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Thursday, 8 June, 2000, 13:48 GMT 14:48 UK
'Club drugs' hit Miami
clubbers in Miami
Young clubbers are ever more exposed to dangerous drugs
By Iain Haddow in Miami

It's 1am on Saturday night. Miami Beach is thronging with club-goers, young slim-line men and women in sharp clothes, many of whom are willing to pay upwards of $20 to get into one of the dozen or so night clubs and non-alcoholic juice bars along Washington Avenue.

There they can gyrate into the early morning on a hot and sweaty dance floor.

But the dance club cover charge is not the only thing many of these young and fashion-conscious people budget for when planning a night out.

These drugs, known popularly as X, Georgia Home Boy and K, are coming into the US from Western Europe, principally Belgium and the Netherlands

Brent Eaton, Miami spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration

Reflecting a major change in social behaviour in the US, young people in pursuit of pleasure are now eschewing traditional "drugs" such as alcohol and tobacco for other narcotics.

And unlike cocaine, which is prohibitively expensive, the prices of these new drugs are within the reach of most teenagers and young adults.

According to United States drug experts, increasing numbers are turning to drugs such as Ecstasy, speed, Ketamine and GHB, for the desired high, as well as a boost in their energy levels to sustain them throughout the late hours.

"These drugs, known popularly as X, Georgia Home Boy and K, are coming into the US from Western Europe, principally Belgium and the Netherlands," says Brent Eaton, Miami spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the US federal government agency responsible for tackling drug-trafficking overseas and preventing narcotics coming into the country.

The DEA estimates that vast quantities of such pills are being smuggled into the US, mainly on commercial passenger flights.

Dangerous cocktails

Mr Eaton says "club drugs", which come in powder, tablet or sometimes liquid form, cost the traffickers as little as 50 cents per fix, and are sold on to consumers for an average of $25.

Jim Hall: "Heroin is an invisible problem"
Latest figures from a community health project called Up Front, which tracks trends in drug use in South Florida, are startling. They suggest more and more adolescents are being tempted to use club drugs, mixing them in dangerous cocktails with alcohol and other stimulants, sometimes with devastating effects.

According to Jim Hall, epidemiologist at Up Front, there's been a sharp increase in medical emergencies directly related to so-called club drugs in South Florida in the last two years, mainly with people under the age of 20.

Epidemic levels

Much less attention has focussed on heroin use, which every drug expert agrees is rising to epidemic levels, and which, according to the DEA, "poses a grave danger to the US".

miami coast
Miami is a transport hub - and a drugs conduit
"Sixty-five per cent of the heroin in the US comes from Colombia, much of it through South Florida," explains Mr Eaton.

Seeing a golden opportunity to corner a new market with much greater profit margins than cocaine, the Colombian traffickers began producing opium in the mid 1990s.

By saturating the market with a much purer product, the Colombian cartels virtually eliminated their competitors from the traditional heroin-producing regions of Asia and the Middle East.

But they've also managed to lure new customers with acute business savvy.

"Since the Colombians came onto the market, the price for a kilogram of heroin has dropped from $100,000 to $60,000," says Mr Eaton. "A lot is being brought in through Miami and Puerto Rico by mules [couriers]".

According to DEA figures, the Colombians produced an estimated six tonnes of heroin in 1998.

Heroin's new image

Because of its purity, the new South American heroin can be snorted and smoked and is attractive to those who had shunned it because of the health risks associated with the traditional method of injection.

women on beach
Fun in Miami: For many, drugs are now part of the experience
No longer is the traditional heroin user a poor urban dweller who resorts to crime to get a fix, but is just as likely to be one of Miami Beach's young party-goers.

According to a 1998 national report on drug abuse in the US, almost all new heroin users were under the age of 26.

Not only has the user profile changed. In the past, heroin use was restricted mainly to US cities along the eastern seaboard, but it is now prevalent across the country, increasingly in rural areas and mid-size cities such as Miami.

Jim Hall says the knock-on effect in South Florida has been devastating. "Miami now leads the nation in the rate of increase in heroin-related medical emergencies," reflecting the fact that more people than ever before are taking the drug.

Of the 206 heroin-induced deaths across the state of Florida in 1998, almost half occurred within roughly 60km of Miami, in the counties of Miami-Dade and Broward.

"What we're seeing with heroin is an invisible problem. It's happening at a much lower level than the epidemic of Crack cocaine in the 1980s," says Mr Hall, "but the rate of growth is much faster."

Gateway into America

Because of its geography, Miami has long been one of the main entry points for illegal drugs into the US.

Kicking these young adults out of one area will just send them to another

Jim Hall
A transport hub for airlines and cargo ships serving the Caribbean and Latin America, Miami is the US drugs front line, a gateway for traffickers on the northern coast of Colombia, a little more than 1,500km away.

"We're in a unique position here in Miami," says the DEA's Brent Eaton.

"Drug use here has been comparable with other parts of the country. But with more heroin now becoming available, we're seeing more heroin use."

In an effort to combat the drugs problem head on, the City of Miami Beach recently banned under-21s from its nightclubs.

But that won't solve the problem, says Mr Hall. "Kicking these young adults out of one area will just send them to another."

He points to anti-drug advertising which has proven effective in cutting the incidence of youth smoking. It's also had the knock-on effect of reducing alcohol and marijuana use - a sign, he says, that attitudes among young people towards drugs can change.

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