Philip Seymour Hoffman's tragic death is an ominous sign of heroin's expanding reach

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". There is an ample supply of heroin in this country. We were all reminded of that by the news of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's death by overdose. The question we want to answer now is this: Where is the world's supply of heroin coming from? Angela Me has tracked the heroin supply trail across the globe. She's the head of Research and Trend Analysis for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna.

Angela Me: Well, today it comes from Afghanistan. Last year Afghanistan produced seventy-five percent of opium and heroin in the global market and this year,given the record-high production in Afghanistan, the percentage will be much higher.

Werman: So if Afghanistan is responsible for seventy-five percent of the world's heroin supply, where is most of that going?

Me: Well, Afghanistan, [??] is going through the north of Afghanistan, so to Central Asia and Russia, and then also going to the west, so through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and the Balkan countries reaching Europe. And then also now a new route is emerging with Afghanistan heroin going to Africa, reaching East Africa, West Africa particularly from the sea. And from there reaching again Europe and from there some is also reaching North America.

Werman: So some of it. But what about heroin in the US? What's the biggest source of heroin in the United States?

Me: The heroin comes mainly from Colombia, Mexico, and some small parts from Afghanistan.

Werman: I mean I think the perception is that the opium poppy, the source of heroin, is strictly an Asian and South Asian crop. So are you saying that Mexican drug cartels and drug cartels in Columbia are growing it themselves?

Me: Yeah, indeed, there is an opium cultivation in Colombia and particularly in Mexico and also the Mexican cartels are also expanding over the border to Guatemala. So there is definitely a domestic production in the Americas in terms of heroin.

Werman: As far as the Mexican and Colombian cartels that are producing and distributing heroin, when did that start? Because that's got to be a pretty muscular operation to be providing for a lot of North America?

Me: Well, opium production is quite old in Colombia and Mexico. It didn't start yesterday or a few years ago. What happened in like three years ago, there definitely was a large increase with cartels really taking control of some parts of the territories, but it's not really a new phenomenon.

Werman: So when we hear about this tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, of many other people who have died from overdoses, the growth of heroin consumption in the last year or so, is it because supply is up or is something else going on? Why is it happening?

Me: It's only recently that there is this resurgence of heroin in the market. The use of heroin in the past few years had been replaced with a misuse of prescription opioid. For example, the overdoses in recent years were mainly due to prescription opioid rather than heroin. But in the last year, in a few months this has reversed again with people switching from prescription opioid to heroin.

Werman: Angela Me, thank you very much for your time.

Me: Thank you.