Over the course of six days in mid-August, 174 people overdosed on heroin in Cincinnati, Ohio. Earlier this month, 26 residents of Cabell County, West Virginia shared the same fate in a four-hour span. And between May and July of 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky, the number of heroin and opioid overdoses tripled.
As increased opioid use and overdoses become a trend, the natural response from law enforcement in most of the country is to come down harder on drug traffickers and users. This amounts to taking on the same approach to drug use and commerce that has been directly associated with the increase in incarceration among poor and non-violent blacks and Latinos.
According to the National Seizure System’s data, there has been an “80 percent increase in heroin seizures in the past five years” in America, from “3,733 kilograms in 2011 to 6,722 kilograms in 2015.”
But the fact opioid overdose rates continue to rise could be an indicator that despite high enforcement activity — which has increased the seizures of drugs in the past few years — heroin and other types of opioids remain popular and fairly accessible.
As the epidemic grows, so does the demand, especially in poor areas of the country, a trend that is forcing traffickers to adapt. Now, officials say dealers are adding the elephant tranquilizer carfetanil to some of their heroin strains, and in other instances, heroin is being laced with fentanyl, a powerful pharmaceutical painkiller that is now also sold on the street.
According to an NPR story, “[f]entanyl-laced heroin is worsening the nation’s overdose crisis,” and the problem is so out of control that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued an alert in March claiming fentanyl is “the most potent opioid available for medical use.” They warned that drug dealers had been adding the drug to their batches of heroin “to increase the potency of heroin that has been diluted.”
But instead of decreasing drug access, smaller supplies of pure heroin give way to ample supplies of tainted, dangerous strains.
As users find it difficult to find help, either due to their economic status or because they are afraid of being arrested, more local law enforcement organizations are beginning to announce different approaches, promising to help — not arrest — those who come to the police asking for help. But these actions alone don’t make a dent in the fallout from the drug war, mostly because official policy remains the same. Instead of freedom, governments demonize both drug users and those who provide addicts with the substance of their choice. Instead of gaining options, addicts lose hope.
In order to understand why the opioid epidemic has become so widespread, we must first look at why it became an epidemic in the first place.
Higher Demand Forces Cartels to ‘Improvise’
Excitement around the marijuana legalization campaign has been slowly growing across the country. Now, an individual is able to obtain marijuana legally in 25 states, as well as in Washington D.C. But most other drugs remain illegal.