Monday, February 15, 2010

A different heroin distribution model, but motives and profits are the same

The Los Angeles Times has a three part series, "The Heroin Road," on the nationwide network of sellers of black tar heroin from Xalisco in Mexico. Part one is here.

Carefully reported by Sam Quinones, the series describes how the Xalisco network eschews violence, often stays out of the established heroin markets and goes to new territory, and delivers heroin after a calls to a dispatcher instead of selling from a fixed location or neighborhood.

The second story of the series describes the lethal impact of the high potency of the product in Huntingdon, West Virginia, and many other communities. The repeated instances of dramatic increases in overdose deaths is shocking and horrendous.

The series concludes with the story of the economic development of Xalisco with the flood of profits to long-time impoverished sugar cane workers.

What strikes me is the contradiction between well-known tragic dimensions and the almost inevitable character of the story.

Frequently we learn that some of the heroin users had become users of opiates to treat pain and switched to heroin because it was cheaper. Certainly legal opiates are killing thousands every year. Would universal health care be more effective in providing pain relief that would more effectively monitor drug use to minimize the risk and harm of addiction? Would universal health care make access to treatment when addiction is developing more accessible and less stigmatized?

What can we do to reduce overdose deaths that respects the dignity of the addicts?

The other key tragedy is that the economic opportunity of prohibition is so strong. Part three of this story is age old. Prohibition is not simply economic opportunity; it is golden opportunity. Traditional economic opportunity enables incremental improvement in livelihood. Prohibition economic opportunity occurs at warp speed! Until America ends its prohibition approach to drug use and distribution, these profits stand ready to tap by entrepreneurs around the globe.

What strikes me as most anomalous about this story is the absence of violence in the competition among the Xalisco drug distributors. This is hard for me to comprehend.

This series reminds us that there is not simple fix to these problems. Ending prohibition is not going to magically improve the lives of all addicts. Figuring out the replacement of prohibition requires more than simple repeal and abolition of laws.

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