We have a clearer picture of who's fuelling the US heroin epidemic -- and how they're doing it

Heroin use in the US has grown by a staggering amount in recent years.

A report issued this summer by the Centres for Disease Control found the number of heroin users in the US had grown by almost 300,000 over the last decade, and the increase has occurred among men and women in almost every age group and at all income levels.

The spike has primarily been driven by the growing use of (and subsequent crackdown on the abuse of) opiate painkillers like Vicodin as well as heroin’s increased availability as a cheap alternative to over-the-counter drugs.

The 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment, issued by the DEA in October, reveals not only how widespread heroin has become, but also where it is produced and how it enters the US.

The DEA report also found that, according to data from law-enforcement agencies, heroin availability was higher in 2015 than it was in 2008 in every region of the country.

Heroin availability in the USDEA 2015 National Drug Threat AssessmentHeroin availability increased in every region of the US between 2008 and 2015, according to the DEA.

“Most of the heroin available in the United States comes from Mexico and Colombia,” the DEA notes in its report.

“Despite significant decreases in Colombian heroin production between 2001 and 2009,” the report adds, “South American heroin continues to be the predominant type available in eastern US markets.”

Mexico and Colombia dominate the use market for the drug due to “their proximity, established transportation and distribution infrastructure, and ability to satisfy US heroin demand.”

Mexican cartels, however, have grown their share of the heroin market tremendously in recent years. Together, Mexican drug traffickers smuggled nearly a quarter-million pounds of heroin into the US in 2014, according to The Washington Post.

Origins of heroin in the USDEA 2015 National Drug Threat AssessmentSouth America and Mexico are responsible for the vast majority of heroin found in the US in recent years.

The report finds that white-powder heroin made from Mexican poppies, but produced using South American methods, has been seized near the southwest American border and along trafficking routes that Mexican cartels have established over the last 20 years.

(Mexican black-tar heroin, historically found west of the Mississippi River, has also started appearing in the eastern US.)

Increased smuggling has been met with more vigilant law-enforcement efforts, and seizures along the border have jumped, from 1,016 kilograms in 2010 to 2,188 kilograms in 2014. Heroin is also seized at airports in Miami, Newark, New York City, and Orlando on a regular basis.

Heroin trafficking at southern US borderDEA 2015 National Drug Threat AssessmentHeroin trafficking has increased along much of the US southwest border.

This production, the DEA notes, likely indicates that not only are Mexican drug organisations breaking free from a reliance on South American production, but also that they are aiming to take more extensive control over the US market for heroin.

In addition to increasing their heroin sales, this would allow Mexican organisations to diversify the kind of drugs they push to include cocaine, meth, and marijuana in addition to heroin.

Indeed, Mexican organisations have made a dramatic shift toward opium-poppy cultivation, reaching 17,000 hectares in 2014, an amount the DEA says could produce 42 metric tons of heroin. Colombia, in contrast, only had 800 hectares of opium-poppy cultivation that year.

Much of the opium cultivation in Mexico takes place on the mountainous west coast. This area is dominated by the immensely powerful Sinaloa cartel, as well as the ascendant Jalisco New Generation cartel. (The two organisations are suspected of cooperating to some extent.)

The Sinaloa cartel, regarded as the most powerful drug-trafficking cartel in the Western Hemisphere and in the world, already provided “80% of the heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine — with a street value of $US3 billion — that floods the Chicago region each year,” in 2013, the DEA said at the time.

Heroin use in the US is more common in the Northeast and Midwest regions, and Mexican cartels are, according to the DEA, trying to expand their share of sales in those areas.

“Mexican organisations are now the most prominent wholesale-level heroin traffickers in the DEA Chicago, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC FD AOR [field division area of responsibility], and have greatly expanded their presence in the New York City area.

Dea el chapo narco mapDEA Strategic Intelligence SectionA map of cartel influence in the US. Sinaloa areas are shaded in orange, with darker shading indicating higher population density.

The outlook for heroin use in the US is grim. The criminal organisations that produce and transport it are making concerted efforts to increasing their offerings, and the low cost and high demand ensure that America’s latest poison of choice will remain in high supply.

According to government data, drug-poisoning deaths involving heroin increased 244% between 2007 and 2013, a surge likely to continue unabated.

“Heroin use and overdose deaths are likely to continue to increase in the near term,” the DEA concludes.

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