Heroin, Cocaine, and Weed Are Stronger, Cheaper, and Easier to Get

Border patrol seizures have done nothing to make drugs any more difficult to find. Photo: Customs and Border Patrol

Heroin, cocaine, and marijuana are just as available, far cheaper, and more potent than they were at the start of the War on Drugs, according to a new study.

We’ve known for far too long that the War on Drugs has been a failure, but the statistics reported in the British Medical Journal by Evan Wood, of the University of British Columbia’s Urban Health Research Initiative, are astounding. Wood and his team aggregated government drug surveillance data from seven different countries. Between 1990 and 2010, the street price, adjusting for inflation, of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana fell roughly 80 percent. At the same time, the street drugs became much more potent: The average purity of heroin increased by 60 percent, the purity of cocaine increased by 11 percent, and the potency of cannabis increased 161 percent. The story is much the same in Europe and Australia, with street prices dropping and supply remaining stable, despite a huge increase in drug seizures.

Though we’ve known that weed is stronger than ever, it seems like the trend has extended to other, harder drugs. Motherboard talked to Wood about prohibition versus regulation and what this all means.

MOTHERBOARD: So your report is essentially more data backing up the idea that seizing drugs doesn’t work, correct?

Evan Wood: You’re right. The price of cannabis has really bottomed out over the last few years and the potency has increased. The same thing seems to be happening to heroin and cocaine, which was seen as the success story the United States was touting in the War on Drugs. When you look at the data though, it’s essentially neutral. There’s been no gains there in the past two decades. The patterns of supply go up and down but they’re not related to anything the government is implementing.

In popular media, seizures are presented as officers with guns and drugs in a brightly lit room, with the implication being that seizing drugs somehow impacts the availability or supply on the street. But there’s no economic paper out there that suggests it has any effect. The amount seized is so minuscule compared to the actual size of the supply.

All graphs: British Medical Journal

And that’s what you took a look at: Despite all our efforts there’s been no cut on the supply side.

To give you a sense of how massive it is, one scientist did a study looking at total bulk weight and size of drugs flowing in from Mexico to the United States and realized that all the drugs needed to supply the U.S. for a year could fit into 60 semi trucks. Well, at Laredo, there’s 5.5 million trucks crossing the border every year. It gives you a sense of how difficult a task this is. To even make a dent they need to be at the point where they can pinpoint 60 out of 5.5 million trucks.

You’d maybe expect the supply to stay the same, but why the increase in potency and the drop in price?

One reason is simply that supply has overwhelmed efforts to reduce it. Cocaine or heroin can be cut at a number of stages in the process, but the supply is so great that there’s no need to do that anymore. As a result, you have drugs that are much more potent and pure reaching the streets.

Does the sort of free market have anything to do with it? Are there more players in the game now?

In terms of capitalism, when you take down a major drug operation, you create a vacuum. You look at one of the major “successes” of the War on Drugs which was the taking down of the Medellin cartel. When that happened, it opened up the market for other producers to jump in and it diversified the market.

You not only had the producers in Colombia trying to move up, but you also had the traffickers in Mexico try to move higher and higher up the ladder and they began producing as well. You also had a lot of the supply moving to neighboring countries in the Andes.

Overall, there are reports that the land being used for coca production has fallen. But others will say that they’re using different techniques–they’re getting higher yields and using different varieties of plants that can be grown in smaller areas. It’s part of the economy there right now, so if you try to take that away, people are going to try to find other ways to stay in the market.

So if seizures don’t do anything, is there anything we can do?

We’ve thrown hundreds of billions of dollars at this problem. We need to think about what are better metrics of success. There’s levels of use and there’s harmful use, and those are different things. We can look at emergency room reports of drug overdoses, fatal overdoses, hepatitis C transmissions and HIV. These are the kind of outcomes we want to be decreasing and the kinds of things we want to look at when we think about controlling drugs.

In Washington, Colorado, and Uruguay, we’ve seen signs that government is looking at regulation rather than prohibition. Is everyone ready to stop the War on Drugs?

In 1998, Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the UN, made a speech in which he said ‘I believe we can get to a drug-free world in 10 years.” Fifteen years on from there, he’s one of the many world leaders advocating for the legalization and regulation of drugs. He’s a touchstone for that. At the time, he was reflecting the attitudes of the 1990s. But now, he, and I think a lot of others, have seen the writing on the wall.

People know prohibition is fundamentally flawed and that the outcomes of and consequences of incarcerating millions of people based on drug use has had profound social implications.

Marijuana is one thing, but can you see something like that ever happening with harder drugs?

i can’t talk to what the policy options are going to look like in the future but I can say that applying one single policy to a number of different substances, which are so different, is short-sighted to say the least.

In Canada, we’ve experimented with heroin prescriptions for people who have failed methadone treatment. The outcomes have been incredibly positive. I would not advocate heroin regulation similar to what’s happened with cannabis, but much more tight regulation strategies like this have been successful in Switzerland and other countries where it’s part of the treatment landscape.

Heroin, Cocaine, and Weed Are Stronger, Cheaper, and Easier to Get