Sep 28, 2015

Mexican cartels now have a 'sophisticated farm-to-arm supply chain' for the US heroin trade

Business Insider: The heroin crisis in the US is worsening as the use of heroin surpasses that of cocaine and meth, and we know where a lot of the product is coming from.

Mexican drug cartels have taken over much of the heroin market in the US, smuggling an estimated 225,000 pounds over the border last year, The Washington Post reports.

The cartels have targeted smaller cities and towns in America in a move to avoid competition from suppliers in more typical heroin destinations like Chicago or New York.

One of their targets, Dayton, Ohio, has now become one of the centers of the growing heroin problem in America.

"I'd never thought it, but we turned into a source city," Phil Plummer, the Montgomery County sheriff, told The Post.

Authorities estimate that there are 435,000 to 1.5 million heroin users in the United States, according to The Post. The profile of the typical heroin user has shifted over time, and there's now a greater demand in the areas the Mexican cartels are targeting.

Todd Frankel of The Post notes that heroin has become the No. 1 drug threat in the US for the first time and that a "sophisticated farm-to-arm supply chain is fueling America’s surging heroin appetite."

A lot of the new demand for the drug comes from people who got hooked on prescription pills.

Health officials and drug experts started noticing heroin use increasing as states cracked down on "pill mills," which get people — many of whom live in rural areas — addicted to Oxycontin and other painkillers even when they don't have a medical need for them. Some of these people switch to heroin once their pill habit becomes too expensive. Heroin offers a similar high for less money.

The flow and distribution of the drug has changed a lot as demand for it grew. Mexican cartels now grow and process heroin themselves and have been bringing high-quality powder to the market that can be smoked, snorted, and injected.

A kilo of heroin costs $5,000 to produce in Mexico and can sell for up to $80,000 in the US, according to The Post. And dealers can make even more by diluting it.

Mexican cartels used to sell mostly black-tar heroin, a sticky dark product that is weaker and harder to smuggle than powder heroin. They sold it mostly west of the Mississippi River, while Colombians sold powder heroin on the other side of the river, according to The Post.

The Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) Heroin Signature Program lab in Sterling, Virginia, was the first to register a shift in the kind of drug being sold, according to The Post. The chemists normally trace where the heroin comes from by finding differences in how it is made and comparing it with known recipes. They first noticed an anomaly 10 years ago when they couldn't identify about a quarter of the samples.

That is when they developed and proved their theory that the Mexican cartels were getting Colombian chemists to teach them how to make better heroin. The DEA then disclosed a new heroin category made in Mexico but through a South American process.

The Mexican cartels have also developed strategies for smuggling the drug into the US. Last month, the police caught a low-level drug courier willing to cooperate in exchange for leniency, according to The Post. The man explained to the police that he had swallowed 27 pellets filled with heroin and traveled to the US from Uruapan in southern Mexico.

He also told them he was told which airports to avoid, what not to drink while he had the pellets inside him, and that he wasn't allowed to eat anything. His testimony confirmed what police already knew: The Mexican cartels are extremely well organized when it comes to bringing heroin into the US.

Meanwhile, heroin deaths in Montgomery County, Ohio, have increased 225% in the past four years. In 2014 alone, 127 people died from heroin overdoses in this county of 540,000 residents, The Post reports. And Montgomery is hardly the only county in America that is experiencing an extreme spike in the number of heroin overdoses.

The number of US heroin users grew by about 300,000 over the course of a decade, according to a government report released earlier this year.

The availability of cheap heroin is feeding into this trend. People who are addicted to painkillers are 40 times as likely to get hooked on heroin, according to The Post, and the cost of heroin is about one-fifth that of most prescription opioids.

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