The Carter administration has proposed cuts in federal funding of drug abuse treatment programs just as New York and other cities are feeling the first wave of an expected flood of heroin from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We have a keg of dynamite here," Julio Martinez, director of the New York State Division of Substance abuse said in an interview.
Martinez has appealed to the New York congressional delegation for help. Others are seeking to bring pressure on the White House.
"We're facing an outbreak of drug-taking, crime and deaths that may be worse than anything we've ever seen," said Ed Menken, president of the Project Return Foundation, the nation's third largest residential drug abuse treatment center.
"If an Iranian government leader announced that his country was conspiring to move heroin to the United States to undermine this nation, what would happen?" Menken asked, "The Defense Department would react, the citizens would be up in arms, congress would vote funds. There's no conspiracy, but the effect is the same."
The number of heroin users entering drug abuse treatment programs in New York increased 42 percent from the first quarter of 1978 to the third quarter of 1979, according to Martinez. His figures also show that heroin addicts accounted for 45 percent of the drug abuser population seeking treatment in early 1978 and 57 percent late last year.
In New York, 439 people died from drug abuse in 1979, up from 248 in 1978.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) budget for drug abuse treatment has been $161 million each of the last three years. The proposed treatment budget for 1981 is $142 million.
"We're outraged that, under present conditions, with an anticipated epidemic of heroin facing us, the government wants to cut our funds," said Rabbi Murray Friedman on behalf of a coalition of 17 groups that work on drug problems in neighborhoods throughout the city.
How can they afford to be so callous about human services?" asked another coalition member, Franklin Cleveland, of Boys' Harbor in Harlem.
Fears of a heroin epidemic spring from the political turmoil in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where there was an enormous 1979 opium crop of 1,600 tons, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration estimate.
In 1970, when 700 people died from heroin overdoses in New York City alone and the U.S. heroin addict population rose to over 700,000, the driving force was a crop 5 percent as large, the 80 tons harvested in Turkey.
"We are finding that [the new supply of] heroin is stronger, the price is cheaper and it is more plentiful than anytime in the last 20 years," said Martinez. He estimated that if the adminstration's proposed budget is approved, New York state lose about $1.5 million in federal treatment funds and be forced to provide services to 1,100 fewer people annually.
NIDA estimates that its budget could lead to a reduction of up to 11,000 treatment slots across the nation.
"For a while we were winning a war on heroin," Martinez, a former addict, said. "Now, I'm supposed to lead an army without any ammunition."
The National Therapeutic Communities of America, an organization of residential centers treating drug abusers, is to hold an emergency meeting in Washington Monday and meet with White House officials in an attempt to win more funds from the Carter administration.
"We're talking about the possibility of hundreds of thousands of kids becoming addicted," Menken said of the influx of heroin from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Because of the relative purity of the heroin available today, addicts overdose more frequently. Menken said four youths who dropped out of his rehabilitation project have died recently.
If nothing is done to increase federal spending for addiction treatment Menken said, demonstrators will appear at polling places during the March 25 New York primary with placards accusing President Carter of killing children by ignoring the heroin epidemic.
New York city hospitals report that heroin-related emergency room cases increased 2-4 percent in 1979 over 1978. The number of cases of serum hepatitis an illness associated with heroin use, increased 11 percent in the same period. Arrests for crimes involving heroin were also up 11 percent.
Joe Murphy of the Bensonhurst Mental Health Clinic in Brooklyn said his drug abuse prevention and intervention service has been overwhelmed by demands in recent months.
Father Coleman Costello said the Queens Outreach Projects, which opened its doors on New Year's Day, has had more than 1,000 phone calls about drug problems. Other community agencies report similar surges of requests for help.
Friedman said his coalition of agencies is seeking to remind Carter of his past promises to help for drug abuse treatment programs.
"We haven't heard him speak out in opposition to the funding cuts," Friedman said.
Congressional appropriation committees are expected to consider the drug abuse treatment budget within a few weeks.