A Visit to the The Heroin Zoo

An epidemic of opiate addiction is being fueled by pain pills prescribed for patients with real or feigned symptoms, along with a cheap and abundant supply of heroin. How these two vectors of causation came about in the U.S. is ably reported by author Sam Quinones in his recently published book, Dreamland.

A veritable menagerie of imagined wildlife is involved. Chipmunks are what they call the young Mexicans coming up from the Mexican State of Nayarit and its outlying rancheros around Xalisco. Their cheeks are sometimes puffed out by the tiny rubber bags of black tar heroin stuffed in their mouths. Many of these are escorted into the U.S. by paid “coyotes” who know where and how to insert illegal immigrants into the country. These young men, sometimes teenagers, are hired as drivers (called “mules” or maybe in this case “burros”) to deliver heroin to the junkie customers the way Dominoes delivers pizza. Drivers are paid about $1,500 per week—enough so that they are not tempted to monkey around with the supply entrusted to them—enough that they are willing if stopped by police to just swallow the tiny balloons in their mouths to evade detection. Those balloons will be retrieved later in a manner you can probably guess.

The prescription pain pill problem was initiated about 30 years ago when a small study involving only 35 subject pain patients were prescribed oxycodone, branded today as OxyContin, was prescribed. Apparently it relieved their pain and they didn’t become addicted and so it was inferred that opiate medications for pain are not addicting. The medical profession seems to have been ignorant that in most cases opiate users do not become addicted–but, some people do.  Those who relied on that study were reckless to think a small sample of 35 people could represent the universe of pain patients. They just concluded that pain absorbs the pleasure response of the drug, and so for all pain patients addiction just would not occur. Not until around 2012, was there a public acknowledgment of the problem by the fellow who had been at the forefront of promoting these medications. He had persuaded doctors to expand their use for back pain, knee and hip pain, as well as for cancer patients. But, now he was apologizing and admitting he was wrong. He wished he had known earlier what had become apparent. Too late. Staggering numbers of people had discovered the joys of oxycodone and become addicted.

Heroin addiction went from 214,000 in 2002 to 517,000 in 2013 according to the government survey of 2015 (SAMHSA). Over the past 11 years heroin use has increased and 681,000 Americans aged 12 and older used heroin in the previous year. Most users are 26 or older, but there is an estimated 31,000 teens also using heroin now.

Quinones’s book provides a chilling description of the pill distribution market grown up across much of the country. In his telling unscrupulous doctors (skunks?) are prescribing 500 pills at a time on mere claims of pain by their “patients.” An 80 mg OxyContin can be sold on the street for nearly a buck a milligram–$70 a pill. Dealers drive hooked patients to their doctors for prescription refills and take half the number of them in compensation, then sell that inventory for oh, around, SEVENTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS.

Savvy Mexican black tar heroin sellers and their young chipmunks know where to go to find the action. They move in close to methadone clinics and those pill mills and once they find a junkie or two can begin to expand their customer base. Their product is much cheaper. A really good high will run you only about $6.50 in tar heroin. In the major cities traditional dealers also offer powder heroin in glassine bags and tiny balloons as they have for decades.

So now in America we have a thriving black market in heroin and pain pills that no one knows quite what to do about. The DEA enforcers and local narcotics police have done amazing work in detecting, tracking and arresting dealers, but the numbers work against them. Hundreds of very poor Mexican young men come and go across our borders at will bringing tar heroin, while the large and well-funded criminal cartels traffick their products as well, using inventive ways to skirt enforcement problems.

© All rights reserved to Dave Finch 1/27/2016

Please visit my Reform Drug Policy Project site and learn about the TCC Solution.

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Available in Kindle and print editions at Amazon and in print at Barnes & Noble.

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