Where does America’s heroin come from?

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the incidence of opioid associated deaths in the United States has increased 244% between 2007 and 2013. This includes deaths due to heroin overdose as well as opioid pain reliever overdose. So, where do people obtain their supply of heroin and heroin derivatives? There are two main sources – prescription opioid medications and drug traffickers/dealers.

Prescription pain killers containing opioids which are synthesized from the poppy flower are used for the treatment of moderate to severe pain following a fracture, surgery, severe injury, cancer, severe back pain and osteoarthritis. People who take prescription opioid pain medication can become addicted. Opioid pain medication is an excellent pain reliever but difficult to obtain without a medical prescription. So people who become addicted look for sources to acquire the medication or its substitute. Heroin users in treatment programs have reported that some of them started using opioid pain medication prescribed by their doctors but switched to heroin as it is more readily available, less expensive and is more potent than prescription opioid medication.

Heroin is now the drug of choice for traffickers

Simultaneously, Americans are consuming less cocaine than before while cannabis is now home grown.  Mexican farmers can no longer profit from growing cannabis and have turned to growing poppy instead. This has, in turn, caused drug traffickers to rely on heroin for their livelihood. They are responding to the market demand by sourcing the drug from all the opium producing regions, making it more affordable and available in various forms. No longer does a heroin addict have to use or share needles – it can be either sniffed or smoked. “Cheese heroin” – a combination of black tar Mexican heroin and Tylenol PM (a medication commonly prescribed for common cold) is another form which is readily available. So the image of an emaciated heroin addict has changed to sophisticated, well dressed teenagers who use heroin to be “cool” and “popular”.

Latin America and the United States

Until the early 21st century, the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia formed by Burma, Thailand and Laos were the world’s largest producers and suppliers of opium. In the 1950s, the Golden Crescent, Afghanistan, became the world’s largest producer and continued to produce 80 percent of the world’s opium until 2010. Beginning in 2007, the cultivation and production in Afghanistan began to decline while Latin America which had begun to evolve in 1990s as a supplier became the largest supplier of heroin to the United States.  According to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment, law enforcement agencies in the United States estimate that heroin availability has increased significantly in 2015 compared to 2008. It further reports that most of the heroin flooding the US market comes from Mexico, Colombia, Southwest Asia and Southeast Asia.

Around 2009, poppy cultivation and heroin production declined in Columbia due to a government crackdown on drug cartels and producers. Meanwhile, in Mexico, according to the United States Office of Drug Control Policy, cultivation of opium poppy has increased with more than 10,500 hectares producing an estimated production of 26 metric tons of pure heroin in 2012. A combination of factors – high American demand, poor farmers, high production, geographical proximity, ease of transport and ruthless drug cartels has led to Mexico becoming the largest supplier of heroin to the United States today.