(CNSNews.com) - A Bush administration official Thursday admitted that efforts to eradicate Colombian poppy fields, the source of illegal heroin, lagged in 2001 and that stopping the current flow of heroin into the United States is made more difficult because of the "unholy alliance" between Colombian terrorist groups and the distributors of illegal drugs.
Assistant Secretary of State Paul Simons testified at a hearing held by the House Committee on Government Reform.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), the committee's chairman, said he would like to see the U.S. reverse a trend that began during the Clinton administration.
"We spent most of the Clinton administration focusing too heavily on treatment and too little on eradication and interdiction, and the result has been a dramatic increase in drug production in Columbia," Burton said.
Fellow committee member, Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) agreed.
"Our government has failed to use the equipment Congress previously provided, to eliminate the Colombian opium long before we have the heroin it creates flowing into our nation, where it is difficult and nearly impossible to interdict," Gilman said.
Simons told the committee the administration is not ignoring the Colombian poppy crop.
"We are in the second and most aggressive phase of this year's poppy program, utilizing four T-65 spray aircraft in the southwestern part of the country," he told the panel.
But, Simons admitted eradication efforts were down last year from 2000 because there was a shortage of spray planes, security aircraft and pilots. Bad weather also played a part, he said.
With a beefed-up spray program this year, Simons expressed confidence that the administration would achieve its goal, of spraying 5,000 hectares of opium poppy -- an estimated 170 percent increase over the amount treated in 2001.
Three AT-802 air tractors have been added to the spray fleet in joint cooperation with the Columbian government, and five more are expected to be delivered and ready to go in the first half of 2003, Simons told the committee.
"We plan to use the air tractors for coca spraying, which will free up T-65s. We plan to dedicate our T-65 fleet principally to poppy spraying in 2003," he said.
"Just as important," Simons noted, "we now have sufficient helicopters for reconnaissance and security to support spray missions as well as for use in interdiction and air support."
But Simons cautioned that targeting the opium poppy crop is a complex and costly proposition.
"Poppy is grown in well-hidden, widely dispersed fields in rugged cloud-covered mountains, often defended by FARC (Colombian rebels) or paramilitary groups. Reconnaissance and spraying of the poppy crop is significantly dangerous," Simons warned.
Gilman said more leadership is needed from the Bush administration.
"Since the Colombian anti-drug police now have the Black Hawks and the spray planes to do the job, our executive branch should now lead, and be held accountable," he said.
The federal government also needs to increase its attention to the home front, according to law enforcement officials who testified, in order for the supply and demand of heroin to be curbed.
Sgt. Scott Pelletier, a detective with the Portland, Maine Police Department, said heroin use has increased in his city because people can get it at low prices.
"A majority of the addicted people in Maine travel to Massachusetts to purchase heroin for as little at $4 per bag," he said. "A happy meal at a fast food restaurant costs more than a single dose of heroin.
"Obviously," Pelletier continued, "the increased availability of this drug, along with its simultaneous decrease in its price, has created a market that makes this drug attractive to younger people."
He blamed Colombian drug cartels for the increase in heroin availability.
"This dire problem is the direct result of the Colombians intentionally flooding their established cocaine markets with stronger, cheaper heroin," Pelletier said.
"We can no longer wonder 'if' our children will be exposed to heroin, we must now wonder 'when' will they be exposed to it and pray they choose not to experiment with it," he said.
"The Colombian cartels intentionally market cheap, strong heroin that has the ability to addict a person after only one or two doses, thereby assuring a strong client base," Pelletier said.
But Thomas Carr, director of the Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Program, believes Colombia and South America aren't entirely to blame for America's heroin problem.
"Our nation's vast appetite for drugs is the reason why South America grows coca and poppies," Carr said, adding that he believes tougher drug law enforcement, better drug treatment and drug prevention can help stop American's hunger for heroin.
"Opium poppy cultivation in Colombia and other parts of South America already have had a devastating impact on our country and threaten to do more harm," Carr told Burton's committee. "But while the situation sounds grim, it is not without hope," he said.
The 96 percent "purity rate" of Colombian heroin is more than twice that of Mexican brown heroin and 25 percent greater than the heroin being smuggled from Asia, according to a recent DEA report.
The availability of Colombian heroin has increased dramatically in the United States since 1993, they said, when Asian traffickers controlled the market. The Colombian heroin is widely distributed throughout the Northeast and along the East Coast.
The purity of the Colombian heroin allows dealers to "cut" it several times, meaning that adulterants, such as aspirin and Dramamine, are added to increase the profit, officials said.
Since 2000, the U.S. has provided more than $1 billion in aid to Colombia to fight heroin and other hard drugs.
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