In just six days 174 people have overdosed on heroin in Cincinnati, Ohio, and then just before that another 26 residents were reported dead in Cabell County, West Virginia, of the same cause, and all within a four-hour time frame. We have to wonder if this could possibly be a heroin emergency that we are facing.
Typically, law enforcement tends to come down much harder on drug traffickers and users during times considered to be of an epidemic nature. Unfortunately, this usually only ends up with one result: more incarcerated poor and non-violent blacks and Latinos.
According to the National Seizure System’s data, there has been an “80 percent increase in heroin seizures in the past five years” in America, from “3,733 kilograms in 2011 to 6,722 kilograms in 2015.”
Contrary to what most would think, even during times of increased enforcement pertaining to drug laws, while the increase regarding the seizing of the drugs themselves does occur, the drugs still remain increasingly popular, and also easily attainable.
As these drugs become more and more popular, the demand for these particular substances increases. Sadly, this is especially true in the poorer communities in our country. According to officials, many traffickers have been adding elephant tranquilizer carfentanil to some heroin strains, and others have been lacing their strains with fentanyl, which is a highly potent painkiller.
NPR reported that “[f]entanyl-laced heroin is worsening the nation’s overdose crisis,” , and as this problem grows out of control, the DEA issued an alert in March claiming that fentanyl is “the most potent opioid available for medical use.”
Even during times where increased enforcement does decrease the amount of the drug available on the streets, these smaller supplies of pure heroin provide room for lacing and tainting with dangerous chemicals.
Many users find it quite difficult to receive real help, either because they simply cannot afford it, or because they are afraid of the legal ramifications of this action. As this epidemic continues to grow, more and more law enforcement groups have announced different approaches and promise to help rather than to arrest. However, these actions by themselves will not make a dent in the blow-back we are now facing from the drug war because drug laws still remain the same. In a society where you are demonized by your government for being an addict, it is easy to lose options, freedom, and hope.
So what exactly caused this epidemic?
Higher Demand Forces Cartels to Improvise
While much excitement has surrounded the legalization of marijuana which has been slowly growing throughout the nation, individuals can obtain marijuana legally in 25 states, but most other drugs remain illegal.
The DEA reports that the opioid business has been booming recently for Mexican cartels. Production of fentanyl, as well as its acetyl fentanyl variation has increased during the past two and a half years. Consider one of the most fundamental economic concepts of supply and demand. An increase of production would increase demand, and in turn more overdoses are reported.
The high demand would also explain why there are lower quality strains of illegal opiates now available. As pure heroin is quite expensive, and not to mention rare, traffickers must become creative by lacing the substance with other components in order to make the supply more potent.
Prohibition Fuels Crime, Violence, and Heroin Overdoses by Boosting the Black Market
The Atlantic featured a recent article in which Conor Friedersdorf wrote that “drug warriors helped to fuel the opioid epidemic.”
The Economics of Prohibition featured economist and professor Mark Thornton and his opinion that “prohibition results in more, not less, crime and corruption.”
In the black market that results from prohibitive policies, Thornton explains, organizations use violence to “enforce contracts, maintain market share, and defend sales territory.” While few paid attention to heroin when it was criminalized with the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914, Thornton notes, over time, the illegal heroin market grew into an organized and monopolized structure precisely because heroin users were forced to go to the black market for their needs.
These “institutionalized criminal exchanges” create unsafe drugs, which is why we are seeing an increase in tainted heroin-related overdoses. Was heroin legal, economic historian Chris Calton writes, there would be competition among providers to ensure consumers their heroin brand is safe?
“When goods are made illegal,” Calton continues, “smugglers will continue to trade them, but the ability to establish brand consistency is suppressed.”
In Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy, economist Thomas Sowell explains that brands “are a way of economizing on scarce knowledge, and forcing producers to compete in quality as well as price.”
If the drug market became a free market, and drug sales were made legitimate, addicts would be provided with a larger spectrum of options concerning treatment. If they continued to use, at least they could be provided with safer and more accurate information regarding their drug of choice. A variety of clinics and other facilities that focused on treatment, rather than criminalizing non-violent people would, in turn, produce those in recovery, not those acting out in violence due to being placed in amongst it.
Our prohibition based policies are what breed monopoly, which is what in turn breeds violence as it can only be constrained through force. We could see our crime rates, prison populations, and addict percentages decrease exponentially if only we could try methods that have shown positive results.