How Prohibition Makes Heroin More Dangerous

Because someone famous died 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, which 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 hazards by creating a black market where quality and purity are unpredictable:

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 said.)

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.

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  • Pelosi's Rabbit||

    This is the point I always make. In fact, I'm not sure that in a legal market that injected heroin would even exist. Who would shoot up if they could buy an opioid inhaler? Same near-instant gratification, much lower chance of overdose, much lower cost.

  • John||

    Especially with the risk of HIV and Hep C and such from needles. You would have to be a pretty pathetic junkie to still be shooting up in a legal market.

  • Zeb||

    Needles would be cheap and readily available in a legal market, so the disease risk wouldn't be an issue.

    I have no experience injecting anything, but I know a number of people who do and from what they say, IV injection is a whole different thing from any other way to take narcotics. People inject because you get more bang for your buck, but apparently also because of the intense rush you get when it hits you, which you do not get with other methods.

    But, IV users are not the majority of people who use heroin now, and I very much doubt that there would be a large increase if it were legal.

  • Mongo||

    Yep ~ a couple of my junkie friends also enjoyed the feeling of the needle going into the skin.

  • Irish||

    If you read about heroin users, some people actually like the pinch of the needle.

    Of course, it's possible that's an acquired habit due to them associating that pinch with getting high. I do think there'd still be some people shooting up in a legal market though.

  • Pelosi's Rabbit||

    I guess I should rephrase. I'm sure some would, because people are people. I'd be surprised if they were a majority of opiate users, though.

  • SIV||

    When we had a legal, unrestricted market in opiates most people consumed it as laudanum or other tintures. A sizable minority injected morphine.

  • John||

    Unless you are just amazingly stupid and didn't get the memo that you lose your tolerance after kicking the stuff, prohibition is nearly always the reason why heroin users die. Most of them die from either taking heroin that is a lot more pure than they thought or contains some kind of fucked up chemical that kills them.

  • Zeb||

    The thing about opiates/opioids is that if it were legal for recreational use, it can be one of the less debilitating serious drug addictions. When you know the dose you are getting and don't have to use dirty equipment, it really does very little damage to your body even with long term use. Even now there are loads of addicts who manage to hold decent jobs and generally live their lives (as long as they have a regular supply). And if legal it would be quite inexpensive. Junkies still wouldn't be much fun to hang out with as they nod off, but most of the nastiness, disease and petty crime would disappear.

  • John||

    yes. People who were smart and watched their doses have been addicts for years while being very productive.

  • Pulseguy||

    A friend of mine owns a few drug stores, and his specialty is methadone sales in his drug stores. He and I were talking one day and a fairly well-known lawyer in town came into his drug store and walked over to the methadone counter, got served a little dixie cup of methadone and walked out. I was a little shocked and my buddy said 1/2 his clientele are clean cut and many are quite prosperous. I've also seen down and out types come in for it.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    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."

    Heroin arbitrage. Interesting...

  • Raston Bot||

    ^black-hearted capitalist profiteer!

    meant as a compliment.

  • John||

    It should never be forgotten that Prohibition in the 20s killed tens of thousands of people who unknowingly drank poisoned alcohol.

  • kinnath||

    I suppose I should read all the posts before I post something.

  • John||

    You said it better and it is always worth mentioning twice.

  • ||

    To prohibition it's that is a feature.

    Remember the anti-HPV vaccine people? One of their chief complaints was that teens, not having to fear cervical cancer, would start screwing like rabbits, a behavior for which they deserved a slow and excruciating death.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Heroin arbitrage.

    Exactly what I thought of.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Shooting heroin makes little baby Jesus cry.

    He cries out for VENGEANCE, and smites the junkie idolators.

  • John||

    He probably does. It is about the shittiest habit there is. But I missed the memo where Jesus said that rather than love your enemies, you must lock them in cages for decades so that you can save them.

  • ||

    Oat ; Here is some good news.

    Saw this story - http://www.reuters.com/article.....IA20130212

    Cyber security expert consulted on TV said this will get worse before better because a sea-change is needed in govt bureaucratic leadership which may take ten years.

    Has the leviathan reached the point of collapse due to it's own weight?

  • Pulseguy||

    I was in a local government office and saw a whiteboard with various references to public emergencies, and which of the staff were at the head of the earthquake committee, the tsunami committee, etc. It also listed Zombie Apocalypse committee, and Daywalker Vampire committee. I asked about regular nightwalker Vampires and they said they didn't think there was much they could do about that as they all get off work at 4:30. It was pretty funny actually.

  • ||

    Oat ; Here is some good news.

    Saw this story - http://www.reuters.com/article.....IA20130212

    Cyber security expert consulted on TV said this will get worse before better because a sea-change is needed in govt bureaucratic leadership which may take ten years.

    Has the leviathan reached the point of collapse due to it's own weight?

  • Floridian||

    I'm curious why they would mix fentanyl in with heroin. Fentanyl doesn't give you the same happy feeling as morphine or dilaudid. Plus it tends to cause more respiratory depression. Also fentanyl is a legal drug. I would think there would be more of a paper trail than buying strait heroin.

  • playa manhattan||

    Those patches "go missing" at the wholesale level. Not much of a paper trail.

  • Floridian||

    I guess they aren't as tightly regulated as the hospital. We have to account for every milliliter.

  • playa manhattan||

    I would figure that the only good place to score at a hospital is off of the UPS truck at the loading dock.

    When my wife got an epidural, the meds came out of an armored cart similar to a mobile ATM. I would assume that the security is even better for the drugs that people actually want to steal...

  • Floridian||

    The cart I use has a finger print scanner so no one can claim their password was stolen. It is still possible to divert drugs but is difficult to get away with it.

  • playa manhattan||

    My guess, and I say this without any data to back it up:
    Hospice care. After my aunt died of colon cancer, there were piles of dilaudid and other opiates lying around. A minimum wage employee could have quite a nice side business working at a place like that.

  • Floridian||

    That is surprising. Anesthesia does get a little more scrutiny because about 20 percent of anesthesia providers will abuse drugs at some point in their career.

  • Pelosi's Rabbit||

    After my aunt died of colon cancer, there were piles of dilaudid and other opiates lying around. A minimum wage employee could have quite a nice side business working at a place like that.

    I had an aunt (hospice nurse) that did jail time for taking some of those. You get caught eventually.

  • Pulseguy||

    Epidurals are a beautiful drug.

  • SIV||

    Fentanyl doesn't give you the same happy feeling as morphine or dilaudid.

    Yes it does

  • kinnath||

    During prohibition, the government required chemicals be added to ethanol destined for "industrial" purposes that would make it dangerous to drink. Black market distillers would the distill out most of the dangerous chemicals so that people could drink it. The government would change the mix of dangerous chemicals, and people would subsequently die from the resulting black market booze. This outcome was expected and was part of the enforcement regime in the war on alcohol.

  • John||

    They kept making it more and more deadly and killing more people as the distillers adjusted to the new poisons in it or just fucked up and didn't distill it properly.

    It was a calculated scheme of murder. They killed tens of thousands of people that way.

    Funny how that fact is always left out of the history of Prohibition. Prohibition didn't get repealed just because Al Capone and such. It wasn't the scourge of crime. It was mostly repealed because the American public grew tired of their government systematically murdering them.

  • kinnath||

    Alcohol taxes were one of the primary sources of income to the US before the income tax got rolling. So the repeal of prohibition had as much to do with generating revenue for the government as with public turning against prohibition.

    The people that run the war on drugs aren't as blatant about their desire to see drug users die from black market drugs, but there is certainly plenty of glee when ever a high profile person offs him/herself with drugs.

    Unfortunately, the general public doesn't see the direct connection between government prohibition and the poisoning of street drugs as clearly as during the war on alcohol.

  • John||

    There is so much cognitive dissonance. The drug warriors I know fall into two categories. The first are the "I hate drug users and don't care if they die" camp you describe. But the other is the "my (insert name of loved on here) was an addict and you just don't understand what poison drugs are and how we must keep it off the streets." It never occurs to the second group that the first group would gladly kill their addicted loved one they are so concerned about.

  • sarcasmic||

    I have yet to get a cogent response from a drug warrior when I ask for an argument to keep drugs illegal that couldn't be used as an argument to reinstate Prohibition.

    Yet they never connect the crime created by Prohibition to the crime created by the war on drug users.

  • Floridian||

    Be careful. I use to use the 1A to defend the 2A argument and now liberals no longer believe in the 1A. Keep at it and alcohol may become illegal again.

  • sarcasmic||

    Corporations aren't people!

  • John||

    All they have is "but drugs are different". I have cornered them any number of times with the point that lots of people abuse food to the point they end up with type II diabetes and therefore liberals have just as much point about banning transfats as drug warriors do about drugs. Their only response is "but I don't buy those analogies. Drugs make people irrational and classical liberalism is based on the assumption people are rational".

    They can't argue from any higher principle. They only say that drugs are of a special class and that prohibiting them is in no way an endorsement of prohibiting things liberals hate like big sodas and guns.

    They honestly believe that drugs are so different than any other substance on earth that the normal principle of self determination doesn't apply. But they really can't explain why drugs are different other than "well they are" or "but my brother was an addict..."

  • sarcasmic||

    They honestly believe that drugs are so different than any other substance on earth that the normal principle of self determination doesn't apply.

    Like liberals and guns.

  • Pelosi's Rabbit||

    Yet they never connect the crime created by Prohibition to the crime created by the war on drug users.

    My common bit of sarcasm is "If only there were some kind of real world example where prohibition of a substance caused violence which ended when the prohibition was repealed..."

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    I also find there are the ones that want drugs illegal because people on drugs are more likely to commit a crime (dubious claim) so we need drugs to be outlawed so to prevent those crimes.

    First, you must assume that people who are high are more likely to commit a crime, and second you have to assume making drugs illegal will stop people from getting high in the first place. Both assumptions are ridiculous.

    Drug warriors infuriate me more than most because they are so ignorant to the suffering prohibition causes without solving any of the health problems associated with drugs. And you almost cannot change their mind no matter how well you can argue that their entire premise for prohibition could easily be used on alcohol (like Sarcasmic said).

  • John||

    They are all that. What infuriates me most is that a lot of them are otherwise smart people who believe in big government and see the stupidity of most government efforts to solve social problems. But all of that generally reasonable thinking stops when it comes to drugs. They are completely irrational. There just isn't a rational case to be made for the drug war anymore. But they can't accept that and throw their reason out the window rather than give up on the drug war.

  • kinnath||

    Because our daughters might fuck the wrong people if they get their hands on drugs.

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    Legal alcohol definitely doesn't reduce inhibitions.

  • kinnath||

    Have some Madeira my dear

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrbAyHVVYgI

  • Pulseguy||

    They already do, of course. With, or without drugs.

  • Zeb||

    Some people on drugs are more likely to commit a crime because drugs are really expensive because of prohibition. It has nothing to do with the drugs themselves.

    Some drugs make some people more prone to violence. Alcohol is probably the worst there.

  • sarcasmic||

    Kinda like how most opiate pain killers have enough acetaminophen in them to cause liver damage if someone takes more than the prescribed amount.

  • Brett L||

    That hasn't changed. You're still required to either make commercial booze under the gaze of the ATF and fully comply with every idiotic regulation (like a bonded warehouse for ageing liquors) or denature. Either way, you better be able to prove every drop of ethanol is in one place or the other.

  • John||

    The big boys don't want to have to worry about competition from micro distillers like the big breweries have to worry about micro brewers.

  • sarcasmic||

    Big breweries don't worry about micro brewers. All of them together (that includes Sam Adams) are barely ten percent of total beer sales.

  • John||

    You don't think they wouldn't like to have that 10% back? What is 10% of beer sales? That is a lot of money. If they could buy enough Congress critters, they would get home brewing banned again in a minute.

  • sarcasmic||

    You just moved the goalposts. Whatever.

  • John||

    I didn't move anything you half wit. The distillers see the loss of brand loyalty and the competition that home brewing created for the big breweries and want nothing to do with it.

    No way will the big distillers ever agree to legalizing home distilling. That was my point. It isn't that the big beer companies can't survive. It is that they would if given the choice gladly go back to the days before home brewing. You know, when people thought mainstream American lagers were good beer because they didn't know any better.

  • sarcasmic||

    Do you really think the hipsters drinking the latest hopped-up ale are going to switch to Bud?

    Neither do the execs at InBev.

  • John||

    Do you really think the hipsters drinking the latest hopped-up ale are going to switch to Bud?

    Would such hipsters drinking over hopped beer even exist if home brewing had never been made legal? They would all still be drinking their Bud and Coors not knowing any different.

  • kinnath||

    Let someone else spend their dollars building a new market. Then come in a buy out the little business.

    The big brewers are making "craftish" type beers to chase the market that little guys labored so hard to develop.

    I don't think the big guys are really that worried about the little guys just yet.

  • John||

    That is not the point Kinnath. They are doing that because they have to. They would have much preferred home brewing never been legalized and those micro brew markets never developed. Then they wouldn't have had to even mess with buying them out.

  • sarcasmic||

    They would have much preferred home brewing never been legalized and those micro brew markets never developed.

    Goalposts go WHOOSH yet again. Way to Tulpafy the thread.

  • 110 Lean||

    Moving a discussion forward is not goalpost moving.

  • Raston Bot||

    Noooooooo not Coolidge!

    the administration of President Calvin Coolidge ordered industry to add higher levels of more difficult-to-remove poisons to their alcohol, including acetone, benzene, cadmium, camphor, carbolic acid, chloroform, ether, formaldehyde, gasoline, iodine, kerosene, methyl alcohol, mercury salts, nicotine, quinine and zinc. Shortly after the institution of this campaign, 31 people were poisoned to death over the course of the Christmas holiday in New York City alone. Historians estimate that a total of 10,000 people were killed by the program before Prohibition ended in 1933.

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    Heart broken.

  • Floridian||

    Why? Was it to prevent people from drinking too much?

  • Raston Bot||

    Punish the scofflaws.

  • Floridian||

    What is wrong with some people. I hate the collectivist philosophies but would never want to poison the followers. I just can't imagine wanting people dead other than self defense.

  • Brett L||

    People were stealing/buying ethanol manufactured for solvents and other purposes and selling it because ethanol for human consumption was illegal.

  • Paul.||

    Huh, Vermont has a heroin "crisis" going on, right now.

    “What started as an OxyContin and prescription-drug-addiction problem in Vermont has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis,” Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said in his State of the State address in January, which was primarily focused on the state’s drug epidemic.

    http://seattletimes.com/html/n.....inxml.html

  • John||

    But without prohibition, drug use would be rampant.

  • Brett L||

    Did someone disseminate the cold-water extraction technique?

  • Zeb||

    The more they try to stop diversion of pharmaceuticals, the higher the price gets and more users look for less expensive alternatives like heroin.

  • Dr. Frankenstien||

    If heroin was legalized I have a feeling most people would go for opium or other less concentrated forms. Just as people have a beer or a glass of wine after work and don't down 10 shots of everclear.

  • Brett L||

    I want a little laudanum now and then. Maybe a bourbon laudanum.

  • Dr. Frankenstien||

    Sure, papa needs a little helper too.

  • Floridian||

    I tried some kratom which is suppose to stimulate the same receptors as opiates and experienced crippling nausea and vomiting. If opiates were legal I would most likely avoid them.

  • playa manhattan||

    I tried it too, on the recommendation of somebody here. It's sitting gathering dust in the garage right now. Not my thing.

  • Floridian||

    Was it GBN?

  • playa manhattan||

    Yes. From Mu Synergetics.

  • Floridian||

    Me too. I appreciate his advice but I'm with you, not my thing.

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    I agree. A large amount of the people I will go out with on the weekends do illegal drugs socially. MDMA, marijuana, cocaine. None of them are addicts but enjoy doing some of these things socially on the weekend. It disgusts me that they are eligible to be thrown in jail for this.

    These substances being illegal doesn't stop them from attaining them with little effort. It is ridiculous to think that them being illegal has dried up supply what-so-ever.

  • the other other alan||

    I don't understand the 'reputation' argument. Even in a black market, wouldn't it be in the best interest of a producer to make quality drugs, and specifically brand it as such, so that the junkies/customers would seek out that brand next time? Why would the producers go out of there way to give multiple names to their products?

  • Floridian||

    I think with no legal way to prevent competitors from using your brand name there is no reason to build a brand name.

  • Brett L||

    Sure, but if there's no recourse to law for trading on someone else's reputation without their approval, you always get knockoffs. Think about all the cheap USB drives you see. Some people are willing to risk putting god-knows-what on their computers to save some money, some aren't. But if, in a legal market, the seller (a)claims the mantle of another company with a reputation for quality or (b)claims their own quality standards that are not in evidence then the buyer has some legal recourse.

    Also, if you had to dodge a network of well funded people seeking to destroy your trade network, branding can be a hindrance to that part.

  • 110 Lean||

    Thank G-d Lou Reed is still alive.

    Oh and this

  • creech||

    Bill O'Reilly is one of those who can't see the comparison to alcohol prohibition. You are a "pettifogger" if you try to make that argument. I know a number of quasi-libertarian types who don't care what a drug user does to himself but believe that legalization will cause more people to try drugs (because they aren't afraid of being locked up) and that will put even more drivers out on the roads who are zonked out and causing accidents which may hurt said quasi-libertarian.

  • Floridian||

    that will put even more drivers out on the roads who are zonked out and causing accidents which may hurt said quasi-libertarian.

    I can follow that line of thought but reject it for the same reason I reject limitations of gun ownership. Sure if there are more guns more people would have access to them to rob a bank, but having the gun is not the crime. The robbery is the crime.

  • lap83||

    In the scenario put forth by this article, does the FDA not exist? Because opiates are legal, just regulated.

  • thorax232||

    Black markets are only dangerous because they're black markets. Legalize.
    -----------------------
    Anarcho Capitalism

  • cheap soccer jerseys||

    Heroin arbitrage.
    Agree

  • spowell||

    1. Point of correction. The author states "The Times says a bag of heroin, which typically contains about 100 milligrams, "can sell for as little as $6 on the street. ...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."
    This cannot be calculated by math. Humans make this decision. It is like predicting a stock price, it is not entirely rational or logical.
    I have interviewed active heroin addicts thought the northeast for a documentary and they all are telling me the price is in fact $5-10 per bag.

    2. This is a circular and useless closing sentence "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." Otherwise be? Otherwise? Really? Heroin is and always has been dangerous.

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