The Washington Post has printed a grim exposé on the shift from Mexican marijuana to Mexican heroin. The Post notes that since the United States has been decriminalizing, medicalizing, and legalizing marijuana, the wholesale price of Mexican marijuana has dropped from $100 per kilogram to just $25 per kilogram. “It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”
Now poor Mexican farmers have started planting opium poppies where cannabis plants once grew. “There’s no other way to make a living here,” says Silla. Since 2012, the wholesale price for Mexican opium sap has doubled from $750 per kilogram to about $1,500 per kilogram. Last year, American authorities confiscated 2,162 kilograms of heroin on the Mexican border, a record and an increase of over 20 percent from the previous year.
As cities as diverse as Portland, Oregon, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Brattleboro, Vermont, deal with unprecedented levels of heroin addiction, the administration has taken notice. Attorney General Eric Holder called the 79 percent rise in heroin use from 2007 through 2012, an “urgent and growing health crisis.” The DEA has claimed heroin is “moving all over the country and popping up in areas you didn’t see before.”
Naturally, the drug warriors would like to blame that supposed gateway drug, marijuana. But even as the Post explains, “prescription painkillers remain more widely abused and account for far more fatal overdoses.” The DEA paints a picture of shrewd Mexican cartels reacting to their cut in marijuana business by sowing more heroin addicts. DEA claims cartels send their heroin pushers to work in the cities with the worst prescription pill epidemics and have them “set up right outside the methadone clinics.”
But there is one big factor left out of the story, one that makes it far easier for DEA to infer that legalizing marijuana has led to more heroin overdoses. And that’s the fact that it was DEA itself, not Mexican cartels, who created the addicted customers for cartels to service.
In 2011, Guy Taylor writing for AlterNet uncovered startling revelations about the DEA and how it regulates powerful prescription opioids like Oxycontin. Any Schedule II drug like Oxycontin must go to a little-known DEA agency called the Office of Diversion Control. Gene Haslip was a former head of that office for 17 years, told Taylor that his office could have done more to prevent the prescription pill epidemic by reducing the quotas drug manufacturers are limited to.
Oxycontin, unlike marijuana, is a synthetic that requires labs and precursors and well-trained manufacturers. You can’t reasonably make your own, so it can be controlled, much like DEA ended the heyday of methalqualone (Quaaludes) by restricting factory manufacture. In 1997, Purdue Pharma was allowed to manufacture 8,300 kilograms of Oxycontin. In 2004, manufacturers were allowed to make just shy of 50,000 kilograms. This year, the quota is triple that at just shy of 150,000 kilograms -- an increase of about 18 times since 1997.
Why would DEA allow there to be triple the Oxycontin made over a decade when that same decade was marred by prescription drug abuse? Former Diversion Control head Haslip said, “For a DEA official to put his or her neck on the line to block a company’s requested quota increase takes an awful lot of guts and a lot of hard work, particularly if that company is supporting members of Congress who have the power to block the agency’s funding.”
But Gary Boggs, a DEA supervisory special agent interviewed by Taylor, explained that the increased quotas have nothing to do with collusion between the drug manufacturers and the DEA. Instead, the reason for the increase was even more shocking. “What you have to understand,” Boggs explained, “is that you do have legitimate patients and they’re fishing from the same pond that the illegitimate patients are fishing from, so you have to be cautious not to restrict the quota to the point that when the legitimate parties go to the pool, all the fish haven’t been taken out by the illegitimate parties.”
In other words, we have to make enough Oxy for the recreational users so there will be enough left for the medical users. Too bad that excuse didn’t work for Eddy Lepp’s 10,000 medical marijuana plants.
So now, the Oxycontin continues to be manufactured in record numbers, but the DEA, reacting to the surge in prescription painkiller abuse, is cracking down harder on the non-prescription use of it. As the DEA cracks down on prescription painkiller abuse, the price of an oxycodone tablet on the streets has risen to $80. For that kind of money, an opiate user can buy twenty hits of $4 Mexican heroin that is far more powerful and pure.
Meanwhile, the FDA just approved a new synthetic opiate pill called Zohydro. It has five times hydrocodone available in a Vicodin, without any of Vicodin’s added acetaminophen. Unlike a Vicodin and the recently reformulated Oxycontin, it has no additives to prevent it from being crushed and snorted or boiled and injected. The governors of Massachusetts and Vermont, hard hit by the heroin epidemic, have issued emergency order to halt its sale. Twenty-eight states Attorneys General signed a letter asking the FDA to withdraw the drug or at least make it non-snortable and non-injectable. Legislation in both the Senate and House has been introduced to force the FDA to withdraw Zohydro.
"Radical" Russ Belville is the host of "The Russ Belville Show."