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Pennsylvania Drug Threat Assessment
June 2001


The abuse and availability of heroin pose a serious threat second only to cocaine, and heroin soon could become the primary drug threat in the state. Drug treatment data indicate that heroin abuse is rising in Pennsylvania as cocaine abuse is gradually declining, and law enforcement in some areas now ranks heroin as a greater threat than cocaine. The market for highly pure heroin, which can be effectively snorted or smoked instead of injected, has expanded from urban areas to midsize cities and smaller towns across the state.

Philadelphia is the state's largest heroin market and the primary distribution center for heroin sold throughout Pennsylvania. Most retail heroin sales in Philadelphia take place in the "Badlands," a 4-square-mile area in northern Philadelphia, where loosely formed retail distribution groups dominate a large open-air drug market. The volume of heroin sales in this area of Philadelphia is so large that the Pennsylvania State Attorney General's Office has created the Eastern Corridor Heroin Operation (ECHO) enforcement team to disrupt drug operations in the Badlands. Also, in June 1998, Operation Sunrise was founded as a multiagency, multijurisdictional initiative designed to stabilize neighborhoods in the Badlands by reducing drug distribution and violent crime. The program, expanded in late 1999 to include the entire city of Philadelphia, has resulted in the arrest of thousands of street corner dealers and customers.

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Drug treatment admission data reported by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Programs indicate that heroin abuse in Pennsylvania is high and continues to increase. State treatment admissions with heroin as the primary drug of abuse accounted for 31 percent of all nonalcohol drug admissions in 2000, slightly lower than cocaine admissions (35%) but higher than marijuana admissions (25%). The number of heroin treatment admissions rose steadily from 1996 to 2000; there were 7,413 in 1996, 7,817 in 1997, 8,700 in 1998, 9,269 in 1999, and 10,646 in 2000. During the same period, cocaine admissions gradually declined.

In Philadelphia, heroin-related DAWN ED mentions increased 15.8 percent from 1998 (3,586) to 1999 (4,152), after increasing 51.7 percent from 1992 (2,364) to 1998. According to ADAM data for Philadelphia, 14.8 percent of male arrestees and 14.2 percent of female arrestees who were tested for drug use tested positive for opiates in 1999. The Philadelphia Medical Examiner Office reported 210 mortality cases with the presence of heroin, according to 1999 preliminary data. DAWN ME data indicate that heroin/morphine-related deaths in the Philadelphia region have fluctuated from 385 in 1996, to 571 in 1997, to 413 in 1998, to 417 in 1999.

In eastern Pennsylvania, Lancaster and Lewistown have serious problems with heroin abuse, and the Chester Police Department reports that heroin abuse has risen precipitously. Also, the Warrington Township Police Department, Northampton Township Police Department, and West Pottsgrove Township Police Department report increased numbers of heroin-related overdoses.

Western Pennsylvania is experiencing a resurgence in the popularity of heroin as well. The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania reports heroin is the second greatest drug threat in the Pittsburgh area after cocaine, and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police reports a significant increase in heroin abuse. The Blair County Coroner reported the presence of heroin in 16 deaths from 1996 to 2000 and attributed the deaths in 1999 to an increase in heroin purity. The Altoona (in Blair County) Police Department reports an increased number of heroin-related overdoses.

Males accounted for 66 percent of all heroin treatment admissions to state drug treatment programs in 2000, and females accounted for 34 percent. Of the males in heroin treatment programs, 62 percent were white, 13 percent were black, and 7 percent were Hispanic. Of the females in heroin treatment programs, 75 percent were white, 11 percent were black, and 9 percent were Hispanic. Of the 1,220 Philadelphia County residents admitted for treatment in 2000 with heroin as the primary drug of abuse, 63.9 percent were male and 36.1 percent female, and 44.2 percent were white, 38 percent black, and 11.9 percent Hispanic. According to ADAM data, 62.5 percent of Hispanic female arrestees and 30.9 percent of Hispanic male arrestees tested for drugs in Philadelphia tested positive for opiates in 1999, higher than for any other ethnicity. Police department officials in the northeastern city of Scranton report a growth in heroin abuse among middle- to lower-class Caucasians in their jurisdiction. Of the 713 residents in Allegheny County (including Pittsburgh) admitted for treatment in 2000 with heroin as the primary drug of abuse, 66 percent were male and 34 percent female, and 69 percent were white, 28 percent black, and 1.4 percent Hispanic.

Heroin abuse by youth is a serious concern throughout the state. In Pennsylvania, users over the age of 25 constitute the largest proportion of addicts seeking medical and treatment assistance; younger users (under age 25) are the fastest-growing user group. In 2000, 32 percent of heroin treatment admissions in the state were under age 25, up from 16 percent in 1996. The average age of first heroin use was 20. According to the 1999 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 2.4 percent of Philadelphia high school students reported using heroin during their lifetimes, matching the national figure. New heroin users are increasingly younger, and some young people take heroin to offset the effects of club drug stimulants such as MDMA. The Shaler Township (near Pittsburgh) Police Department reports that heroin is considered the greatest threat in its jurisdiction, partly because the low cost increasingly attracts users as young as 15.

Newer heroin users usually snort heroin because of its higher purity. As their tolerance levels increase, many users switch to injection to achieve the same effect. Among Philadelphia treatment admissions, injection is the most popular means of administration for heroin, illegal methadone, and other opiates, followed by intranasal use.

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Heroin is readily available throughout most of Pennsylvania. Local law enforcement officials in eastern Pennsylvania report high availability of heroin, particularly in Philadelphia and also in Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, and Reading. Heroin is readily available in western Pennsylvania as well, particularly in Pittsburgh and also in the cities of Altoona, Clairton, and Washington, and in Greene, Fayette, and Westmoreland Counties.

Prior to 1990, Southeast, and to a lesser extent Southwest Asian heroin, were the predominant types available in the Philadelphia area. Starting in the early 1990s, Colombian cocaine suppliers introduced South American heroin to the Philadelphia market. South American heroin gradually replaced Southeast and Southwest Asian heroin, with heroin markets in Philadelphia increasingly being supplied with the Colombians' high purity product. As heroin availability rose, prices dropped, allowing various ethnic distributors to easily market heroin in Pennsylvania communities large and small.

South American heroin is the most widely available type of heroin in Pennsylvania, followed by Mexican, Southeast Asian, and Southwest Asian heroin. The DEA's Domestic Monitor Program (DMP) found in 1999 that most of the identifiable heroin samples in Philadelphia were of South American origin. In 1999, the average retail-level heroin in Philadelphia was 70.7 percent pure, as estimated by the DMP, far higher than the national average of 38.6 percent. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Narcotics in Erie reports that wholesale quantities of heroin in Erie averaged only 20 percent and retail amounts 4 to 10 percent in 2000, according to state laboratory findings. The average purity of retail heroin available in King of Prussia, according to the National Medical Services laboratory, is 90 percent.

Heroin prices in Pennsylvania remained stable during 1999, according to law enforcement reporting. The price of heroin in Philadelphia was $95,000 to $105,000 per kilogram. (See Table 3).

Table 3. Heroin Prices, Pennsylvania, 2001

Reporting Unit Bag Gram Ounce Pound Kilogram
Philadelphia $10-20 $75-300 $2,500-3,500 $45,000-55,000 $95,000-105,000
Pittsburgh $20-30 $300-600 $4,000-6,500 not reported $80,000-110,000
Allentown $10-30 $100-200 not reported not reported not reported
Harrisburg $14-20 not reported $2,000 not reported $100,000

Source: Drug Enforcement Administration, Philadelphia Field Division, Quarterly Trends in the Traffic, 1st Quarter, FY2001.

The amount of heroin seized by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies indicates that heroin remains widely available. Seizures by the Philadelphia Police Department continued to increase in 1999, with officers seizing a total of 45 kilograms. As for other parts of the state, FDSS data indicate that the amount of heroin seized by federal authorities in Pennsylvania dropped from 17 kilograms in 1998 to 9.3 kilograms in 1999, after it had steadily increased to 8.3 kilograms during the period 1995 to 1998.

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The same violent gangs that distribute crack cocaine also distribute heroin, but the violence associated with heroin distribution is generally less than that associated with crack. In Philadelphia, heroin-related homicides increased 20 percent from 1995 to 1999, according to DEA Philadelphia. DEA Administrator Donnie Marshall noted in a May 2000 meeting with Philadelphia community leaders that Philadelphia "is one of the East Coast's biggest markets for high-purity, inexpensive heroin. The abuse and trafficking of this addictive drug and many others tragically impacts the entire community--from the children who can't play safely outside, to businesspeople whose livelihoods are threatened, to the elderly who can't leave their homes for fear of drug-related violence."

The number of property crimes, including thefts, burglaries, and shoplifting, committed by heroin users continues to increase in the state, according to the Pennsylvania State Police. The Shaler Township Police Department reports that 90 percent of the burglaries in their community are committed by admitted heroin users. In the summer of 2000, heroin users from Altoona were caught shoplifting at Johnstown's Galleria Mall to finance their addiction.



Opium is not cultivated nor is heroin produced in Pennsylvania. However, heroin is commonly "milled" (broken down from bulk to user quantities) in places where wholesale activity occurs.

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Philadelphia is the chief distribution center for heroin markets throughout Pennsylvania. Most heroin in Pennsylvania is transported to Philadelphia from New York City, although some is transported from foreign or other domestic locations. Philadelphia is the primary source of heroin for midsize cities and smaller towns throughout the state, although for some cities--including Allentown, Bethlehem, Erie, and York--New York City is the primary source and Philadelphia the secondary source. Also, smaller amounts of heroin are transported from Michigan, New York, and Ohio to distributors in some cities in western Pennsylvania. For example, some heroin in Sharon and Altoona is transported from Buffalo, New York; traffickers in Beaver Falls are partially supplied from Youngstown, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan; and some heroin available in Erie is obtained from suppliers in Buffalo, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio.

New York City-based Colombian and Dominican DTOs supply many of the major wholesalers and midlevel and retail distributors in Philadelphia. According to the Philadelphia/Camden HIDTA, 60 percent of all heroin supplied to Philadelphia distributors is from Colombian DTOs in New York City. Philadelphia-based Dominican DTOs, other ethnic criminal groups, and some street gang members transport heroin from New York City to Philadelphia. Much of the heroin in Philadelphia is distributed and used locally, but significant amounts are transported from Philadelphia to midsize cities and small towns throughout the state. Dominican criminal groups are the primary intrastate transporters, and they transport heroin to various locations, including nearby locations in Berks, Dauphin, Lebanon, and Schuylkill Counties. Many independent dealers and users from areas around the state such as Altoona, Pittsburgh, Reading, and Wilkes-Barre travel to Philadelphia to purchase heroin from street-level sellers. Some local independent distributors in the Lehigh Valley and Reading travel to Philadelphia and New York City almost daily, returning with bundles (8 to 10 glassine bags, which are small glazed paper envelopes) of heroin for street-level distribution.

Most heroin is transported to and within Pennsylvania by way of private vehicles, commercial trucks, and commercial bus services traveling on interstates and other highways. Transporters typically use vehicles with hidden compartments to move quarter-kilogram, half-kilogram, and kilogram quantities of heroin.

Pennsylvania's combined interstate and state highway system provides drug transporters easy access to markets in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and cities and towns throughout the state. The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police reports that most heroin in Pittsburgh is transported to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia via the Pennsylvania turnpike.

Some heroin is transported to Pennsylvania by couriers traveling aboard commercial airlines. Heroin couriers typically strap heroin to their bodies, swallow it, or hide it elsewhere on their persons or in luggage. In June 1999, law enforcement at Philadelphia International Airport seized 1,542 grams of heroin hidden in the piping of suitcases that arrived on a flight from Ecuador via Panama and Jamaica. Some heroin is transported to Pennsylvania in express mail packages as well.

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Dominican DTOs are the primary heroin wholesalers and midlevel street managers in Philadelphia, maintaining strong connections to Colombian sources of supply. To a lesser extent, Italian organized crime and Asian, Pakistani, and Mexican criminal groups distribute wholesale quantities of heroin, according to the Philadelphia Police Department. Dominican DTOs are the primary wholesale and midlevel suppliers to distributors in other parts of Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania.

DEA Philadelphia reports that Dominican criminal groups and loosely formed retail distribution groups are the primary heroin retailers in Philadelphia and the surrounding area. Dominican DTOs operate at the wholesale and midlevel, and sometimes act as midlevel street sales managers, controlling street corners, stash houses, and employing and supplying street-level workers. These workers are often composed of friends and relatives who may live in the area. They are typically paid a small commission. Street gang members sometimes act as street-level workers. Alternatively, Dominican DTOs may supply heroin to independents who "own" the street corner or block and employ their own street-level workers.

In Philadelphia, heroin sales typically occur in open-air drug markets on street corners, in vacant lots, and in abandoned buildings. Retail distributors in Philadelphia typically sell heroin in one-tenth-gram quantities for $10 to $20. Retailers use cellular telephones and pagers to communicate with other drug distributors and customers.

Currently, local independent dealers, who obtain much of their drug supply from urban areas, are the prevalent retailers in most midsize cities and smaller towns. Heroin distributors from New York City and Philadelphia are expanding operations to midsize cities and smaller towns in Pennsylvania, which provide more profitable markets. These groups now dominate the retail drug trade in Allentown, Bethlehem, Erie, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Reading, and York.

In May 2000, the Cambria County Drug Task Force seized 125 packages of heroin, valued at $5,000. A local independent group--described as users and small-time dealers--traveled from Johnstown to Philadelphia to purchase heroin for $10 a package. The heroin packages were to be resold in Johnstown for $40 each.

Retailers in Pennsylvania sell heroin in glassine bags stamped with brand names, allowing dealers to promote and market their products. Several hundred brand names are used, and they change regularly. According to DEA, the following were a few of the brand names appearing on heroin in Philadelphia in 2000: DMX, Homicide, King, Old Navy, Rabbit, Super K, Super Nautica, U2, and 187.


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