The International Character of the Opioid Crisis

By: Maura Pallitta

In the United States of America, enough prescriptions of opioids are written each year for every adult in the county to have their own bottle of pills. Misuse of both prescription and illegal street opioids occurs at an incredible rate. In fact by all accounts, our nation is in the midst of an epidemic. Opioids kill an estimated 90 Americans every day, over 30,000 people per year. Around two million Americans are believed to be dependent on these drugs today. President Trump has even declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency. This is a trend with implications outside the U.S., as the smuggling and sale of illegal opioids is a global phenomenon.

Opioids are a group of drugs often used as pain medications. Prescription drugs like Morphine, Vicodin, and Oxycodone are opioids, as is heroin. While prescription opioids can and are often abused, there are unique risks associated with street varieties. Frequently users get hooked on these prescription pills, which were often legally prescribed to them, and then transition to heroin when the pharmaceutical drugs get too expensive or their prescription runs out. Today, most heroin available in the United States comes from Mexico and South America. It is trafficked across the Mexican-American border and smuggled in through U.S. ports and airports. The international realities of opiates cannot be ignored when working to combat this epidemic.

The growing demand for the drug in the United States has had a significant impact on the criminal world of drug trafficking. While South American producers were once the leading exporters into the U.S., production has fallen on the continent in the last decade. Recently, Mexican cartels have stepped in to fill the gap, with almost 70,000 acres dedicated to the production of heroin. Heroin has helped to increase the profits of the cartels (typically the ones located on Mexico’s west coast), but these increased profits have likely contributed to the uptick in violence Mexico has seen in recent years. The heroin producing regions have become the most violent parts of Mexico, with one state in the region suffering 2,200 cartel related killings last year alone.

The demand of American consumers for heroin has also motivated Afghani opiate producers. Even though over 80 percent of the world’s heroin is produced in Afghanistan (the nation has an estimated 553,000 acres of poppy fields), it accounts for only a small percentage of what is consumed in the United States. Afghani suppliers are determined to change this and have aggressively begun to move their drug into Canada, where it is often then smuggled into the Northern United States. It should be noted that after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the production of the drug in the country skyrocketed. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they banned farmers from cultivating poppy (the plant heroin is derived from). The warlords who gained control of the country after the United States military ousted the Taliban felt differently. They allowed for the production of the drug, and desperate citizen farmers, whose lives were upended by the war, began to produce the lucrative drug more and more. The United States’ own war contributed to the proliferation of opiates in the U.S.

To add another dimension to this, the heroin that is consumed in the United States is rarely pure. Often it is laced with another opioid, the synthetically produced Fentanyl, which is 100 times stronger. While Fentanyl can be prescribed legally, typically what ends up on the streets is illicitly made in laboratories. Most of the Fentanyl in the United States arrives from China, where poor law enforcement makes it easy to manufacture without being caught. The amount seized by American enforcement agencies has rapidly increased in recent years, and the drug has become a staple on the streets

While the Opioid Crisis is a domestic issue that has caused much heartache and pain to our nation, to many international players it is nothing short of lucrative. People in various regions of the world are both willing and able to take advantage of the addictions of Americans, not just large cartels, but smaller actors in places like China. This is just more evidence of our entrenched global economy, and one more example of American foreign policy having unintended consequences.

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