WASHINGTON (AP) -- The rate of illegal drug use rose last year to the highest
level in nearly a decade, fueled by a sharp increase in marijuana use and a
surge in ecstasy and methamphetamine abuse, the government reported Wednesday.
Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy,
called the 9 percent increase in drug use disappointing but said he was not
surprised given ''eroding attitudes'' about the perception of harm from illegal
drugs and the growing number of states approving medicinal marijuana.
''I think all of the attention and the focus of calling marijuana medicine has
sent the absolute wrong message to our young people,'' Kerlikowske said in an
The annual report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration found marijuana use rose by 8 percent and remained the most
commonly used drug.
Mike Meno, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, said
the survey is more proof that the government's war on marijuana has failed in
spite of decades of enforcement efforts and arrests.
''It's time we stop this charade and implement sensible laws that would tax and
regulate marijuana the same way we do more harmful -- but legal -- drugs like
alcohol and tobacco,'' Meno said.
On a positive note, cocaine abuse continues to decline, with use of the drug
down 32 percent from its peak in 2006.
About 21.8 million Americans, or 8.7 percent of the population age 12 and older,
reported using illegal drugs in 2009. That's the highest level since the survey
began in 2002. The previous high was just over 20 million in 2006.
The survey, which was being released Thursday, is based on interviews with about
67,500 people. It is considered the most comprehensive annual snapshot of drug
use in the United States.
Other results show a 37 percent increase in ecstasy use and a 60 percent jump in
the number of methamphetamine users. In the early 2000s, there was a widespread
public safety campaign to warn young people about the dangers of ecstasy as a
party drug, but that effort declined as use dropped off.
''The last few years, I think we've taken our eye off the ball on ecstasy,''
Meth use had been dropping after a passage of a 2006 federal law that put cold
tablets containing pseudoephedrine behind pharmacy counters. But law enforcement
officials have seen a rise in ''smurfing,'' or traveling from store to store to
purchase the medicines, which can be used to produce homemade meth in kitchen
Kerlikowske attributed the rise in meth abuse to more people getting around the
law and an increase in meth coming across the border with Mexico.
The rise in marijuana use comes as California voters prepare to decide in
November whether to legalize the drug. An Associated Press-CNBC poll earlier
this year found that most Americans still oppose legalizing marijuana, but
larger majorities believe it has medical benefits and want the government to
allow its use for that purpose.
Medical marijuana sales in the 14 states that allow it have also taken off since
the federal government signaled last year that it wouldn't prosecute marijuana
sellers who follow state rules. The survey does not distinguish between
medicinal and non-medicinal marijuana use.
The survey found the number of youths aged 12-17 who perceived a great risk of
harm from smoking marijuana once or twice a week dropped from 54.7 percent in
2007 to 49.3 percent in 2009.
GROVE CITY, Ohio — For five hours, Dana Smith huddled stunned and bewildered
in her suburban living room while the body of her son Arthur Eisel IV, 31, lay
slumped in an upstairs bathroom, next to a hypodermic needle.
Family and friends streamed in. Detectives scurried about. For Mrs. Smith, the
cold realization set in that her oldest son Artie — quiet, shy, car enthusiast,
football and softball fanatic — was dead of a heroin overdose.
The death was the end of a particular horror for Mrs. Smith, whose two other
children, Mr. Eisel’s younger brothers, also fell into heroin addiction “like
dominoes,” she said, and still struggle with it.
To the federal government, which prosecuted the heroin dealers for Mr. Eisel’s
death, it was a stark illustration of how Mexican drug cartels have pushed
heroin sales beyond major cities into America’s suburban and rural byways, some
of which had seen little heroin before.
In Ohio, for instance, heroin-related deaths spread into 18 new counties from
2004 to 2007, the latest year for which statistics are available. Their numbers
rose to 546 in that period, from 376 for 2000 to 2003.
Federal officials now consider the cartels the greatest organized crime threat
to the United States. Officials say the groups are taking over heroin
distribution from Colombians and Dominicans and making new inroads across the
country, pushing a powerful form of heroin grown and processed in Mexico known
as “black tar” for its dark color and sticky texture.
Their operations often piggyback on a growing and struggling Mexican immigrant
population. In a case that provides a window into how this works, two illegal
immigrant dealers pleaded guilty to manslaughter last year in Mr. Eisel’s death,
in a rare federal manslaughter prosecution from a drug overdose.
Investigators determined that the two immigrants, Jose Manuel Cazeras-Contreras,
30, and Victor Delgadillo Parra, 23, began distributing heroin when they were
unable to find jobs. Mr. Parra, in an interview from prison, where he was
sentenced to spend 16 ½ years, said he was afraid of being arrested at first,
but took the job to support his wife and son, as well as relatives in Mexico.
“I was living a hard life here in the United States,” Mr. Parra said. “And I
didn’t have any other job I was going to go to.”
Another man in the drug ring, who was not directly connected to the death and
therefore not charged with manslaughter, was recruited off the streets of Mexico
and smuggled into the country expressly to peddle drugs in Ohio, the government
Fat on profits made largely in the United States, drug traffickers in Mexico are
engaged there in a bloody war among themselves and with the government, which
began a crackdown on them three years ago. Since then the violence, including
assaults on the police and the army, has left more than 10,000 people dead.
But on this side of the border, the traffickers continue to expand their reach.
Drug Enforcement Administration officials say that Ohio is of particular concern
because of the crisscrossing network of freeways here that make it well suited
as a transshipment point. Anthony C. Marotta, who heads the agency’s Columbus
office, said heroin tied to the Columbus-area dealers had been cropping up in
nearby states like Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia and as far away as the
The case of Arthur Eisel and the men arrested for selling him heroin shows how
the traffickers pushed their product and how in Mr. Eisel, already addicted to
expensive pain killers because of a back injury, they found a ready customer for
heroin, which was cheaper.
Investigators say that Arthur Eisel was not alone in switching from a
prescription painkiller to heroin. It gives a similar, euphoric high at a
fraction of the cost, $10 to $20 for a “balloon” — one dose, usually a gram or
less — as opposed to upwards of $60 for a typical prescription pill dose on the
The traffickers found a ripe market in Grove City, a suburb of Columbus, as they
have elsewhere in the nation. Drug seizures ebb and flow over the years, but the
amount of heroin confiscated nationwide has been arcing up since the mid-90s,
going from 370 kilograms in 1998 nationwide to about 600 kilograms — roughly
$150 million worth of heroin — last year, though officials believe it is a small
fraction of what is available on the street.
The share of heroin-related prosecutions among federal drug cases in this region
has also been climbing, reaching 15 percent of cases last year compared with 4
percent a decade ago.
The numbers here are small in comparison with other populous states like New
York, California or Texas, which have always been centers of drug use. But the
growth here has prompted much soul-searching.
Mr. Marotta said he had been alarmed recently to see dealing in the parking lot
of a supermarket in Dublin, a quiet, upscale suburb of Columbus, where he was
Paul Coleman, the director of Maryhaven, the largest rehabilitation center in
the region, said the percentage of patients reporting opiates, principally
heroin, as their preferred drug — whether it is smoked, inhaled or injected —
grew to 68 percent last year from 38 percent in 2002.
Mr. Coleman said he believed that the trend reflected an increased supply of
Mike G., who is undergoing treatment at Maryhaven and asked that his last name
be withheld for fear enemies on the street would find him there, said, “In some
places it is like going to pick up beer.”
A Fatal Link
The group linked to the Mexican cartel that sold Arthur Eisel his fatal dose was
just one of at least 10 trafficking organizations, known by the authorities as
cells, operating in central Ohio, said Tim Reagan, a D.E.A. agent who
investigated the case as part of the Southwest Border Task Force, a group of
Ohio law enforcement officials focused on drugs coming from Mexico.
Each cell consists of a handful of people who distribute the drug after it is
smuggled across the Southwest border, 1,500 miles away. Many cell members, like
Mr. Parra and Mr. Contreras, have roots in Nayarit, a state on the Pacific Coast
Mexican authorities say that growers in Nayarit are using a highly productive
form of the poppy from Colombia and processing the heroin in laboratories
scattered around Tepic, Nayarit’s capital, despite efforts to kill the plants
The cells take orders over disposable mobile phones, making it hard for the
police to trace them or their calls. They use a system of “dispatchers” and
“runners” to take orders and deliver the drug. Members of the cells typically
stay in an area for only four or five months before replacements arrive. The
drugs are sold at rendezvous points, usually in shopping center parking lots, in
an effort to blend in with the bustle.
The men convicted in the Eisel case told the authorities similar stories. Mr.
Contreras, the dispatcher in the case, told federal authorities that he had
crossed the border illegally and lived in Oregon for several years before moving
to Columbus in 2007 on the promise of a job as an auto mechanic. But that job
never materialized. In a letter to The New York Times, he said he had worked a
variety of other jobs but had hit an unemployment streak that left him without a
car or a house for his wife and two young children.
Desperate for work, he said he found an acquaintance in Columbus who promised
him easy money for distributing heroin.
“Since I spoke English and Spanish, they proposed that I answer the phone only,”
Mr. Contreras wrote. “I didn’t touch the drug or see it. I was only answering
the phone. I was with them for three months, and that was when they caught me.”
He said he never imagined that anyone could die from the heroin, “since I have
used the drug and nothing ever happened to me.”
Mr. Parra said he illegally crossed the border in 2005 and settled in
California, working in the kitchen of a seafood restaurant for several months.
When that work and other jobs dried up, friends suggested he come to Ohio for
work. But when he arrived, Mr. Parra said, he learned that the work would be
helping to distribute heroin.
At turns repentant and defiant, Mr. Parra said he felt sorry for the family of
Mr. Eisel but did not fully accept responsibility for his death and wondered
aloud if the government was making an example of him.
“It was never my intention for someone to die,” Mr. Parra said, “but neither did
I put a syringe or something in somebody so that they could inject the drug,”
adding, “I am serving as an example” to discourage other dealers.
Jose Garcia Morales, a third man who was arrested in the case but was not
prosecuted for the death of Mr. Eisel, was recruited off the streets of
Nayarit’s capital, according to a memorandum his lawyer prepared for the court
in urging a lenient sentence.
The document describes how the ring arranged for the payment of a “coyote,” or
human smuggler, to bring Mr. Morales across the border. Then, he piled into the
back of a Ryder truck, was driven to Columbus and, over a two-week training
period, was taught to deliver heroin by other drug traffickers already
“Mr. Morales was promised that he would make a lot of money,” the document said.
“In reality, when he was paid, if it all, he generally received between $400 and
$500 a week, a place to sleep, and occasionally some food. As expected, Mr.
Morales sent much of the money he earned back to his family in Mexico.”
Connecting the distribution rings to the cartel leadership in Mexico has proved
difficult. Those arrested here typically say they fear for the safety of their
families in Mexico if word gets back that they have been too cooperative.
“If they are caught, they are terrified what will happen to their families, and
for good reason,” said David M. DeVillers, a federal prosecutor here who has
handled several drug cases. “They want to do the prison time.”
The authorities say that local arrests rarely make a difference. New dealers pop
up within weeks.
“It’s like sweeping sunshine off the roof,” Mr. Marotta of the D.E.A. said.
Standing before a federal judge last summer as he faced the prospect of 20 years
in prison on manslaughter charges in Mr. Eisel’s death, Mr. Contreras begged for
“I truly did not intend to do any damage to their family,” said Mr. Contreras,
30, before the judge handed down a 15-year sentence. “I have two children, and I
would not like something like this to happen to my sons.”
Dana Smith listened, horrified. At home, her two younger sons were still
struggling with addiction.
Arthur had been, in her eyes, a typical suburban child, shy around girls, a
devotee of the radio host Howard Stern, a member of a local softball league,
popular with the children of friends.
He eventually found work as a bank clerk and rented an apartment with one of his
brothers, Robby. Robby Eisel, who is undergoing treatment at a residential
center in Columbus, said the progression from prescription medicine to heroin
was easy “because the heroin is everywhere around here.”
When Arthur Eisel injured his back in a car accident in 2005, he started taking
prescription medication, Percocet and OxyContin, for chronic pain, under a
Robby Eisel said he had been taking similar medications after he broke his arm
on the job as a maintenance worker at a golf course. Soon, all three brothers
were acquiring OxyContin illegally and sharing it. When supplies dried up and
their dealer suggested heroin, they tried it and quickly developed an addiction.
Mrs. Smith said she struggled to comprehend what took hold of her sons. She
works as a clerk at a courthouse and had seen the regular parade of drug addicts
and offenders come through. But one day in 2007, she heard the names of two of
her boys, Arthur and Robby, announced in arraignment court. They had broken into
“It was devastating,” she said.
More horrors came. She would find needles in pillow cases, in coats, under
living room chairs. She watched her sons writhe in agony from head and bone pain
and diarrhea as they experienced withdrawal trying to beat the addiction at
Mrs. Smith said she sometimes feels pangs of guilt and wonders if she could have
done more to help Arthur break the addiction. She concedes that she gave him
food, a place to stay and sometimes even money when his stupor made clear what
he was up to.
“I was an enabler,” she said quietly. “I was his mother.”
At one point, she called a private rehabilitation facility in Florida, hoping to
get all of her sons in treatment. But she was told the facility did not accept
“Which one has it the worst?” she recalled a counselor there asking.
The question still gnaws at her.
“How do you choose which one of your children to save?” Mrs. Smith asks now. She
decided at the time that she could not choose and sent none of them to Florida.
Regret and Resolve
Arthur Eisel went through a revolving door of treatment centers in the Columbus
area in the months before his death. He would get free of the drug, seemingly
set on a positive path only to relapse and fall into it again. But, his family
said, he did not appear to be using heavily in the weeks before his death.
The night before he died, he and his brother Ryan paid their mother a visit,
watching television there until late in the evening.
At work the next morning, Mrs. Smith got the kind of call parents dread. She
remembers hearing Ryan say, “His lips are blue.” Mrs. Smith spent the next
months in a state of shock. She said she does not remember much.
As it turned out, investigators had already been trailing the ring that sold
Arthur his fatal dose. That work, in addition to confidential informants whose
testimony would have allowed investigators to trace Mr. Eisel’s dose to Mr.
Parra and Mr. Contreras, emboldened prosecutors to charge them with manslaughter
and other crimes.
Prosecutors asked Mrs. Smith to go to the sentencing hearings and make a
statement. She stood feet from the men accused of killing her son and listened
to their words of regret.
“Part of my heart goes out to their families,” she said in a recent interview.
“But something has got to be done to stop this.”