Over the course of six days in mid-August, 174 people overdosed on heroin in Cincinnati, Ohio. Earlier this month, 26 residents of Cabell County, West Virginia shared the same fate in a four-hour span. And between May and July of 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky, the number of heroin and opioid overdoses tripled.
As increased opioid use and overdoses become a trend, the natural response from law enforcement in most of the country is to come down harder on drug traffickers and users. This amounts to taking on the same approach to drug use and commerce that has been directly associated with the increase in incarceration among 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.”
But the fact opioid overdose rates continue to rise could be an indicator that despite high enforcement activity — which has increased the seizures of drugs in the past few years — heroin and other types of opioids remain popular and fairly accessible.
As the epidemic grows, so does the demand, especially in poor areas of the country, a trend that is forcing traffickers to adapt. Now, officials say dealers are adding the elephant tranquilizer carfetanil to some of their heroin strains, and in other instances, heroin is being laced with fentanyl, a powerful pharmaceutical painkiller that is now also sold on the street.
According to an NPR story, “[f]entanyl-laced heroin is worsening the nation’s overdose crisis,” and the problem is so out of control that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued an alert in March claiming fentanyl is “the most potent opioid available for medical use.” They warned that drug dealers had been adding the drug to their batches of heroin “to increase the potency of heroin that has been diluted.”
But instead of decreasing drug access, smaller supplies of pure heroin give way to ample supplies of tainted, dangerous strains.
As users find it difficult to find help, either due to their economic status or because they are afraid of being arrested, more local law enforcement organizations are beginning to announce different approaches, promising to help — not arrest — those who come to the police asking for help. But these actions alone don’t make a dent in the fallout from the drug war, mostly because official policy remains the same. Instead of freedom, governments demonize both drug users and those who provide addicts with the substance of their choice. Instead of gaining options, addicts lose hope.
In order to understand why the opioid epidemic has become so widespread, we must first look at why it became an epidemic in the first place.
Higher Demand Forces Cartels to ‘Improvise’
Excitement around the marijuana legalization campaign has been slowly growing across the country. Now, an individual is able to obtain marijuana legally in 25 states, as well as in Washington D.C. But most other drugs remain illegal.
As some former gang members prefer to focus on cannabis sales, opening their own dispensaries and stepping out of the shadow market, others see an opportunity for high profits and, consequently, remain in the streets.
According to the DEA, the opioid business has been booming for Mexican cartels.
In the past two-and-a-half years, Mexican gangs have increased the production of fentanyl, a potent, synthetic opioid analgesic, as well as its acetyl fentanyl variation. Taking the idea of supply and demand into consideration— one of the most fundamental concepts of economics —you might conclude that the increase in production is directly associated with the increase in demand. Taking the fact that since 1999, the rate of unintentional overdose deaths tied to opioids has quadrupled, it appears that the demand for opioids continues to grow, and as more people abuse the drugs, more overdoses are reported.
The high demand also helps to explain the low quality of available illegal opioids. Since pure heroin is more expensive and rare, dealers become creative, diluting the substance or adding other components to make the supply more powerful.
Seeing an opportunity to earn high profits by selling heroin, tainted heroin, or related drugs on the growing American market — while also eliminating competition — these smugglers have been responsible for higher death rates, as well. But is the blood only on their hands if they are simply responding to market demands?
Prohibition Fuels Crime, Violence, and Heroin Overdoses by Boosting the Black Market
In an article for The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf writes that “drug warriors helped to fuel the opioid epidemic.” In The Economics of Prohibition, economist and professor Mark Thornton writes 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. Were 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.”
Allowing the drug market to go legit by eliminating prohibitionist policies, as well as regulations that criminalize commerce and use, could give addicts and consumers at large better, more accurate, and therefore safer information on their drug of choice. Opening the markets could also give users the opportunity to enjoy other benefits of the free market, such as specialized clinics and other facilities that allow users peace of mind while consuming these products in a controlled and secure environment.
If, much like the laws of physics, the laws of economics cannot be ignored, we must look at the current opioid epidemic as a consequence of the bad economics of drug prohibition. And the natural answer to this is more freedom — not more law enforcement involvement.