In 2015, Border Patrol prevented more than 1.5 million pounds of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and meth from entering the United States.1 In the same year, the Coast Guard intercepted 72 vessels and more than 150,000 pounds of drugs.2 These seizures, combined with the efforts of more than 5,000 DEA agents3 and countless local police across the country, were part of law enforcement’s never-ending mission to put a dent in the U.S. illicit drugs market. For more than a decade, these dealings have been worth $100 billion a year.4
To explore how the U.S. drug landscape has changed in recent years and what it looks like right now, amid evolving marijuana laws and an unrelenting opioid epidemic, we have combined national government seizure statistics with more than 26,000 local media reports of major drug busts.
One way to understand America’s War on Drugs is to examine seizure statistics released by government departments, including the DEA, Customs and Border Protection, and the Coast Guard. These numbers provide an overview of major substances that are taken off or prevented from reaching the street each year and, to some extent, how much is still in circulation.
A downside of official numbers is that they are usually quite broad, comprising national rather than state or city totals. They are also at least a year or two old, with the most recent complete figures for the “big four” – marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and meth5 – being from 2014.6 A lot has happened since then. Seven states have passed new marijuana laws, and a heroin epidemic continues to claim more lives each year than ever before.7
This is where news reports of major drug busts come in useful. While they only represent a sliver of all busts that take place, they have the advantage of being totally up-to-date, with hundreds of events being reported each week and full of extra details, such as the exact locations interdictions take place and who is involved.
Because it would be impossible to scour every newspaper and news site for drug bust headlines by hand, we turned to GlobalIncidentMap.com, which automatically aggregates media reports of major events on multiple topics, including forest fires, disease outbreaks, human trafficking, and even Presidential threats. Since June 2009, the site has collected more than 26,000 news stories on major marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and meth busts, spanning all 50 states. Each event is represented by a single dot in the animation above, geocoded by the longitude and latitude stored in the database.
The accumulation of drug bust news reports in the animation shows how, over the seven years covered by the data, almost no part of the country was without a major drug interdiction. The bulk of green dots also shows that marijuana seizure reports are far more numerous than any of the other three drugs, accounting for 53.1 percent of drug bust headlines so far in 2016. However, that proportion has been shrinking in recent years, having fallen from 76.7 percent in 2011. News reports about the other three drugs have shifted significantly too.
These figures seem to suggest a shift in how the big four drugs have been smuggled by cartels, policed by law enforcement, and used by citizens in recent years. However before we can draw any major conclusions, we need to answer an important question: Does the number of media reports about a particular drug accurately reflect how often it is seized in states and cities across the nation?
To investigate whether media reports of drug busts truly reflect the actual number of seizures made by law enforcement, we compared figures for each drug type. The government totals, which include federal agencies, some state and local agencies, and the U.S. Coast Guard, span 2001 to 2014. Our media reports of major drug busts span 2010 to 2015 (omitting 2009 and 2016, as they are incomplete).
The result paints a clear picture:
After peaking in 2009 at 2.3 million kilograms, the amount of marijuana seized each year drastically fell, as did the number of news stories reporting major marijuana busts. Between 2012 and 2013, seizures according to government figures decreased by 11 percent8 and media reports dropped 22 percent. Between 2013 and 2014, both numbers decreased again by 44 percent and 19 percent respectively.
Heroin shows the same relationship but with seizures and media reports rapidly growing alongside each other rather than falling. Cocaine and methamphetamine show correlations too but with a few years in which media reports remained high despite seizure totals falling. The biggest contrast was for cocaine in 2010, when there were 788 media stories nationwide, but government-reported seizure totals were relatively low. The explanation for this difference isn’t clear, but the data show that the extra news reports were distributed quite evenly across the country, rather than being focused in just one or two states, indicating an increased national media interest in cocaine seizure reporting, rather than a local one.
For now, we can be confident that in most years and for most drugs, headlines do mirror what’s happening on highways and in drug hideouts across the country. So let’s begin analyzing them by finding out which states had the most major marijuana busts in the news in recent years.
DEA figures show that 94 percent of worldwide marijuana seizures in 2013 were at the U.S.-Mexico border.9 Therefore, it makes sense that when we combined news reports of major busts between June 2009 and May 2016, Arizona had more marijuana seizures per 100,000 residents than any other state, at 18.8.
Most occurred at ports of entry, such as Nogales, which in February 2016 saw 17,060 pounds of marijuana seized by federal officers in a single bust,10 nearly equaling the record of 20,000 pounds set in November 2013. Arizona has its fair share of domestic marijuana busts too. In April 2016, one of the biggest illicit marijuana manufacturing rings in the state’s history was dismantled after a three-year investigation discovered that a medical marijuana growing service had been failing to abide by necessary laws.11
Nebraska had the second-highest number of marijuana busts in the news, at 12.9 per 100,000 residents – over 2.5 times more than the national average. Police in the state also made some record-breaking busts in early 2016, including the seizure of 1,500 pounds found in a vehicle by the Lancaster County Sheriff’s office in January.12
Commenting on Nebraska’s problem with marijuana smuggling, Sgt. Kendall Allison, of the North Platte Police Department, recently pointed to the state’s close proximity to Colorado – where marijuana is legal – as a root cause of Nebraska’s problem with marijuana trafficking, both by road and in the mail.13
Colorado, as it happens, ranked 46th for marijuana busts in the news per 100,000 residents, just above Washington, where recreational use is also legal. Interestingly, the total number of news stories about major marijuana busts in Colorado was between 11 and 28 each year from 2010 to 2015 and, based on the number so far this year, will be around 24 in 2016. Major marijuana bust headlines did not significantly change in the wake of weed becoming legal in Colorado in 2014. At the national level, however, marijuana busts have made the news less and less often over the past five years.
The drop in news stories about big marijuana busts is not due to a decrease in how much marijuana is on the streets. In the National Drug Threat Assessment 2015, 80 percent of responding law enforcement agencies reported that availability was high in their jurisdictions, with another 16 percent saying it was moderate.
The dramatic decrease is more likely a result of a shift in law enforcement priorities due to state-approved marijuana measures – especially in California, where the majority of domestically produced marijuana is cultivated – as well as the urgent threat of other more harmful drugs and the devastating effects they have on communities.14
Methamphetamine, for instance, was named as the greatest drug threat by 33 percent of law enforcement communities in 2015, compared with 6 percent who said marijuana. Let’s see which states have had the most meth busts in the news since 2009.
So far in 2016, 8.7 percent of U.S. news stories about major drug interdictions have involved methamphetamine. While this represents only a fraction of all drug bust headlines, it’s a far higher proportion than any other year since data collection began in 2009. By the end of 2016, based on the total number of meth bust stories published from January to May, and using last year’s monthly fluctuations as a guide, there will be 216 meth busts in the news. That’s 46 fewer than in 2015 but still more than double 2011’s total.
Arizona, as with marijuana busts, had the most meth interdictions in the news per 100,000 residents between 2010 and 2015, due to Mexican cartels’ on-going efforts to bring the drug through the state’s 10 ports of entry. The DEA believes that domestic meth production has decreased in recent years due to federal restrictions on precursor chemicals needed to make it.14 This hasn’t slowed down Mexican production of meth, though, with huge quantities frequently smuggled across the Southwest border in vehicles with hidden compartments.
Idaho ranked second highest in the country for meth busts in the news per capita. Despite not neighboring Mexico, Idaho still suffers the effects of Mexican meth trafficking, being named as the most significant drug threat facing the state and meth-related arrests up almost tenfold from 2010 to 2014. District of Idaho Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Nafzger, summing up the problem of meth trafficking in the state in 2012, said: “People don’t appreciate how interrelated all of this is … We’re a northern border state with a huge southern border problem.”15
Oregon, which ranked seventh highest, with a rate nearly three times above the national average, has also faced a severe threat from meth use in recent years. Meth-related deaths increased 32 percent from 2012 to 2013, with more than 55 percent of all drug-related deaths associated with methamphetamine.16
The use and availability of cocaine in the United States have both decreased in recent years14 – a trend that is mirrored in the media’s reporting of major cocaine busts. In 2010, 788 major cocaine interdictions made the news, whereas in 2015, there were 509.
Cocaine is the first of the “big four” drugs that doesn’t see Arizona in first place for interdiction media reports per capita. Instead, Delaware is highest, with a rate four times above the national average. Delaware is within easy driving distance of several major drug distribution centers, including Baltimore, New York City, and Washington, D.C.,17 which could explain its ranking. Cocaine typically reaches the state after first being smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border and moved to hub cities in California, Arizona, and Texas,14 with the latter two states following Delaware in the above ranking for cocaine reports per capita.
The DEA predicts that cocaine availability will remain stable in the near-term, partly because of less costly methamphetamine,14 which as we’ve already seen has been on the rise in recent years. Another drug experiencing an alarming increase in availability and use is heroin, which now kills more people in the U.S. per year than at any other time in history.7
Major heroin busts are distributed very differently to marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine seizures. Unlike the other three drugs, only 1 of the 10 states with the highest rates of heroin busts borders Mexico.
Instead, reports of heroin interdictions are largely clustered in the Northeast, with Delaware’s rate of 15.1 per 100,000 residents – 33.4 times higher than the national average – placing it highest in the country.
Delaware’s problem with heroin, which has been dubbed a “deadly crisis”, has been covered by the media from almost every angle, from reports of major heroin busts (which we used in our analysis) to stories of the harms heroin causes to Delaware residents and the resulting difficulties they’ve faced in receiving treatment for their addiction to the drug. A report by DelwareOnline.com recently pointed out that there were only 95 inpatient residential treatment beds available in the whole state, which has forced some individuals in need of drug addiction treatment to travel to other states, where treatment is more readily available.25
From January to May 2016, there were 13 media reports of heroin busts in Delaware, which suggests that the total number could end up being lower than 2016’s total, or it could just be that the problem has become so bad that the media are burnt out reporting it. One hopeful bit of news in Delaware’s battle with heroin availability, and the resulting addiction it fuels, came in April 2016, when it was announced that the state could see up to $4 million in government funding over the next two years to help expand access to opioid addiction treatment.18
Other Northeastern states have similar heroin afflictions, like New Jersey, which had the third-highest rate of heroin busts in the news in the country between 2010 and 2015, over 10 times above the national average. In fact, between those years, 54 percent of all major drug busts reported by New Jersey media outlets were heroin-related, more than in any other state. Delaware was second, at 52 percent, followed by Vermont and Pennsylvania, both at 46 percent. The national average was just 14 percent.
News reports of drug busts usually contain precise details about where interdiction events take place, like “Troopers stopped the 2011 Audi S5 near Exit 1 on Route 25 at 11:49 p.m.” These descriptions allow us to map drug busts at county-level, as well as by state.
The four maps above show the same patterns we saw in our state maps, with heroin busts concentrated in the Northeast, meth in the Midwest, and so on, but they also reveal hotspots of drug bust activity in specific places. For instance, out of more than 3,000 counties, Humboldt, California had the fifth-highest rate of marijuana busts in the news between 2010 and 2015. In June 2015, more than 4,000 pounds of marijuana was seized from a single site in Humboldt, with an estimated street value of $26 million, along with 16 firearms and 50,000 rounds of ammunition.19
Heroin is the only drug that has any top 10 counties in the Northeast. Two are in Vermont, where heroin-related deaths have more than tripled since 2011.21 In Windham County, which had the highest rate of heroin busts in the news in the Northeast and the third highest nationwide, there were 26 drug-related fatalities involving an opioid between 2010 and 2015. In nearby Rutland County, which was fourth highest in the country, there were 49.
Overdose deaths aren’t the only negative effect drug trafficking has on communities. Another is the proliferation of drug-related crime, including robberies and thefts committed by individuals who need money to fuel their addictions. Homicide is also common in the illicit drug industry, with between 5 percent and 25 percent of all murders in the U.S. estimated to be drug-related.22
We analyzed the 26,000+ reports for mentions of guns and found that at least 5.8 percent of drug seizures reported in the news between June 2009 and May 2016 mentioned the confiscation of a gun of some description. That equates to more than 1,500 felons who were arrested with large quantities of narcotics and a firearm in their possession at the same time.
News reports of drug busts in Connecticut mentioned the presence of guns at a higher rate than any other state, at 11.2 percent, followed by Delaware (which we’ve already seen has more heroin and cocaine seizures in the news than anywhere else). Interestingly, the five states with the most mentions of guns in drug bust news stories all have very low gun ownership rates: Connecticut ranks 46th, Delaware 40th, Maryland 43rd, New Jersey 49th, and New Hampshire 39th.23
Perhaps the media in these states mention guns found at crime scenes more often because they are less common than in other parts of the country. Or it could be that gun ownership rates among drug traffickers don’t reflect those of the general public. Their gender certainly doesn’t – 88 percent of the drug trafficking suspects mentioned in the news reports were male.
The gender split is similar for drug arrests of all kinds. FBI statistics show that of the 771,213 people arrested in the United States in 2014 for drug abuse violations, 78 percent were male.24
Our analysis of drug bust media reports has revealed that news headlines accurately reflect the ebb and flow of drug seizures in the United States. Key findings include marijuana busts mirroring the country’s fast-changing attitude toward the drug, with 44 percent less seized in 2014 than 2013, and fewer big busts making the news in every year since 2012. The heroin epidemic is also revealed by the data through the massive quantities of the drug being intercepted by police and reported by media outlets, especially in the Northeast of the country, where the epidemic is hitting hardest.
What remains to be seen is whether the projected end-of-year news story totals, which are based on media reports from the first half of 2016 and the pattern of accruement from the latter half of 2015, will accurately reflect government seizure statistics when they are eventually released in 2017 or 2018. If they do, heroin busts will be 30 percent lower in 2016 than 2015 and meth busts will fall 17.6 percent. Hopefully, such potential reductions will be echoed in the decreased availability of both drugs and, ultimately, the harm they cause to those who use them.
If you or someone you know is struggling with the harm caused by marijuana, heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine, or even legal pharmaceuticals that aren’t tracked by drug bust stories in the media, DrugAbuse.com is there for you. With trusted resources on rehabilitation and treatment, we specialize in helping people recover from drug dependence. Contact DrugAbuse.com today at because it’s never too late.