
Such a development could also cause confusion in an anti-drug strategy now concentrated chiefly on combatting cocaine as the primary drug of choice.
"In the midst of a cocaine avalanche, it's like we've got a heroin boulder teetering on the edge of the cliff," said one government official involved in the anti-drug effort.
At least 25,000 acres of Colombian farmland, enough to produce between one and two tons of heroin, were being used to grow opium when the illegal poppies were discovered by local authorities late last year, the officials said.
That crop was reported to have been eradicated by Colombian authorities, but U.S. anti-drug agencies have stepped up their monitoring efforts to determine the extent of any remaining heroin production in that country and whether the notorious Medellin cartel or other major drug enterprises directed the cultivation effort.
Although the amount of opium being grown in Colombia was small by international standards, U.S. officials said that the revelation marked the first time the illegal crop had emerged in South America. Burma and Afghanistan are currently the world's leading opium producers.
Sources speculated that Colombian narcotics traffickers had decided to move in on the heroin business of Mexican drug traffickers who had helped them distribute cocaine and marijuana in the hemisphere.
The experimentation with opium cultivation in Colombia comes at a time when Administration officials are increasingly worried about the potential for a new wave of heroin abuse in the United States.
While efforts to halt the current cocaine epidemic remain the unchallenged focus of the current anti-drug strategy, indications of dramatic increases in opium cultivation and heroin use have led a number of Administration officials to warn of the dangers of neglecting the heroin problem.
"Heroin is following the path of cocaine," warned Frank G. Tarallo, acting chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration's heroin investigations division. "It's an entertainment type of drug for the middle class."
Rather than inject heroin directly into their veins, as addicts most often do, casual users of the drug are increasingly smoking it, Tarallo said.
Formal surveys by the National Institute on Drug Abuse have yet to detect a noticeable increase in heroin use. However, a study designed to provide early warnings of drug abuse trends showed sharp increases last year in heroin-induced health emergencies.
Other indicators also provide a grim outlook. Worldwide cultivation of opium last year leaped 24%, according to State Department estimates. On the street in the United States, the price dropped and purity increased, factors that experts believe increase the likelihood of drug use.
At the same time, U.S. seizures of heroin nearly doubled after remaining constant for nearly four years. "We hadn't seen these kinds of seizures since the days of the French Connection in the early 1970s," Tarallo said.
Among the agencies looking most closely at the potential for a new heroin epidemic is the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, headed by William J. Bennett, where a staff member described the new opium cultivation in Colombia as a "worrisome" indication that drug lords might be anticipating a shifting pattern in American demand.
"We need to be most concerned with the cocaine now," said David Tell, Bennett's deputy chief of staff. "But heroin has got to be on the table in the long term."
In confirming the accounts of new opium cultivation in Colombia, which have been circulating for weeks among the Bush Administration's new anti-drug appointees, U.S. officials said that they could provide few details.
The DEA's Tarallo said in an interview that the agency had developed no conclusive evidence on who had been responsible for the crops or whether any of the Colombian poppies had been transformed into heroin and shipped to the U.S. market. Allegations that cocaine cartels are responsible for the opium cultivation, he added, are merely "speculation."
But other government sources said that they could envision no other scenario that could account for the opium planting and noted that intelligence agents had received increasingly frequent reports that Colombian heroin had arrived in the United States.
The Colombian government's report that 250 hectares--or about 620 acres--of the country was under opium cultivation would rank the country's production level behind even minor opium producers, according to State Department statistics.
By comparison, an estimated 7,738 hectares (approximately 19,000 acres) of Mexico were being planted in opium last year. The world's largest opium producer, Burma, had an estimated 116,700 hectares (about 290,000 acres) under cultivation, the State Department said.