If we had a dime for every news article this past year covering the heroin epidemic in this country we would be able to afford quite a lot of heroin. And that is why we decided to cover a topic that hasn’t been discussed at length. We all know and are aware that heroin is cheap and accessible, but why and how? Where did the unexpected demand for a dangerous and illegal drug come from? And how is it more widely available than ever before. Answering these questions lies in the tangled web of state and federal drug policy as well as the dynamic between the black market economy and the attempts to control it.
The Demand: National Crackdown on Prescription Opiates
While the crackdown on prescription opiates came at a time where people were dropping like flies from over prescribing doctors handing out powerful narcotics like candy, this well-meaning strict change in drug policy handling these kinds of medications had an unintended consequence.
Unfortunately, the demand for heroin directly correlates with the changes that were intended to contain the public health hazard known as pharmaceutical opioids. Opiate based drugs like Oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin are widely prescribed in the United States. While prescription opioids do have their place in our country by helping many patients cope with pain after a surgery or injury, users can quickly become tolerant to the drug’s effects and require frequently higher dosages to achieve the same level of relief, increasing the likelihood of both physical dependence and accidental overdosing. This dynamic has led to prescription drugs becoming the deadliest drug problem in the nation. An estimated 16,000 deaths per year by prescription drugs out number those involving heroin and cocaine combined.
So what does this have to do with heroin? Well, like we quickly explained earlier, these drugs had been prescribed without adequate education of the risks. So, federal policymakers put in place strategies to limit the use of the drugs. These include centralized prescription monitoring, prosecution of pill mill practices, and reassignment of prescription opiates within the federal schedule to limit access. All of these actions, as planned, shrunk the available supply of prescription opioids and in turn they became a lucrative commodity for drug dealers. As policies on these drugs tighten even more, their ease of access causes the prices for them on the street to go up, compelling many addicted users to start looking for a cheaper alternative. And guess what drug was right there waiting for them? You guessed it right, heroin.
The CDC in a new study found that 45% of heroin users were first addicted to prescription drugs, further backing the idea that people are moving to a cheaper alternative, from prescription drugs to heroin. Earlier studies even found that a 2010 spike in heroin use was in direct correlation with the launch of an abuse resistant version of the Holy Grail for painkiller addicts, Oxycontin, making it impossible for them to abuse. And in these attempts to quell the painkiller epidemic there has risen a new one, heroin addiction.
So there we have it. Demand. And we all know how this works right? When there is a demand there must also be a supply. And when there is a demand it is guaranteed that someone is going to profit off that demand and begin supplying. Which brings us to the how and why part two.
2. Supply: Mexican Cartels Switch from Growing Pot to Growing Opium Poppies
As demand for heroin rises in connection with the dwindling supply of prescription painkillers, the supply has expanded partially in response to another shift in drug policy. The liberal attitudes about marijuana have had a bigger impact than we have realized. As additional states begin to legalize either medical or recreational cannabis, demand for Mexican pot has declined, with pot consumers increasingly choosing higher quality domestic weed over Mexican “brick weed” or “swag.” Cartel farmers on the border, subject to market dynamics, like any other business owner or producer, have responded to this decrease by replacing their cannabis plants with opium poppies. These poppies are then processed into heroin, smuggled across the southern border and ferried throughout the US along the cartels’ long-established distribution ports.
While the shift in the cartels manufacturing practices may not come as surprise, where they are selling is new. Usually, Mexican cartels distribute their product west of the Mississippi, with Colombian and Dominican product controlling the East. But now, with profits from marijuana decimated, Mexican cartels have expanded their illicit trade routes and muscled their way into the East Coast heroin market. They have started going where the demand is highest. New York City serves as a major hub for relaying product across the region and as you know from the news, this is noticeable, with most overdoses, and the biggest heroin problems being within those states closest to NY.
With even more increased competition between dealing factions of the cartel, more supply than ever, and more demand than ever, this serves to lower the average price of heroin to almost nothing, especially when compared to the cost of prescription pills on the street. Where there were voids of prescription pills, unfortunately the cartels have stepped up and filled them with cheaper heroin.
The Solution: More Accessible and Cheaper Treatment
When an addict’s drug of choice is cheap and accessible and drug treatment is costly and hard to find, for most it is easier to just continue getting high. And this is the case. Detoxing from heroin in and of itself is uncomfortable, add on the almost impossible feat of finding available treatment that is not only open to help, but is also affordable, and it just isn’t worth it for most people using heroin.
That is why a place like The Program of West Palm Beach is so important to those suffering with heroin addiction. That is also why it is so important that we keep up with this latest news about our government making moves to make treatment widely available to anyone who needs it. It is important that communities compete with heroin and make their treatment of addicts the number one priority. The Program of West Palm Beach is open 24/7 to anyone who needs help and offers affordable options. If you are struggling please get help.