A recently released Drug Enforcement Administration report reveals not only that heroin use has exploded, but that 4 out of 5 new users have previously abused prescription drugs. The details of the analysis, titled the “National Heroin Threat Assessment,” unwittingly demonstrate that the Drug War has failed to curb drug use and has actually exacerbated the problem.
The report opens with an overview of heroin addiction:
“The threat posed by heroin in the United States is serious and has increased since 2007. Heroin is available in larger quantities, used by a larger number of people, and is causing an increasing number of overdose deaths.”
The report acknowledges more specific data about heroin use. It explains that the strength of the drug has skyrocketed since the 1980s, increasing from 10% purity in 1981 to 40% in 1999. Due to this purity, the drug has become easier to snort and smoke, which broadens its appeal. Alternatively, the reformulation of Oxycontin in 2010 made the prescription opiate harder to inject, leading some pill addicts to turn to heroin for a drug they could use intravenously.
Further, the report admits that for these reasons - and a drop in price - “there is no longer a typical heroin user.” Usage has spread across demographics including class, age and race. This is reflected in the fact that the number of people reporting heroin use nearly doubled, from 161,000 in 2007 to 289,000 in 2013. The number of arrests for heroin doubled from 2007 to 2014.
The drug trade itself has also grown more grim. The DEA reports that the influence of Mexican drug traffickers has broadened, overtaking Colombian influence and expanding toward the East coast. The amount of heroin trafficked at one time has more than doubled (the report makes no mention of questionable ties between the CIA and the Afghanistan opiate trade). Seven of 21 local DEA agencies named heroin as the number one threat in 2014. Six named it second.
In spite of the vast resources diverted to the Drug War, the flow, strength, and influence of drugs has increased. Perhaps most concerning is the DEA’s own admission that of new heroin users, 80% - 4 out of 5 - started using the drug after developing an addiction to legal, prescription painkillers:
“In the 2000s, a very large number of people became opioid abusers by using CPDs [controlled prescription drugs] non-medically, many after initially receiving legitimate prescriptions. Some CPD abusers throughout the country continue to use heroin when some CPDs are expensive or unavailable.”
For decades, the FDA has approved countless painkillers in spite of the risks of addiction. In November, it even approved a painkiller that claimed to curb addiction while containing a potent dose of addictive hydrocodone. The DEA report lamented over 8,000 deaths due to heroin in 2013 - triple the number in 2010. It failed to acknowledge, however, that in 2010 22,134 people died from pharmaceutical overdoses - 60% of total overdose deaths that year. Painkillers are more lethal than heroin and cocaine combined, causing 46 deaths a day.
The turn to heroin is partially exacerbated by the government’s own attempts to curb the painkiller addiction it helped create. The report plainly admits that the unavailability of painkillers pushes users into heroin use to replace the opiate high.
In the decades that the federal government and DEA have waged the war on drugs, they have enjoyed free reign to spy on citizens, throw individuals in jail for cannabis (and other non-violent) crimes, and create the world’s largest prison population. In all of this time - according to its own report - the agency has failed to curb the proliferation of drugs, the power of the cartels, or rates of addiction.
Though the heroin problem is severe, small efforts to combat it are slowly appearing. A police station in Gloucester, Massachusetts announced last month that it will offer treatment over arrest for addicts who turn themselves in. The state of California decriminalized all drug use with the passage of Proposition 47. While the infrastructure of the Drug War remains intact, these small gestures signal a shift in public perspective toward the War on Drugs and the desire for a non-violent approach to addiction.
May 26, 2015