Drug abuse is a major problem in the United States, and individuals seeking to abuse drugs generally have little trouble finding those substances. Abuse of prescription and nonprescription opioids continues to be the public health crisis of our time. One of the effects of widespread prescription opioid abuse has been an uptick in new heroin users. The increase reflects, at least in part, a growing number of individuals who transition from prescription opioids while on the hunt for a cheaper, more readily available alternative in heroin.
Synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, are playing a major role in the quickly increasing numbers of overdose deaths. Much of the illicitly manufactured fentanyl comes from Mexico and China. In addition, dangerous analogs of fentanyl, such as acetyl fentanyl, are often manufactured in China and trafficked into the U.S.1 Fentanyl is up to 40 times more potent than heroin and roughly 100 times more potent than morphine.1 Acetyl fentanyl is closely related to fentanyl and has been linked to a number of overdose deaths in the U.S. Fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl are often used by opioid-dependent individuals as a substitute for heroin, or they are added to heroin products to add bulk or enhance effects.
A major threat to public health safety comes from the neighboring country of Mexico. Illicit opium poppy cultivation has been increasing. The Government of Mexico reported wiping out 21,425 hectares of opium poppy fields in 2014, compared to 14,419 hectares in 2013.2 Between 2010 to 2015, the number of heroin seizures on the border of the United States and Mexico more than doubled.1 The problem doesn’t stop with heroin—according to the DEA, Mexican drug trafficking organizations are additionally the largest international suppliers of all cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine that crosses the U.S. border.2
Recent Statistics on Drug Trafficking
- In 2016, the majority (84.9%) of traffickers were male with an average age of 36.3
- Roughly 70% of all offenders were U.S. citizens, and almost half (49.4%) had little or no prior criminal history.3
- The DEA puts much of its focus on trafficking from Mexican drug cartels because not only do they control a large share of the drug smuggling into the U.S., they are also responsible for much of the drug distribution within the U.S.4
- Another emerging threat is Africa, as it is often used as a transit shipping point for South American and Asian drug organizations.4
- Between 2011 and 2015, there was an almost 50% increase in the number of people sentenced for crimes related to heroin trafficking in the U.S.1
- In 2015, the DEA made 6,353 arrests for heroin-related offenses. Conspiracy, distribution, and possession with intent to sell account for 84% of these arrests.1
In 2016, 6 drug types accounted for nearly all drug trafficking offenses:3
- Methamphetamine: 33.6%
- Cocaine: 19.8%
- Marijuana: 17.6%
- Heroin: 14.4%
- Crack: 8.1%
- Oxycodone: 2.8%
- Other: 3.7%
The top 5 districts for drug trafficking in 2016 were:3
- Western District of Texas.
- Southern District of Texas.
- District of Arizona.
- Southern District of California.
- District of New Mexico.
The Current State of Drug Traffic in the United States
Although the DEA and other government agencies are working to stem the tide of drugs crossing U.S. borders, drug trafficking operations continue to evolve. For example, organizations are using encrypted technology and social media platforms to communicate during drug shipments and recruit new members to their organizations. These new smuggling techniques are making it harder for drug enforcement agencies to monitor criminal activities and crack down on widespread operations such as the Mexican drug cartels.5
According to the DEA, when shipments of drugs are trafficked into the U.S. in kilogram or pound-sized blocks, they are usually taken to an apartment or house where a person responsible for bagging up the drugs breaks them into smaller quantities using blenders, coffee grinders, food processors, or diluents. When drugs are repackaged and sold, adulterants such as sugars, caffeine, quinine, paracetamol, procaine, and, more recently, fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl are added to the drugs to bulk, enhance, or mimic a pharmacological effect. Fentanyl is often mixed with heroin, and it may also be pressed into counterfeit prescription painkillers. These adulterants are almost always added to drugs without the user’s knowledge, which can result in overdose and other serious health consequences.5,6 These adulterated drugs aren’t always found on the street. Some users may search for cheap prescriptions online and unintentionally buy counterfeit pills with ingredients much stronger and more dangerous than what they thought they were getting.
Stronger, synthetic drugs are now entering the market, often disguised as heroin or other drugs. Cases involving carfentanil—a synthetic opioid with a potency 10,000 times that of morphine—is a huge threat to public safety. Another dangerous drug on the market is the synthetic, designer drug U-47700, nicknamed “pink.” The effects of pink mimic other opioids such as heroin and, in 2016 it had caused 46 reported deaths and required an emergency temporary scheduling by the DEA.7
The Rising Tide of Overdose Deaths
The number of overdose deaths in the U.S. has increased dramatically over the past decade. In fact, overdose is now the leading cause of injury death in the U.S.5 According to an article published in JAMA, drug overdose deaths more than doubled from 2000 to 2015, and deaths involving opioids more than tripled during the same time frame.8 In 2000, the death rate from drug poisoning was 6.2 per 1000,000 people; in 2015, the rate jumped to 16.3 per 100,000 people.8
With an influx of trafficked drugs, users cannot be sure if what they are buying is truly a prescription opioid or if it’s laced with other harmful adulterants like fentanyl, carfentanil, or “pink.” In 2014, 129 people died every day from a drug overdose, and 2017 saw a majority of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids.5,9
How to Avoid Being Just Another Statistic
If you or someone you love has developed a drug addiction, it is important to get help immediately. If you are wondering whether you or your loved one has a drug abuse problem, you can try answering the questions below as honestly as possible. Do you or someone you love:
- Want to cut down or stop using the drug but cannot?
- Spend a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from the drug?
- Take the drug in larger amounts or for longer than intended?
- Experience strong cravings and urges to use the drug?
- Continue to use a drug, even when it causes problems in their life?
- Experience personal or professional issues due to drug use?
- Keep needing to take more and more to get high?
- Go through withdrawal when unable to use?
Answering yes to just a few of these questions could indicate that addiction treatment might be beneficial. To start, you can:
- Call your doctor and ask for an evaluation and referral to an addiction treatment center.
- Write down a list of things that you are looking for in a treatment center – this may include detox services, medication-assisted treatment, counseling, and other features that you think will be important to your recovery.
- Look for a treatment center online or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free helpline: 1-800-622-HELP (4357).