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Drug Availability in the United States

Heroin Availability

Heroin remains widely available in many U.S. drug markets; availability is increasing in some areas.

Law enforcement reporting indicates that heroin remains widely available and that availability is increasing in some areas, as evidenced by high wholesale purity, low prices, increased levels of abuse, and elevated numbers of heroin-related overdoses and overdose deaths. For instance, according to DEA Heroin Signature Program (HSP) data, the wholesale purity of Mexican heroin was 40 percent in 2008, the highest average purity for Mexican heroin analyzed under the HSP since 2005 (47%). Additionally, Mexican heroin represented 39 percent (by weight) of all heroin analyzed through the HSP, the highest percentage since 1987 (42%). The wholesale purity of South American heroin stabilized at 57 percent in 2008 after significantly decreasing from 2000 to 2006. However, South American heroin representation under the HSP decreased markedly to 58 percent (by weight) in 2008 from a high of 88 percent in 2003. The decreased representation of South American heroin under the HSP resulted from a significant increase of Mexican heroin samples seized and analyzed under the program, 300 kilograms in 2008 compared with 136 kilograms in 2007, rather than an overall decrease in South American heroin samples. In fact, South American heroin samples analyzed under the HSP increased from 424 kilograms in 2007 to 442 kilograms in 2008.

Increased availability in some markets can be partly attributed to increased heroin production in Mexico. From 2004 through 2008, heroin production estimates for Mexico increased 342 percent, from 8.6 metric tons pure to 38 metric tons pure (see Figure 8).

Figure 8. Potential Pure Heroin Production in Mexico, in Metric Tons, 2004-2008

Chart showing estimated potential pure heroin production in Mexico, in metric tons, from 2004 to 2008.

Source: U.S. Government estimate.

Increased heroin availability has led to increased heroin abuse and, consequently, an increase in heroin-related overdoses and overdose deaths. Law enforcement reporting from the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, New England, New York/New Jersey, Southeast, and West Central OCDETF Regions suggests that heroin abuse is increasing, particularly among younger abusers. Moreover, in mid-2009, law enforcement and public health agencies in 29 drug markets spanning 17 states began reporting elevated levels of heroin-related overdoses, which in many areas began to increase in 2008 (see Figure 9). The degree to which heroin overdoses increased in these drug markets--which ranged in size from Burlington, Vermont, to Dallas, Texas--varied widely, but for each area the increase was significant relative to what local officials normally observe. Although a variety of factors have been associated with the increase, including some prescription opioid users switching to heroin (see text box), the only commonality appears to be an overall increase in heroin availability.

Figure 9. Counties Reporting Increases in Heroin-Related Overdoses, 2008-2009

U.S. map showing the counties reporting increases in heroin-related overdoses during 2008 to 2009.

Source: Federal, state, and local law enforcement reporting.

Prescription Opioid Users Have Switched to Heroin

Some opioid abusers use prescription opioids or heroin, depending on availability and the price of each drug, and heroin availability is increasing in many regions in response to higher demand. Treatment providers in some areas of the United States reported in 2008 that prescription opioid abusers switch to heroin as they build tolerance to prescription opioids and seek a more euphoric high. Further, treatment providers are reporting that some prescription opioid abusers are switching to heroin in a few areas where heroin is less costly or more available than prescription opioids. It is also common for some heroin abusers to use prescription opioids when they cannot obtain heroin. Diverted CPDs are often more readily available than heroin in all drug markets; however, heroin use increased in many areas of the country in 2009, possibly because of increased demand among abusers of prescription opioids who could no longer afford CPDs. Prescription opioids are typically more expensive than heroin. For example, oxycodone abusers with a high tolerance may ingest 400 milligrams of the drug daily (five 80-mg tablets) for an average daily cost of $400. These abusers could maintain their addictions with 2 grams of heroin daily, at a cost of one-third to one-half that of prescription opioids, depending on the area of the country and the purity of the heroin.

The capacity of Mexican DTOs to occupy a more significant share of the heroin market in cities historically dominated by South American heroin may be evolving. In addition to Mexican DTOs trafficking and distributing greater quantities of South American heroin, investigative reporting and heroin signature analysis indicate the possibility of white heroin being produced in Mexico using Colombian processing techniques, as well as the distribution of "mixed" heroin containing both South American and Mexican heroin. However, additional information is needed to confirm the existence of and to understand the potential threat posed by these two heroin forms.

Despite record estimates of opium and heroin production in Afghanistan, the United States remains a secondary market for Southwest Asian (SWA) heroin. SWA heroin is smuggled into the United States in relatively small quantities, primarily by couriers on transatlantic flights and through the international mail system. Organizations responsible for trafficking SWA heroin into the United States are based primarily in Afghanistan, Pakistan, West Africa, and India. Similarly, even though Southeast Asian (SEA) opium and heroin production estimates marginally increased from 2007 to 2008, only limited quantities of the drug are available in the United States. Most SEA heroin is consumed regionally in Southeast Asia and the East Asia-Pacific region.

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