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INFLUX OF HEROIN THREATENS TO ENSNARE NEW ERA OF ADDICTS

Heroin use, stagnant for years as users turned to cocaine, is on the rise again. The drug now enters the country in greater quantities and hits the streets at lower prices and at more lethal levels than ever, experts say.

In Boston, 14 people suffered heroin overdoses in two days. In the Baltimore area, methadone clinics have been crowded with addicts in the past year. Heroin selling sites are crowding out crack dealing spots in New York.The influx of cheaper, purer heroin could ensnare a new generation of addicts, experts warn.

"Cocaine use will drop like a stone, heroin use will come up," said Mark Kleiman, who conducted a study of heroin use for the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy. "I'm taking all bets on having more heavy heroin users than cocaine addicts by the turn of the century."

Kleiman, an associate professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said a recent boom in Southeast Asian opium production has pushed down the cost of heroin, from about $2 per pure milligram for the decade ending in 1987 to about 90 cents last year.

With a burgeoning supply, dealers aren't mixing the drug with other substances as much. So the purity of heroin sold on the street has risen from about 10 percent to more than 40 percent in many cities in the past few years, making it more addictive - and dangerous, Kleiman said.

Some cities are already seeing the effects.

Earlier this month, Boston hospitals handled 14 overdoses in two days, one of them fatal. Police confiscated heroin with a purity of 65 percent - the highest ever seen in the Northeast, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"This is kind of scary," said Deputy Police Superintendent James Wood, commander of drug control. "All of a sudden we've got 65 percent purity on the street at $20 a bag. If people don't know what they're getting and shoot it up, they could die."

Nationwide, heroin and morphine-related emergency room cases rose from 7,510 in the fourth quarter of 1990 to 9,432 in the second quarter of 1991 - a 26 percent increase - according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network.

"People are getting much worse habits and are observably much more high," said Wayne Wiebel, a drug abuse epidemiologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "Before, withdrawals were more mild. Now you see people bending over and vomiting on the street because they've run out of drugs."

Mike Gimbel, director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse, said an influx of heroin users in the past year has left treatment clinics struggling to cope.

"Our methadone clinics are just busting at the seams right now," Gimbel said. "The heroin on the street is very pure and has gotten them addicted very fast."