Thursday, April 28, 2016

Marijuana and Heroin

Many of the old shibboleths about the evils of marijuana have been cleared away.

Nobody says marijuana is a "gateway drug" to cocaine or heroin anymore.  I agree with that.

Nobody says marijuana is worse for your health than alcohol or cigarettes.  I agree with that too.

Nobody says that locking up people who smoke dope or have a few plants in the house or garden or even distribute small amounts of marijuana need to be in prison.  I'm fine with all of that.

Since 2000, by my count, at least half the states have adopted medical marijuana laws.  Two states have outright retail sales, and it is likely that others will follow.  There are getting to be legitimate marijuana farms.  

In the non-legalizing states, there seems to be much less marijuana enforcement.  My impression is that it is much easier to get your hands on the stuff.

My question is this:  What is the effect of all this on the illegal drug market?

For many years, Latin American drug cartels trafficked in marijuana.  (Also cocaine, although there appears to be less demand for that now.  This is just my impression; I don't buy street drugs.)

There was good money in this business.


As the marijuana business has come out of the shadows, there has come to be less demand for the Latin American cartels' products. 

Drug cartels are like big businesses in at least one way:  When demand for one key product declines, they look for another product to market instead.  

As marijuana has become easier to obtain, the cartels have begun to bring heroin across the border in much, much larger quantities. 

If you think about it, there are some benefits to selling heroin over selling marijuana.

     --  Marijuana is sold by the ounce, heroin by the gram.  If you have 1,000 doses of heroin, you 
          can fit them in a much smaller package than 1,000 doses/pipes/whatever of marijuana.  This
          is useful when moving contraband across national borders.

     -- A marijuana customer may not hook up with a dealer on weekdays or when anticipating
         a drug test by an employer.  Heroin customers, on the other hand, are steady customers, at
         least until they die.   

Like other markets, drug markets vary over time.  The new popular drugs -- following the crack cocaine and methamphetamine epidemics of the last 30 years -- are opioids, including pharmaceuticals like oxycodone and fentanyl, and also heroin, which is sold on the streets.  

Opioids are particularly lethal.  Here is a CDC chart tracking the fast rise in death from overdoses of prescription opioids and heroin between 2000 and 2014.  The upward trend seems to have continued since then.

To me, the trend line suggests a substitution of heroin ($4 a dose) for prescription pharmaceuticals like oxycodone ($40 a dose) is under way and rising fast.

We have had a public discussion that generally has resolved that doctors need to cut back on prescribing opioids, and I believe medical professionals have done so.  Some of the people who became addicted to prescription pharmaceuticals have turned instead to street drugs.

But a great many others -- frustrated or lacking self control or enticed by the easy availability of heroin -- seem to have taken comfort in a drug that turns them into addicts.

I know of two cases.  In one, a wonderful young man we knew as a child began using heroin in adolescence, then stopped for several years.  When he drifted back, he died of an overdose.

In the other case, an alumna of my high school, 26 years old and strung out, was put in jail for a week or more as her body suffered through heroin withdrawal.  As her family agitated to see and help her, she died; no medical or jail personal noticed or took action during her rapid decline.  

I'm nowhere close to the epicenter of this phenomenon, but these stories frighten me. 

Broader Costs

Last summer, the Mexican government released data showing that between 2007 and 2014, more than 164,000 people of its citizens were homicide victims. The U.S. has 2.6 times the population of Mexico, but there are more murders in Mexico each year, largely a result of drug trafficking. Ironically, drug use in Mexico is much less common than it is here.

The prominent disappearance (and presumed murder) of 43 Mexican college students in 2014 has been linked to drug cartels and their corruption of police and government agencies in the region.  Imagine if such a thing happened in the U.S. today. 

The U.S. sends large sums every year to Latin American countries, particularly Mexico, to fight drug gangs, effectively outsourcing enforcement and loss of life because of our citizens' taste for drugs.  


Alas, we do not have a plan for this.  

Some people talk of treatment, but many drug users cycle in and out of treatment many times.  Once addicted, they seem vulnerable to relapse for the rest of their lives. The ready availability of heroin on the streets makes life no easier for them.

Others talk of legalizing drugs or supplying addicts with maintenance doses for the rest of their lives.  Legalizing heroin or subsidizing permanent dependence on heroin seems like a big step from legalizing marijuana, however.

The above might be worth considering if we could convince Americans not to take up drugs in the first place.  But how?  Criminalization did not work, and the idea that we could convince our broader population do be more self-protective seems laughable given our failure even to educate young people in reading, arithmetic and civics, let alone prepare them for meaningful careers in a changing economy.

In particularly, nobody seems to have given much thought to addressing directly the supply side of the problem -- the criminal cartels that enable addiction here and destroy life and governance south of our border.  Those cartels seem to be planning to be in the business for the long term. 


The Significant Other, who for some reason is following politics this year, says that Donald Trump has claimed his proposed border wall will stop the flow of illegal drugs into this country.  
I don't buy the argument.  At least 75 smuggling tunnels have been discovered along the border with Mexico, and nobody has any idea how many others exist.  Detection relies on witness tips, and there doesn't appear to be an effective technology to detect tunnels from above the ground.  In addition, there are boats, planes and many lightly patrolled spots along the also-long Canadian border. 
Put simply, drug cartels are more motivated to keep their business going -- even at the cost of overdose deaths, corruption of governments and outright murder -- than we are to stop them.  

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