How Prohibition Makes Heroin More Dangerous

Because someone
in Manhattan from an apparent heroin overdose on Sunday,
The New York Times has a
front-page story
today about “a city that is awash in cheap
heroin.” How cheap? The Times says a bag of heroin,
typically contains
about 100 milligrams, “can sell for as
little as $6 on the street.” Yet it also reports that the Drug
Enforcement Administration’s New York office last year “seized 144
kilograms of heroin…valued at roughly $43 million.” Do the math
($43 million divided by 144,000 grams), and that comes out to about
$300 per gram, or $30 for a 100-milligram bag—six times the retail
price mentioned higher in the same story. So how did the DEA come
up with that $43 million estimate? Apparently by assuming that all
of the heroin it seized would have ended up in New England, where a
“$6 bag in the city could fetch as much as $30 or $40.”

In addition to illustrating the
creative calculations
behind drug warriors’ “street value”
estimates, the story shows how prohibition magnifies drug haazrds
by creating a black market where quality and purity are

Recently, 22 people died in and around Pittsburgh after
overdosing from a batch of heroin mixed with fentanyl, a powerful
opiate usually found in patches given to cancer patients. Heroin
containing fentanyl, which gives a more intense but potentially
more dangerous high, has begun to appear in New York City, said
Kati Cornell, a spokeswoman for Bridget G. Brennan, the special
narcotics prosecutor for the city. An undercover officer bought
fentanyl-laced heroin on Jan. 14 from a dealer in the Bronx, she
said. The dealer did not warn of the mixture, which is not apparent
to the user; subsequent testing revealed it. (The patches
themselves had turned up in drug seizures in the city before, she

Ultimately, users have no way to be sure what they’re buying.
“There’s no F.D.A. approval; it’s made however they decide to make
it that day,” Ms. Brennan said.

According to the
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
fentanyl is “roughly 50-80 times more potent than morphine,” so
it’s the sort of ingredient you’d want to know about before
snorting or injecting that white powder you just bought. This kind
of thing—passing one drug off as another, delivering something much
more (or less) potent than the customer expects—almost never
happens in a legal market. When was the last time you bought a
bottle of 80-proof whiskey that turned out to be 160 proof? The
main reason liquor buyers do not have to worry about such a
switcheroo is not that distillers are regulated, or even that their
customers, unlike consumers in a black market, have legal recourse
in case of fraud. The main reason is that legitimate businesses
need to worry about their reputations if they want to keep
customers coming back. It is hard to build and maintain a
reputation in a black market, where brands do not mean much:

The same shipment of heroin may be packaged under several
different labels, she said. “At the big mills, we’ll seize 20
stamps. It’s all the same.”…

The Police Department on Monday said detectives were working to
track down the origin of the substances Mr. Hoffman used, though a
police official conceded it could be difficult to determine. “Just
because it’s a name brand doesn’t mean that anyone has an exclusive
on that name,” the official said. “Ace of Spades; I would venture
to say that someone else has used that name.”

The takeaway: After a century of attempts
to stamp out the heroin trade, the drug is cheap, plentiful, and
much more dangerous than it would otherwise be.

from Hit & Run

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