Will North American Leaders Stay the Wrong Course on Heroin?

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Mexico’s heroin production was a central point in the recent summit of North American leaders, but the remedies under discussion show a remarkable unwillingness to learn from past mistakes.

At last week’s Ottawa summit of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and American President Barack Obama, one of the items up for consideration was the heroin epidemic. Ahead of the event they promised to unveil a new joint plan to deal with the heroin threat in both countries, though the precise details of this plan were ultimately not made public.

While coverage of the summit primarily highlighted Obama’s impromptu rant against Donald Trump in the joint press conference, he also highlighted in his remarks the scourge of “opioid abuse,” “narcotraffickers,” and the “heroin that is taking so many lives and devastating so many families.” Days before the conference, NSA official Mark Feierstein told reporters, “President Obama will ask President Peña Nieto to continue his efforts to reduce the production of poppy.”

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Mexican diplomat Paulo Carreno had indicated the nations had negotiated “a plan to combat increased opium poppy cultivation and heroin use,” adding that the plan went beyond eradication.

The reasons for the concern are justified. The American appetite for heroin, which had plummeted following a prior epidemic in the 1960s and ’70s, has again skyrocketed. Nearly 11,000 Americans died of heroin overdoses in 2014, compared to just over 3,000 in 2010 and 1,842 in 2000.

Mexican cultivation of poppy (the plant used for the production of heroin) has also leapt northward during the same period. The US government16-06-22Poppy estimated a nearly 60 percent increase in the hectares used for poppy production from 2013 to 2014, from 11,000 to 17,000. The Mexican government recently published its own estimate of nearly 25,000 hectares on average in use in 2015. Out of a total of 32 Mexican states, nine produce heroin.

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Clearly, there is reason for the US and its neighbors to step up their efforts to rein in the heroin trade. But recent history shows that their focus on limiting production is woefully inadequate. It seems that the governments are not learning from even their most notorious mistakes.

Since Richard Nixon initiated the War on Drugs more than 40 years ago, the US has focused much of its effort on limiting the supply of drugs produced in foreign countries. Two of the most prominent tactics of the supply side-first approach, employed both by the US and their foreign government allies, are eradication of drug production facilities and targeting the foreign kingpins who oversee these operations. The latter tactic has had mixed results, but eradication — whether in Mexico in the 1970s, Colombia in the 1990s and 2000s, or Afghanistan following the US invasion — has been an unmitigated failure.

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In virtually every case where eradicating the crops has been a major element of the anti-drug strategy, it has militarized the effort, as the armed forces are among the only bodies with the manpower and sophistication to carry it out over a wide area. This is bad for the military, distracting them from national defense, and bad for the basic democratic concept of civilian control over public security.

Eradication has been unnecessarily punitive toward the largely poor farmers who are caught between the incentives of the market, the demands of local kingpins and the dictates from central governments. Eradication efforts inevitably carry with them dangerous environmental and political side effects.

Even beyond all that, eradication doesn’t work on its own terms. There’s little evidence that even the most determined campaign does anything to reduce production on a global scale. At best, it merely pushes the means of supply elsewhere, at which point the market adapts, with little if any long-term effect on availability or prices in the US. This is precisely why for decades analysts have been calling for more focus on demand.

In 2016, such arguments are so commonplace as to be virtual clichés. However, the US and Mexico, at least in their rhetoric, are somehow repeating these past errors.

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This decision is even more inexplicable because the US has a substantial arsenal of weapons for cracking down on heroin; more so than for any other drug. The heroin epidemic is largely a function of US pharmaceutical firms’ push for wider use of opioid painkillers like Hydrocodone and OxyContin in the 1990s. Doctors began prescribing these powerful drugs, which kill pain but generated dependency as reliably as heroin does, for everything from back pain to carpal tunnel syndrome. Addicts inevitably discovered that they could get their opioid fix more reliably and cheaply from black-market heroin, which drove the Mexican increase in cultivation.

In other words, the opioid prescription explosion is a feeder for the heroin epidemic. And the US has any number of tools to limit the use of opioids, which would ultimately undercut heroin demand.

For instance, it could use Medicaid rules to limit access to benefits for fraudulent opioid prescriptions, which is a common way for addicts and small-time dealers to game the system. It could, as Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) suggested in a recent hearing with DEA chief Chuck Rosenburg, ask the DEA to crack down on pharmaceutical companies’ production of opioid medicines. Currently such production far outstrips national estimates of the legitimate medical need for opioid drugs, with the illegal market picking up the slack.

In the tricky realm of drug control policy, these count as easy, obvious fixes. Yet based on current reports, Obama and Peña Nieto would rather repeat the failed policies of the past.

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