Heroin Trafficking: Stopping Demand, Not Supply, Is the Key to Change
As the opioid crisis continues to grow across America, continuing to create major concerns for both healthcare professionals and law makers alike, much attention has been paid to stopping heroin trafficking and the inflow of the illicit drug into the US markets as the main line of defense against this increasing threat. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the number of “chronic” heroin users in the US, which is defined as someone who uses heroin at least 4 times per month, is well over 1.5 million people. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that heroin addiction has risen by over 150% in the past decade. Both of these figures paint a bleak picture of heroin use across the nation, particularly as the number of fatal overdoses from the drug is reaching epidemic proportions.
This massive growth in heroin addiction across the country has created a steadily growing black market for heroin, which has led to a significant increase in investment in heroin trafficking from Mexican and South American criminal networks as they attempt to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demand for the drug in the US. In fact, these drug cartels have made a significant effort in recent years to shift their main focus from drugs like marijuana and methamphetamine to heroin trafficking because the demand in the US is so high right now.
This uptick in the inflow of heroin from across the Southwestern border has garnered a lot of attention, mostly among politicians, as they desperately search for a way to turn the tide of the opioid epidemic that has gripped the country over the past decade. This attention has mostly come in the form of rhetoric which calls for stricter law enforcement, border patrol and an overall effort to block heroin trafficking into the United States. This increase in resources, aimed at reducing the amount of the drug which is entering the county, has led to an increase in drug seizures by agencies like the US Border Patrol, however, it unfortunately does not seem to be having an immediate impact on heroin addiction itself.
As more heroin traffickers are being caught attempting to cross the border, politicians and law enforcement officials are hoping that a reduction in the availability of black market heroin would reduce heroin addiction, and fatal overdoses, across the country. However, this is clearly not the case. For one, the increase in border seizures does not seem to be clearly reducing the availability of the drug, as international cartels continue to throw more resources at bringing heroin into the US market. But the true problem with this approach has less to do with the supply of heroin and much more to do with the demand itself. Heroin addiction is a disease which by definition is marked by the inability of a person to quit using the drug on their own. This creates an almost guaranteed demand on the black market and as long as it, and the massive financial opportunities that come with it, exist these international cartels will be more than willing to fill that demand remains. For this reason, the attention of lawmakers across the country should be not on halting the supply of drug like heroin, but instead working with healthcare and addiction treatment professionals to reduce the demand, which if done correctly, will result in the supply dying off on its own.
The origins of heroin trafficking in the United States
The origins of heroin in the US have shifted considerably over the years. Heroin has been a drug of abuse in this country for well over a century. Heroin was first synthesized by C.R. Alder Wright in 1874 but was not widely manufactured until 1895 when it was marketed by the drug company Bayer as a non-addictive alternative to morphine. Its non-addictive properties however were significantly misjudged and it soon became a popular recreational drug across the country. For most of the 20th century a vast majority of the heroin which was smuggled into the US originated from Southwest and Southeast Asia, however the overall amount of the drug was relatively small compared to other substances.
It did see a slight uptick in use in the 1970s as soldiers returning from the US conflict in Vietnam returned home having gotten themselves hooked on the drug while overseas. This led to an increase in heroin trafficking from Asia as the black market moved to meet the increased demand. However, by the time cocaine began to overtake the country in the last 1970s and early 1980s heroin’s popularity began to fade. As the demand for heroin began to be overtaken by cocaine, drug traffickers from South American countries like Colombia began to become much more prominent. For most of the 1980s and into the early 1990s South American drug cartels focused almost exclusively on smuggling cocaine and marijuana into the US in order to meet the demand for those drugs at the time.
Opiates began to make a comeback in the 1990s as cocaine’s popularity began to fade. The massive increase in prescriptions for opioid painkillers during this time introduced an entire new generation to opioid drugs, which had become somewhat uncommon during the previous decade. This influx of opioid pain killers began to sink its teeth into those who were predisposed to drug addiction and the opioid epidemic was officially born. As opioid users began to learn that street drugs like heroin, which are chemically very similar to prescription opioids, were not only cheaper but more potent the demand for it began to grow quite rapidly.
The now powerful Mexican and South American drug syndicates, looking to supplement losses from the decreasing demand for cocaine, began to produce more heroin as the demand within the United States continued to grow.
Heroin trafficking today
Today, while some Asian countries like Afghanistan produce significant amounts of heroin, most of the heroin which enters the US is grown and produced in Mexico and South American countries such as Colombia. The vast networks which were established for the trafficking of cocaine in previous decades was simply transitioned to heroin as a reaction to the shifting of demand in the black markets of America. As a result, heroin from Southwestern and Southeastern Asia has become much less common across the country.
As prescription pain killers continued to become more and more available in America, more people found themselves addicted to opiates which has resulted in the demand for drugs like heroin to increase at a massive rate. The United Nations has estimated that the global heroin market is in excess of $55 billion dollars currently. That is an awful lot of economic incentive for criminal organizations to grow, manufacture and smuggle drugs like heroin across the globe. This is particularly true for the US market as the high number of heroin addicts and amount of disposable income has created a financial windfall for Mexican drug cartels in particular.
Grown in the western regions of Mexico, the opium poppy, which is the original source of all naturally derived opiates like heroin, is processed into heroin and then moved into the United States across the Southwestern region of the country via border crossings, underground tunnel networks and even short marine crossings. The exorbitant amount of money which is at stake for these drug cartels has led to a situation in Mexico where they are more powerful than government and law enforcement officials in some regions of the country. This has led to a significant increase in violent crime as these cartels battle each other for access to the lucrative American black market.
Why isn’t increased enforcement reducing heroin addiction?
The increasing attention in the media, coupled with pressure from the public, has forced legislators and law enforcement officials to take action to stem the opioid epidemic in the United States recently. As has been the case for decades in this country, most of those efforts have come in the form of attempts to reduce heroin trafficking. Increased security at the US – Mexico border, along with stricter enforcement of drug sales and possession laws have resulted in more seizures of heroin and more arrests of drug dealers, however the opioid crisis has shown no signs of slowing down. Instead, the number of opioid addicts, including heroin addicts, across the country has shown steady increases. Fatal drug overdoses have also increased significantly, with over 50,000 in the US last year alone, an almost 400% increase since the turn of the century.
This seems to be occurring due to a lack of critical thinking on the part of law makers and enforcement officials. As the history of heroin trafficking, as well as other drugs, clearly shows the drug cartels are following rather simple economic incentives here. Where there is a demand for drugs, they step in and meet that demand with a supply. Attempting to make a difference at the supply level has not only recently, but in many past examples, proven to be mostly ineffective at reducing demand and in many cases leads to unwanted repercussions such as gang violence. There is simply too much money at stake for the drug cartels to be dissuaded by police and border patrol agents. This is why a shift in our efforts, from focusing on reducing the supply to instead attempting to reduce the demand is the right answer moving forward.
Simply put, if the demand for heroin does not exist then heroin trafficking will not exist. Helping those in our country who are in dire straits, struggling with heroin addiction is not impossible. In many cases it is probably significantly cheaper than the route we are currently attempting and most importantly it would be more effective. The problem is that real treatment options for heroin addicts, and drug addicts of any kind for that matter, are not easily and widely available across the country. The prognosis is somewhat better for those who are covered by private medical insurance, but for heroin addicts that are over the age of 26 that means either having a job or a spouse which is covered by medical insurance. Unfortunately situations like that are the rare exceptions and a vast majority of heroin addicts who are no longer eligible to be covered under their parents’ insurance have either state funded medical insurance or none at all, leaving them with almost no options for effective treatment whatsoever.
Perhaps the saddest part of this entire situation is that the solution is not only quite apparent, but would not be particularly difficult to implement. More quality, free or low cost treatment options for substance abuse would put a significant dent in the overall demand for heroin across the country. This would not only reduce the number of fatal heroin overdoses, but it would shrink the economic incentive for those who are involved with heroin trafficking as well, eventually leading to a decrease in the supply of the drug across the country.