The number of people buying and selling heroin on the streets of Ithaca has undoubtedly grown in recent years.
“There is product readily available most every day,” said Kevin McKenna, who’s in his eighth year as an investigator with the Ithaca Police Department. “Early on in 2009, only a select few would have any heroin available. To see the increase in availability only shows that the market is flooded. However, with that surplus the prices are still fairly solid because they know the demand outweighs the supply … We’ve seen heroin grow from a small, tight circle of addicts, who mostly kept to themselves, underground so to speak, to the epidemic it is today.”
A decade ago, when he started using heroin, Herb said there were maybe two dealers who operated in downtown Ithaca.
“Now there as many dealers as there were users back then, 30 or 40,” Herb said. “You can only imagine how many users there are … You see lots of new faces. There are old faces around, but not that many.”
It’s often said, and reported, that much of the recent heroin boom has to do with the increase in prescribed opioid painkillers from the late ‘90s into the mid-2000s, then the sudden restriction of that supply by state actions like the 2012 New York law called I-STOP, which created an electronic database for prescriptions and made fraud extremely difficult. That narrative generally hews to what was seen on the street by users over the last 10 years or so.
“There were a ton of people doing pills,” said “George,” who used and dealt heroin in Ithaca until the latter part of last decade. “Pill junkies were upper class, that martini crowd. They’d say ‘I’m not doing heroin’ and spend $80 on an Oxy.”
Oxycontin was easily accessible on the street, Herb said, with 80 milligram (mg) Oxycontins (the brand name for oxycodone) coming in for about $15 and salable for $50. He had access to maybe 200 80-mg pills a month, along with bottles containing 30 20-milliliter (mL) doses that cost $100 to $150 a bottle. The increase in access to prescription drugs also changed the character of the people using on the street, Herb said; knowledge about “natural harm reduction” passed down over the years was lost.
“When Oxycontin came out, you didn’t need to go to an old timer,” Herb said, “you could go to a doctor. Then, all of a sudden everyone had heroin.” Oxycodone was developed and put into clinical use after 1916; Herb’s speaking of it as “coming out” suggests a recent expansion of the use the time-release form of the brand name Oxycontin.
The difference between the peak of the street market in Oxycontin and today’s heroin market is in the consistency of supply.
“With heroin today, there is never a time I can’t get it,” Herb said. “Six to eight hours is the longest time period. With Oxy you could go days.”
How Heroin Is Sold
With the “real explosion in heroin use” that he estimates to have started about seven years ago, Brian, a recovering addict, said the market became “more competitive and prices started going down.”
“The quality really fluctuated for a while,” Brian said. Around 2009, a “uniformly average” price was $20 for a bag of heroin, or $180 for a bundle.
A bundle is 10 bags; the standard is to divide a gram of heroin into 20 bags, or “25 to a gram if you’re a scumbag,” according to George.
At his peak, George was buying quarter-kilograms already bagged up for about $35 a bundle, 500 bundles at a time.
“Cutting was too much of a hassle. I bought it bagged up,” George said. “I learned from some real old-school guys you let the drugs sell themselves. You don’t add or subtract. All you have to do is answer the phone and be there.”
Today, an average price for the end user is $15 a bag, with $10 per bag and $100 per bundle available, according to Herb. He said a user might pay $180 a bundle “in the outskirts, in Groton or Enfield, if you don’t know anybody.”
McKenna said he saw the market change drastically in early 2012, when the price dropped from $180 a bundle in the winter to “less than $100 for a bundle approximately six months later.”
It was also 2012 when McKenna said he started seeing heroin offered by weight on the street, in half-gram or gram increments.
Brian said he saw weight offered at first at about $75 for a half-gram and $150 for a gram; then “a gram of pretty high quality came down on average to about $120 a gram, $60 a half-gram.”
Five years ago, “it was a rarity” to see heroin sold by weight, Herb said. It’s less hassle for dealers, though, in his opinion: “It’s easier to sell a half gram or gram of dope. To make 1,000 bags takes a while.”
“To our knowledge,” McKenna said, “there is not one person charging exponentially more than others. All of the prices are within ballpark ranges of each other.”
McKenna said the profit margin from New York City and other major metropolitan areas is over 300 percent. So, if a dealer purchases a quarter-kilogram (50 bundles) for $35 per bundle, or $1,750, and then sells it for $15 per bag (500 bags = $7,500), then the profit will be $5,750.
“People are used to paying a higher price upstate because of the lesser availability,” McKenna said. “Dealers know they can charge more upstate for the same product they bought in bulk for a lesser price downstate.”
In his using days, Brian said the ambitious user/dealer could go to New York City and “get a brick” for $200 to $250. A brick is five bundles of 50 bags, and salable here for at least twice its price in the city.
“You’d go to 145th [Street] to 139th [Street] along Lexington [Avenue] and find some Dominican guy posted up there … If you keep your eyes open, generally people are going to approach you as long as they don’t think you’re a cop.”
A runner would typically approach you, Brian said, and if he should go off to find another with the information you’re looking for $500 worth of heroin, “you want to meet that guy.”
“As long as you’re willing to shoot a bag of heroin or sniff it real quick to show the person you’re not a cop, then you can start talking business,” Brian said. “You can make more money going down to the city and bringing it back, but there’s a lot more risk with that.”
Changing Grades of Heroin
The strength of the heroin has decreased, according to both George and Herb. In the ‘90s, George said there were bags that could get four to six people high. At the height of his run as a user, George was shooting up to 1,000 bags over two weeks, and up to 10 bags at one shot—beyond that concentration, “it gets impossible to shoot, like syrup.”
The highest percentage of pure heroin in a bag is 15 percent, Brian said, with an average of 7 to 8 percent “generally a good purity.” Even the “legendary bags” referenced in the film American Gangster were 85 percent quinine, eight percent heroin (this combination is called “benita”) and the rest was Lidocaine, an anesthetic.
“The reason so many people are overdosing is there’s also a lot of really s***** dope out there,” Brian said.
Users are searching for “the magic bag,” George said. “One bag might be perfect, another weak.”
Users talking about drugs available on the street might praise it by saying “this s*** is some fire,” calling it “real decent dope,” or say “this s*** is correct.”
Bags will often come stamped or printed with “brands,” using everything from movie titles like “Predator” or “XXX” to the names of presidential candidates and newspapers like the “Daily News” or grocery chains like “Shop Rite.” A recent report out of Philadelphia said that dealers were stamping bags with the face of Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry to indicate their product’s high quality.
“They had Obama bags during the last election,” Herb said, “and I guarantee you they have Hillary bags and probably Feel the Bern bags.”
Lately, people have been looking for darker dope, Herb said, which makes “no sense because it’s supposed to be completely clear.” The idea might be that the darker dope has been less adulterated, or “stepped on,” as it has been processed and shipped from wherever it entered the country.
In recent years, reports of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid analgesic (pain reliever), being sold as heroin or cut into heroin have become more common, with the practice often blamed for rashes of overdose deaths.
According to Major David Krause, of the New York State Police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team [CNET], “fentanyl is cheaper than heroin.”
“It’s a way they can increase their profits,” Krause said. “As far as where that’s occurring, a lot of times it is in the major metro hubs. There are a lot of heroin mills packaging and processing the heroin. Sometimes it gets stepped on multiple times through the process.”
“It used to be heroin cut with fentanyl,” McKenna said. “We’re seeing pure fentanyl being sold in lieu of heroin a lot of the time.”
“A bad batch doesn’t mean bad heroin,” Herb said. “It either means it’s very good heroin or fentanyl-laced … people I know from time to time have fentanyl for sale. Generally you don’t die from fentanyl, if you’re buying fentanyl.”
“If something goes wrong, the stuff on the street is taken off pretty quickly,” Herb continued. “The reason you see more deaths is it’s already been sold … nobody wants someone to die, especially dealers. They don’t want to go to prison for 20 years off a bag of heroin they made $5 off of.”
“If you’re putting fentanyl in the heroin, it’s garbage dope,” George said.
According to "Elizabeth," who works with addicts, fentanyl is so deadly that it is measured in micrograms (µg) rather than milligrams (mg). In England, she said, it is routinely used to murder people. She took issue with Herb's statement about fentanyl; it is, she said, very easy to die from taking the drug.
Where Heroin Comes From
Opium, heroin’s botanical source, cannot be grown in North America; climates that can support the opium poppy’s growth include a mountainous band through Asia that stretches from Turkey to China, Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle that takes in parts of Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia; and portions of South America and Mexico. Which of those regions is the world’s primary opium supplier has fluctuated in modern times, depending on the political situation and the whims of the Central Intelligence Agency. Afghanistan has been the world’s biggest supplier in recent years, according to United Nations statistics.
Most of the heroin in upstate New York is coming from Mexico or South America via major metropolitian hubs, Krause said, “primarily from New York City, with some in the western part [of upstate] coming up from Pittsburgh.”
Krause’s state trooper team doesn’t see any specific gang connections to the contemporary heroin trade, at least in its travel to outlying areas like Ithaca.
“It’s more informal networks of people who have contacts, in either Mexico, Puerto Rico or other areas,” Krause said. “It’s organized to a point, but not much different than if you know somebody in Virginia who sells cars, and you introduce them to someone who’s looking for southern cars, or what have you.”
Part of the appeal for dealers coming to Ithaca is Tompkins County’s emphasis on treatment, rather than incarceration, McKenna said.
“Dealers can be arrested for felonies and potentially enter drug court, claiming they have an addiction. Once they complete drug court, their conviction is reduced, no time served,” McKenna said. “This allows them to be on the street during the time they attend drug court, potentially doing what they were doing before they were arrested. [New York State] is also releasing prisoners sooner, dealers are included in this. They’re serving shorter sentences and being paroled—if approved—back to their communities, allowing them pick up where they left off.”
Heroin could be coming from about anywhere, according to those who have used. George lists Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Rochester, “even Montreal” as origination points. Herb lists Newark, Philadelphia, Rochester, Syracuse, “or the city.” •
Editor's note: The online version of this article included additional information about fentanyl.