Does US pill crackdown help Mexican heroin sales?


Despite heroin’s bogeyman status as one of the most dangerous and addictive drugs on the illicit market, the opium-based drug is staging a comeback across America. Mexican traffickers have developed shorter, faster and easier pathways to bring it to our streets.

The expensive and circuitous route from distant Colombia, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia previously helped limit heroin’s popularity in this country. But drug cartels are rapidly gearing up production in the central Mexican highlands where the opium poppy thrives.

World opium cultivation today far exceeds that of coca, according to U.N. figures. Fueled in part by the production boom in Mexico, domestic American use of heroin has skyrocketed, with disastrous results. From 2002 to 2013, heroin use in this country increased 63 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Heroin-related deaths have quadrupled. Use among Americans ages 18 to 25 more than doubled in the past decade. According to CDC statistics, non-Hispanic whites are showing the highest addiction rates.

At the same time Mexican opium cultivation is expanding, the U.S. government has begun cracking down on domestic abuse of prescription medicines derived from highly addictive opioids such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine and codeine.

Studies indicate that addicts will alternate routinely between opioid medicines and heroin, depending on which is cheaper and more easily available. Curtail access to one, and the market grows for the other, like squeezing a water balloon.

Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told this newspaper in April that the mushrooming addiction problem is rooted in doctors’ overprescribing of opioids.

“It sits in the medicine cabinet and, from there, it gets diverted. Seventy percent of people who start misusing pain medication are getting them free from friends and family,” Botticelli said. The drug czar has launched a nationwide program to fight overprescribing and curtail the market for leftover pills.

Mexican drug cartels are filling the void with heroin. Meanwhile, Mexican peasant farmers are weighing the meager payout from traditional crops such as corn against the multifold profits they can get from opium. There’s simply no competition. Plus, it can be easier work because they don’t have to haul their produce to distant markets. With opium gum, the buyers come to the farmers.

These same laws of supply and demand also fueled Colombia’s boom in opium cultivation during the 1990s. More than a decade of vigorous U.S.-Colombian military and police efforts have sharply curtailed the Colombian supply problem at its source, but America remains woefully behind in efforts to attack the demand side here.

The federal government must make sure, in its efforts to attack the prescription-medicine problem, that it isn’t simply opening new markets for Mexican heroin traffickers to exploit.

The Dallas Morning News

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