NY Times in-depth article on US heroin epidemic gets the cause and the solution all wrong

By Meryl Nass, M.D.  Dr. Nass is  a board-certified internist and a biological warfare epidemiologist and expert in anthrax. Nass publishes Anthrax Vaccine.

On October 30, 2015 the NY Times published an in-depth article on the heroin epidemic, focused on New Hampshire, which saw the greatest increase in deaths from drug overdoses (74%) in the US between 2013 and 2014.  New Hampshire is a bucolic place, where villages of tidy white capes and saltboxes lie sprinkled among the mountains and pine forests.

Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city, has a population of 110,000.  In one 6 hour period on September 24, Manchester police responded to 6 separate heroin overdoses. Manchester saw over 500 overdoses and over 60 deaths between January 1 and September 24, 2015.

At presidential campaign stops throughout the state, candidates were forced to respond to the problem when New Hampshire citizens demanded answers.  Hillary has a $10 billion dollar plan for prevention and treatment of abuse.  Chris Christie prefers treatment to jail time for first offenders. Obama announced a $5 million initiative in August to combat heroin addiction and trafficking. NH has designated a drug czar. NH Senator Ayotte says “We’ve got to reduce the stigma.”  Narcan, an opiate antidote that has been made widely available, is admittedly a band-aid.  It saves lives from acute overdoses, but does absolutely nothing to stem the tide of abuse.

The solutions being touted by politicians and the media include “working together:” police, citizens, and health-care facilities–though to what end is unclear; educating; reducing the stigma of heroin use (now that users are predominantly white and middle class we can relabel addiction a disease, not a crime); adding treatment facilities; and adding more police.

I call this salutary–but almost entirely missing the mark.

Overdose deaths and heroin users are at an all time high in the United States. Between 2 and 9 of every thousand Americans (0.2-0.9% of the population) is currently using heroin. In Maine, 8% of babies are born “drug-affected”–a stratospheric rise from 178 babies in 2006 to 995 babies in fiscal 2015.

Despite what you have heard, the cause of our current heroin epidemic is not as simple as doctors overprescribing narcotics.

While nationally, heroin overdoses jumped from 1.0 per 100,000 in 2010 to 3.4 per 100,000 in 2014, the number of prescribed narcotics held steady over the same period.  A 2015 UN document noted that A recent [US government] household survey in the United States indicated that there was a significant decline in the misuse of prescription opioids from 2012 to 2013″ (page 46).

According to CDC itself, “CDC has programmatically characterized all opioid pain reliever deaths (natural and semisynthetic opioids, methadone, and other synthetic opioids) as ‘prescription’ opioid overdoses.” That means illegally produced drugs in these categories are being designated as prescription drugs, when they are not. A further confounder is that heroin metabolizes to morphine, which is a prescription drug. So if fully metabolized at the time of autopsy, a death due to heroin will be labeled as due to a prescription narcotic.

The true cause of the current heroin epidemic is massive amounts of heroin flooding into the US, exceeding what can be sold in our large cities, and now finding its way into even the tiniest hamlets.

Here’s the problem with the NY Times’ and the politicians’ solutions:  neither fifty individual states nor thousands of towns and villages can treat, educate, exhort, investigate or imprison their way out of the heroin maelstrom. There are nowhere near enough police, social workers, prisons, treatment facilities or sources of funding.  Narcan and clean needles don’t cut the mustard. There is only one possible solution, and that is stemming the supply. 

In my September 7 blog post, I showed that 96% of US heroin does not come from Mexico and Colombia, as claimed by US government sources.  Mexican and Colombian production is inadequate to supply even half the US market.

At least Canada knows where its heroin comes from:  “According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police National Intelligence Coordination Center, between 2009 and 2012 at least 90 per cent of the heroin seized in Canada originated in Afghanistan.” (page 46)

If one wants to get into the weeds on this issue, a 2014 RAND report titled What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs: 2000-2010 is a good place to start.  The  report, performed under contract for DHHS and released by the White House, looks at multiple databases and identifies many problematic issues with estimates of heroin country-of-origin.

It shows that while Colombian opium was allegedly supplying 50% of a growing US heroin market between 2001 and 2010 (pages 82-83), Colombian production actually sank from 11 metric tons in 2001 to only 2 in 2009.

Furthermore, US government estimates for the 2000-2010 decade of Mexican production relied on a claimed 3 growing seasons per year, while in reality there were only two. RAND admits Mexican production estimates were inflated. Mexico historically produced lower quality, “black tar” heroin, used west of the Mississippi, while the influx of heroin to the US has been of higher quality white powder, and the greatest increases in use have been in the eastern US, far from the Mexican border.

Meanwhile, according to RAND, in recent years, there have been no [heroin] seizures or purchases from Southeast Asia [Myanmar, Laos, Thailand] by DEA’s Domestic Monitoring Program.”

Back in 1992, DEA estimated that 32% of US heroin came from Southwest Asia (mainly Afghanistan). Since then, Afghan opium production has tripled. But in the years 1994 through 2010 only 1-6% of US heroin had a southwest Asian origin, according to DEA’s Domestic Monitoring Program. Yet Afghan production accounts for 90% of the world heroin supply.

It would be great if we could point to improved US interdiction at the source, or to poppy field eradication to explain this anomaly.  But neither is the case. Seizures of heroin in Afghanistan dropped from 27 metric tons in 2010  to 8 metric tons in 2013, according to the UN, figure 41. Only 1.2% of poppy fields were eradicated in 2014, also according to the UN.

It is undeniable: there has been profound, systematic deception regarding the amount of heroin reaching the US from Mexico and Colombia by the US government, presumably to conceal and protect the actual source(s) of most US heroin.

We know where and how to look for heroin:  Afghanistan and Myanmar are the world’s #1 and #2 producers.   Historically, heroin bound for the US leaves these countries by air. There are a manageable number of flights departing Afghanistan and Myanmar.  We could put all the needed personnel in place, today, to fully inspect every flight and every airport.

The fact that we have looked the other way and pointed in the wrong direction is itself the smoking gun.

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  • MrLiberty

    During the Reagan administration, when vice-president Bush and the CIA were engaged in the Iran-Contra scandal that involved the selling of cocaine to fund the purchase of weapons for the Contra rebels, the inner cities of the US saw the massive explosion of crack use. Now that the US military and paid mercenaries protect the opium poppy fields in Afghanistan for the CIA we see a massive heroin epidemic in the US. It seems that any American that is putting ANY faith in their government to address the drug “problem” in this country is completely misguided. As with nearly EVERY problem we face, from poverty, illiteracy, obesity, drugs, education, monetary collapse, stock market and housing bubbles, etc. the root cause IS THE GOVERNMENT. It seems that the only real solution is to completely rethink our misguided superstitious belief that an overarching authority regime with special rights not possessed by the rest of society is required for all of us to function together as a society. Government clearly cannot be a solution when they are alreadyIn t the problem.

    • goingnowherefast

      The problem is not government per se, but Empire. Our government is nothing more than a mechanism for the global financial elites to wage war on humanity for profit. Capture of the public commons for financial gain is what we are up against.

      The TBTF banks make a hefty profit laundering illegal drug money. Even when they’re caught as HSBC was, no one goes to jail.

      Agree that our wars are connected to the drugs that land on our streets. If you go back even further to the war in Southeast Asia, Heroin was the drug of choice. We know the CIA was bringing back loads of it to help finance their covert activities.

      The global rich are a plague on humanity.

      • MrLiberty

        Indeed – Air America was the program name. Heroin all around. It truly wouldn’t surprise me if the CIA is actually the folks selecting the next war zone based on the latest drug market they wish to control. I mean the British fought the Chinese simply because their government wanted to stop the lucrative opium trade that was delivering huge bucks to the British East India Company.

  • cityspeak

    The war on drugs is a war on poor people.
    I ask anyone that has read this article to do some research on how often major banks have been caught and fined, always a small portion of their profit, for laundering money for the drug cartels? Now see how many banking executives involved in these activities have gone to jail?
    If your search goes back far enough you will see all the major banks involved and hundreds of millions of dollars funneled to keep the trade humming. You will also soon realize that bankers engaged in these activities do not go to jail but get a light slap on the wrist.
    It is a complete and utter fraud, with insiders making millions, nefarious political agendas being executed and the majority of the population being lied to, robbed from and abused.
    Over forty years of this going on, thanks to R. M. Nixon may he rot in hell for eternity, and all we hear from “the two wings of the same monied party”* is the same crap. How is a country or a group of people suppose to “find their way through the wilderness” if it has no truth tellers?

    *Gore Vidal

    • MrLiberty

      I do not know the source or remember the specifics, but there were several articles after the “crash” of 2007 that pointed out that it was drug money being laundered through the global financial system that helped keep things “afloat.” Given that most of the money in the system is simply electronic 1s and 0s that have been created out of thin air but drug money is real and the result of real transactions I can see how this would be the case. Indeed, the government always turns a blind eye to everything so long as they get their cut (one way or another).

  • unheilig

    The author might be an expert on anthrax but his ideas on drugs in general and heroin in particular are just plain wrong. Tobacco is freely available and cheap, but not everybody chooses to use it or become addicted to it. So what if there’s an abundance of cheap, pure heroin? Drug addiction has nothing in common with an anthrax epidemic. The question to ask is, why do so many people choose to use it? And the answer is stunningly simple: because the US is totally fucked up, and life for far too many of its citizens is horrible beyond belief; and too many of the victims of the US’s fucked-up-ness seek relief in powerful chemicals that offer relief, no matter how temporary, no matter what the consequences. People are oppressed by poverty, by racism, by endless unreasoning wars, by the false specter of terrorism, by the insane neocon oligarchy and its political sock puppets. So people seek relief. Simple, instant, blessed relief. Take your prohibitionist bullshit and shove it.

  • Folks should not be scared of freedom from Americas illegal police state propaganda!

    Jul 19, 2012 What Happened When Portugal Decriminalized *ALL* Drugs?

    “The government in Portugal has no plans to back down. Although the Netherlands is the European country most associated with liberal drug laws, it has already been ten years since Portugal became the first European nation to take the brave step of decriminalizing possession of all drugs within its borders—from marijuana to heroin, and everything in between.

    https://youtu.be/unu-sbtp65A

    7/05/2011 Ten Years After Decriminalization, Drug Abuse Down by Half in Portugal

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/07/05/ten-years-after-decriminalization-drug-abuse-down-by-half-in-portugal/

  • Highest to Lowest – Prison Population Total Globally

    Please use drop down menu 1 to choose the category of data you wish to view, and then wait for the page to reload. Once the page has reloaded please choose the continent/region from drop down menu 2 and then press apply.

    Ranking – Title – Prison Population Total

    1. United States of America – 2 228 424

    2. China – 1 701 344

    3. Russian Federation – 672 100

    4. Brazil – 581 507

    http://www.prisonstudies.org/highest-to-lowest/prison-population-total?field_region_taxonomy_tid=All

    JAN. 24, 2014 This World Map Shows The Enormity Of America’s Prison Problem

    About 2.4 million people live behind bars in America — the highest number in the world. That’s a little more than 0.7% of the population and more than 700 for every 100,000 people. This world map illustrates how disconcerting that is. The size of each country corresponds to the size of its total prison population (as of 2010), and a darker color indicates a higher incarceration rate. The area of the U.S. is bigger than China, a country that dwarfs the U.S. general population by more than four times. Also note how tiny Canada looks next to the U.S.

    http://www.businessinsider.com/world-map-of-incarceration-rates-2014-1

  • May 13, 2014 JUST SAY NO…to the War on Drugs

    Every day, more Americans agree the War on Drugs has failed and must change. The Smarter Sentencing Act will save billions of dollars and ease dangerous overcrowding in prisons by reducing sentences for non-violent drug offenders. It will also help strengthen communities and reduce racial injustice. Ask your members of Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act. It’s a vital first step!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmBHnk78Q_4

  • Sep 14, 2015 The Police Have No Duty To Protect You Joseph Lozito’s Story

    “But we need the police to protect us!!” cry some people. Yet time and time again, as Joseph Lozito found out, courts have ruled that police have no duty to protect you.

    https://youtu.be/V6qqAuEoJXs

    REVIEW ALL OF THE COURT RULINGS THAT SAY POLICE DO NOT HAVE OBLIGATION TO PROTECT CITIZENS FROM VIOLENT CRIME

    In the United States, you can get a pizza delivered faster than you can get the police to come to your home! To serve but not protect!

    http://whatreallyhappened.com/WRHARTICLES/courtrulingsonpoliceprotection.php#axzz3Lulh8Tph

  • CycleGeek

    Simple, you want to fight drug addiction, don’t take them. Make the right choice. Generally, people who take drugs are the cause of drug addiction. You are responsible for what goes into your body, period.

  • Luke Borom

    It is a simple reason. People have pain, either major and Drs prescribe legit pain meds or overprescribe for minor pain, get addicted then cold turkey stopped. Then find meds elsewhere.