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Heroin's new Asian connection

US law enforcement officials are warning that heroin smuggling and addiction are increasing in cities along the US East Coast. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau last week cited a dramatic jump in the number of recent heroin-related arrests and deaths from overdoses in New York City as evidence that the US is in the early stages of what he called a "massive" heroin crisis. Peter Bensinger, head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, confirms that a rising tide of heroin from Southwest Asia -- primarily from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan -- is being funneled into the US through the notorious "French connection" drug route of the past, with many of the same organized-crime figures in Italy, France, and West Germany involved in transporting the narcotics.

Complicating US efforts to stop the heroin at its source is the fighting and political instability in Southwest Asia and the absence of any official US voice in two of the countries, Iran and Afghanistan. For its part Pakistan has banned the raising of opium poppies and is cooperating with the US in attempting to improve the effectiveness of its own drug enforcement. The US, forced to set up a second line of defense, is working closely with European law enforcement agencies which have recently conducted successful raids on key heroin-processing laboratories in Italy and France.

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The US Drug Enforcement Administration also has set up a Special Action Office for Southwest Asia and is in the process of beefing up enforcement in six East Coast cities. But to calls from Governor Carey and other state officials for a greater federal response, the DEA does not deny that more funds and personnel are needed for enforcement operations abroad.

One way the budget-conscious Carter administration could speed up the flow of drug enforcement funds would be for Congress to approve a so-called "moiety" proposal included in the 1981 DEA appropriations bill. It would allow the DEA to pay informants and offer rewards directly from money and other assets seized by federal agents in drug raids, without having the money routed through the Treasury Department. Of course, congressional approval of law-enforcement expenditures made in this manner should be tied to DEA assurances that the seized assets would be used judiciously and that payments be subject to independent auditing.

A number of other proposals for strengthening the US enforcement of drug laws are under discussion in Congress. One that ought to be given speedy consideration would loosen restrictions on the Internal Revenue Service which currently prevent it from sharing any information it uncovers on a nontax felony violation with other federal or state law enforcement agencies. As originally written, the proposal raised understandable concerns about privacy, but as currently revised, sufficient safeguards appear to have been added to strike a proper balance between privacy and the government's need for information to crack illegal drug operations. The White House, which opposed earlier versions, now supports the bill.

A similar proposal for allowing the US military to pass along information to civilian drug enforcement authorities also could prove helpful in the drug war. Stiffer sentences for large-scale drug dealers and repeat offenders is still another measure likely to come before the next session of Congress. All such proposals for strengthening drug enforcement ought to be given urgent consideration in light of the heroin-addiction epidemic law-enforcement officials warn could result from the growing flow of Southwest Asian narcotics into the US.

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