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National Drug Threat Assessment 2005
February 2005

Executive Summary

The abuse of illicit drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin, and MDMA as well as diverted pharmaceuticals inflicts tremendous damage on society, particularly on the millions of families that have a member struggling with illicit drug dependence or addiction. According to Department of Health and Human Services data, nearly 35 million persons aged 12 or older used an illicit drug within the past year, and approximately 3.8 million were dependent on or abusers of illicit drugs in 2003, the latest year for which such data are available. Health and Human Services data also show that the number of drug treatment admissions to publicly funded treatment facilities in 2002 reached their highest recorded level at nearly 1.1 million.

The public resources consumed in addressing illicit drug trafficking and abuse are substantial. In 2003 nearly $11.4 billion was allocated by the federal government for drug education, incarceration, intelligence, interdiction, and treatment. Although budgets vary greatly at the state and local levels, many state governments and local municipalities commit significant portions of their annual budgets to counterdrug programs. For example, the budgets of California and New York combined commit nearly $1.1 billion annually to alcohol and substance abuse treatment and prevention programs.

Cities and towns across the country, including the Primary Market Areas identified in this report (see Figure 1 in Scope and Methodology section), face multifaceted challenges such as high levels of drug distribution to and from their areas, high levels of local drug consumption, widespread drug-related violence and property crime, widespread drug production, and myriad other attendant issues such as drug-related child endangerment or neglect, environmental damage, and money laundering. In many areas, however, the principal concern of communities with respect to drug trafficking is the transportation of large quantities of illicit drugs to their areas. Regardless of a city's location or the leading drug-related concerns in a particular area, virtually all communities in the country are adversely affected by the flow of illegal drugs from foreign source areas into the United States, particularly via the Southwest Border.

Overall Key Findings

  • Mexican criminal groups exert more influence over drug trafficking in the United States than any other group. Mexican criminal groups smuggle most of the cocaine available in domestic drug markets into the country. Moreover, Mexican criminal groups produce and subsequently smuggle into the country much of the heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine available in U.S. drug markets. Mexican criminal groups also produce large amounts of marijuana and methamphetamine within the United States for domestic distribution. Mexican criminal groups are the predominant transporters and wholesale distributors of cocaine and methamphetamine in most regions of the country; they are the predominant transporters and wholesale distributors of heroin in western regions of the country; and they are very prominent transporters and wholesale distributors of marijuana throughout the country.

  • Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) appear to be gaining control of a larger percentage of the cocaine smuggled into the United States. The estimated percentage of cocaine smuggled into the United States via the Mexico-Central America corridor increased sharply from 72 percent in 2002 to 77 percent in 2003, and preliminary data indicate that the percentage may be higher than 90 percent for 2004. Nearly all of the cocaine transported through the Mexico-Central America corridor ultimately is smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border by Mexican criminal groups for subsequent distribution in the United States.

  • Domestic drug markets appear to be increasingly supplied with methamphetamine produced in methamphetamine superlabs in Mexico.

  • Production and distribution of ice methamphetamine--a higher purity, more addictive form of methamphetamine--by Mexican criminal groups have increased sharply over the past 2 years in many drug markets.

  • Colombian DTOs are increasingly relying on Mexican DTOs and criminal groups to transport South American heroin to the United States much as they rely on Mexican DTOs to transport cocaine.

  • The threat posed to the United States by the illegal diversion and abuse of prescription drugs has increased sharply since the mid-1990s and is now among the leading drug threats to the country.

  • Law enforcement reporting indicates that transportation of bulk currency out of the United States--primarily overland across the U.S.-Mexico border--is the principal form of money laundering by DTOs.

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Cocaine. Interagency estimates indicate that worldwide cocaine production has decreased sharply and that cocaine seizures have increased sharply since 2001; however, such trends have not yet resulted in decreased availability of the drug in domestic drug markets. Since 1999, rates of use for cocaine have trended downward overall among adolescents, have increased overall among college students, and have fluctuated among young adults. Nevertheless, demand for the drug remains higher than for all other illicit drugs except marijuana.

Cocaine smuggled into the United States from South America is increasingly transported via Mexico and across the Texas-Mexico border. The Primary Market Areas for cocaine include Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York.

Methamphetamine. According to law enforcement reporting and statistical drug availability indicators, methamphetamine availability increased over the past year, most notably in the Northeast Region. The increase in availability nationwide appears to be fueled primarily by increased production of both powder and ice methamphetamine in Mexico. Despite increased availability, however, rates of past year use for powder methamphetamine appear to have trended downward overall since 1999 for all age groups.

Methamphetamine distributed and available in the United States is increasingly smuggled from Mexico across the Southwest Border, particularly at or between land ports of entry in Arizona. Despite the increased seizures in Arizona, Federal-wide Drug Seizure System data show that the amount of methamphetamine seized in California continues to exceed that of any other state. The Primary Market Areas for methamphetamine include Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Marijuana. Marijuana is readily available throughout the country, and higher potency marijuana became more prevalent over the period 1994 through 2002. Domestic marijuana production appears to be increasing in part because of large-scale marijuana production by U.S.-based Mexican criminal groups within the United States. Despite rising marijuana production and already wide availability of the drug, rates of past year use for marijuana have trended downward among most age groups--particularly adolescents--since the late 1990s.

Mexican marijuana is the principal type of foreign-produced marijuana available in the United States, and therefore most foreign-produced marijuana smuggled into the United States crosses the Southwest Border. The Primary Market Areas for marijuana include Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Phoenix/Tucson, San Diego, and Seattle.

Heroin. Significant increases in potential worldwide heroin production in 2002, 2003, and 2004 do not appear to have affected the overall availability of the drug in the United States. Law enforcement reporting as well as statistical data indicate that heroin availability is stable overall and that South American and Mexican heroin remain the most prevalent types, although the overall market share of Southwest Asian heroin may be increasing in the United States relative to other heroin types. Rates of past year use for heroin appear to be relatively stable.

A wide range of criminal groups smuggle heroin into the United States through various entry points; however, the smuggling of South American heroin across the Southwest Border through or between land ports of entry in Texas appears to have increased significantly in 2003. Primary Market Areas for heroin include Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.

MDMA. The availability of MDMA has decreased significantly nationwide. Moreover, national-level drug demand data show that rates of past year use for MDMA peaked for most age groups in 2001 and have declined significantly since. There is no indication that foreign production has increased over the past year, and domestic production of MDMA remains very limited.

Most MDMA is smuggled into the United States from Europe primarily by Israeli and Russian criminal groups; however, the involvement of Asian criminal groups in MDMA smuggling and wholesale distribution in the country has increased sharply over the past 2 years. The Primary Market Areas for MDMA include Los Angeles, Miami, and New York.

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Pharmaceuticals. The availability of pharmaceuticals has increased since the late 1990s when legitimate commercial production and disbursals of many pharmaceuticals, particularly prescription narcotics, increased sharply, making more of the drugs available for illegal diversion. Most pharmaceuticals abused in the United States are illegally diverted through forged prescriptions, doctor shopping, and theft; however, law enforcement agencies report that illegal diversion of prescription drugs via the Internet, often through Internet-based pharmacies, has increased sharply since the mid- to late 1990s. Rates of abuse for prescription drugs appear be stabilizing at high levels after increasing sharply since the early to mid-1990s.

Other Dangerous Drugs. The trafficking and abuse of other dangerous drugs such as GHB, ketamine, LSD, and PCP pose a moderate threat to the country. GHB has become a particular concern to law enforcement and public health agencies because of increasing availability of the drug, sharp increases in GHB-related emergency department mentions since the mid-1990s, and the use of GHB in the commission of drug-facilitated sexual assault. Ketamine also is used in the commission of drug-facilitated sexual assault; however, rates of past year use for ketamine are trending downward among adolescents and young adults, as are emergency department mentions for the drug. Law enforcement reporting as well as statistical data indicate that LSD availability is decreasing and that rates of past year use for LSD have decreased sharply to very low levels. PCP availability is limited primarily to metropolitan areas, and rates of past year use for the drug have decreased to very low levels since 2000.

Inhalants. Inhalants are chemical vapors that produce mind-altering effects when users inhale them by sniffing or snorting. These chemical vapors are found in more than 1,000 household products that are available and intended for legitimate uses. The abuse of inhalants poses a comparatively low threat to the country; however, the percentage of persons reporting past year inhalant use is relatively high, and inhalant abuse is most prevalent among adolescents. The widespread availability, easy accessibility, and low cost of these commonly abused products are of concern to law enforcement and public health agencies.

Steroids. Although steroids are legally prescribed to treat specific medical conditions they are often abused to enhance athletic performance and to improve physical appearance. Individuals who abuse steroids may take doses that are 10 to 100 times higher than those used for medical conditions, possibly resulting in serious physical and emotional maladies. Data regarding the extent of steroid abuse in the United States is limited. Available data indicate that past year steroid use has fluctuated but increased overall since the mid-1990s among adolescents, while the perception of risk and disapproval of steroid use among adolescents has declined over the past decade.

Money Laundering. The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that the cost to society from illicit drug trafficking and abuse ranges between $60 billion and $108 billion each year in the United States. In 2000, the most recent year for which these data are available, annual retail-level purchases of cocaine were estimated at $36 billion, heroin at $10 billion, marijuana at $11 billion, and methamphetamine at $5.4 billion.

Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking organizations are the most prominent wholesale-level drug distributors in the United States. Their drug distribution activities span numerous cities and states throughout the country, generating billions of dollars in illicit drug proceeds annually. Those proceeds usually are transferred to Colombia and Mexico via bulk cash and monetary instruments (checks and money orders), smuggling, and money services businesses. Colombian and Mexican traffickers, among others, use traditional financial institutions, trade-based businesses, and informal value transfer systems, including the Black Market Peso Exchange, to launder illicit drug proceeds.

Southwest Border. The considerable influence of the Southwest Border on domestic drug transportation and distribution has long been understood by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, and current statistical data support this assertion. As is conveyed throughout this assessment, the Southwest Border area is the principal Arrival Zone for most illicit drugs smuggled into the United States as well as the predominant transit zone for the drugs' subsequent distribution throughout the country. According to El Paso Intelligence Center drug seizure data, most of the cocaine and much of the heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine available in domestic drug markets are smuggled into the country via the Southwest Border. As expected, 2003 data from the El Paso Intelligence Center show that the amount of these drugs seized at or between land ports of entry along the Southwest Border is much greater than the amount seized at or between land ports of entry along the Northern Border (see Table 1). Moreover, these data show that cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine shipments originating in states along the Southwest Border (Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas) are seized on domestic highways, roadways, and at airports in far greater amounts than shipments originating in any other region of the country (see Table 2).

Table 1. Seizures of Drugs at Ports of Entry, Southwest Border vs. Northern Border, in Kilograms, 2003

Drug Southwest Border Northern Border
Cocaine 15,927.0 154.0
Heroin 291.5 0.0
Marijuana 1,173,128.0 11,183.0
Methamphetamine 1,733.0 0.2

Source: El Paso Intelligence Center.

Table 2. Seizures of Drugs, Southwest Border States vs. All Other States, in Kilograms, 2003

Drug Southwest Border States All Other States
Cocaine 4,391 1,564
Heroin 82 96
Marijuana 91,270 6,066
Methamphetamine 1,080 101

Source: El Paso Intelligence Center.

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