SECURITY: US / MEXICO: The Heroin Epidemic and What Can Be Done

Diminishing heroin demand is easier said than done. Companies producing fentanyl and other drugs profit to much from it and will thus continue promotion.Photo (c) El Economista España 2017Diminishing heroin demand is easier said than done. Companies producing fentanyl and other drugs profit to much from it and will thus continue promotion.Photo (c) El Economista España 2017

In economics, one of the most basic principles is supply and demand. It’s all about the amount of a product that’s available and buyers’ desire for said product.

Supply and demand ties into the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico where the heroin epidemic is concerned. Demand for the drug in the U.S. is high, and a good amount of the supply comes from Mexico.

There is recent evidence that the two countries, along with the United Nations, are taking serious steps toward addressing the issue together. However, even if that’s the case, how long will it take for the “epidemic” to be demoted to simply a “problem?” Here’s a quick look at the heroin issue as it relates to the U.S. and Mexico, along with some ideas on what can be done about it.

Heroin Use in the U.S.

Photo (c) Falsas Bandera 2015

In 2012, roughly half of the heroin seized in the U.S. was from Mexico. By 2014, that number jumped to 80 percent, according to the DEA. Photo (c) Falsas Bandera 2015

As of 2014, there were 435,000 active heroin users in the U.S., according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. That was up 170 percent from 161,000 active users in 2007. Deaths via heroin overdose have skyrocketed even more, jumping 248 percent between 2010 and 2014.

Heroin is dealt in the U.S., and also makes its way into the U.S. via a number of countries, including Mexico and countries in Southwest and Southeast Asia, along with South America. In recent years, however, Mexico’s share of the U.S. heroin market has increased significantly.

In 2012, roughly half of the heroin seized in the U.S. was from Mexico. By 2014, that number jumped to 80 percent, according to the DEA. There is no one reason why this is the case, but it likely goes back to economics. It’s probable that distributors in the U.S. are able to minimize their costs and maximize their profits by dealing with drug cartels closer to home.

A Larger Problem Arises

Photo (c) El Heraldo Honduras 2017

Drug deaths continue to rise — there were likely more than 59,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2016, according to analysis from The New York Times. Photo (c) El Heraldo 2017

So, what causes the heroin epidemic in the U.S.? There are many factors, but one increasingly common one is the rise of prescription painkillers.

For example, according to a 2014 survey, 94 percent of people in opioid addiction treatment said they have used heroin because prescription opioid painkillers are harder to find and costlier than heroin.

In other words, many people addicted to opioids are forced to “settle” for heroin as a substitute because it’s much easier to come by. You could then argue that reliance on and addiction to prescription opioid painkillers is an even larger problem, one that’s also fueling the heroin epidemic.

Drug deaths continue to rise — there were likely more than 59,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2016, according to analysis from The New York Times. That would be a 19 percent increase over 2015.

Despite its status as a so-called “epidemic,” deaths from heroin are relatively rare. In Ohio’s Montgomery County, for example, just three of the 100 people who died from drug overdoses during the first two months of this year tested positive for heroin. Meanwhile, 99 of those people tested positive for fentanyl or one of its offshoots, a prescription drug much more powerful than heroin.

What Can Be Done?

Photo (c) Televisa Noticiero 2017

Also, in May, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Jose Luis Ruelas Torres and ten members of his family-based heroin production and distribution organization. Photo (c) Televisa Noticiero 2017

Going back to the economics law of supply and demand, one of the keys to battling the heroin issue in the U.S. is killing off both. In the U.S., the demand for heroin needs to diminish. And, in Mexico, the supply needs to be eradicated.

There is evidence of slight progress for the latter. Earlier this year, the Mexican army allowed the U.S. and U.N. to observe eradication of opium poppy — the key ingredient in heroin — for the first time in at least ten years.

Also, in May, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Jose Luis Ruelas Torres and ten members of his family-based heroin production and distribution organization. Mexican authorities, along with the DEA and the Office of Foreign Assets Control, helped implement the sanctions.

A Unified Front Between Nations

Photo (c) El Informador 2016

What is being done in the U.S. to reduce demand for prescription opioids, and, in turn, heroin? Photo (c) El Informador 2016

These measures attack the “supply” portion of the supply-and-demand equation but much more can be done.

The bigger problem is going after the “demand” side of the equation. What is being done in the U.S. to reduce demand for prescription opioids, and, in turn, heroin? Judging by the usage numbers, not much.

Wiping out demand for such drugs is, of course, easier said than done. The companies that produce fentanyl and other such drugs make too much money from it and will continue to promote it.

Still, attacking the demand for such drugs is a necessary step if the heroin epidemic is to be taken seriously. Having the U.S. and Mexico work together is an important first step.