Mexican Heroin Bust Of $50 Million A Record For NY, But Does It Make A Difference?

Powdered heroin is pictured in this undated handout photo courtesy of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. DEA/Handout via Reuters

The DEA just announced the seizure of heroin, weapons, and cash as well as the arrest of two suspected drug smugglers. The drugs were hidden in compartments of a Chevrolet Suburban. More drugs, along with weapons and $2 million in cash were found nearby. It's the largest NY drug bust on record and the fourth largest in U.S. history. The operation followed months of work by the agency including extensive wiretapping of suspected cartel members. In a statement, the DEA and Department of Homeland Investigations (DHI) celebrated the bust, saying that the seizure would help clean up communities across the Northeast.

“These millions of doses of heroin and millions of dollars represent much more than just a seizure. They represent violence, overdoses, crime, death and the suffering of our communities,” said Raymond R. Parmer Jr., a top DHS agent New York. “DHI and our federal, state and local law enforcement partners are determined to put an end to the heroin epidemic plaguing our neighborhoods.”

Officials say that removing the drugs could have significant effects on regional supply, as the bags were likely bound for Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Upstate New York. By taking those drugs out of circulation, they are preventing them from reaching the hands of old and new users. Critics argue that the DEA’s statistics are misleading and their actions insignificant in the greater War on Drugs.

“It's simply fanciful to imagine that this seizure will have any significant impact on the availability or abuse of heroin in New York or anywhere else,” said Sean Dungan, a former DEA intelligence analyst. “The seizure weighed in at 70 kilograms. In 2013, a total of 4,750 kilograms of heroin were seized in the U.S. There was certainly no scarcity of the drug in 2013 -- a year in which the number of reported heroin users in the country rose.”

Do major drug busts really make a difference for communities? It’s might come down to how you look at the numbers. Take the numbers on the quantity of drugs seized. Law enforcement agencies like the DEA tend to report them in terms of raw numbers, but rarely cite percentages or other statistics that could give the public an idea of how drug availability is being affected. Here’s another example from the DEA statement release the press

"To put it in perspective, this load was so large it carried the potential of supplying a dose of heroin to every man, woman and child in New York City," Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan said.

That’s a lot of heroin for the average person to picture. But to put Brennan’s statistic into perspective, the 70 kilos is only 0.04 percent of America’s national heroine consumption, or 17.6 percent of daily consumption, using figures from 2010. The recent DEA bust could hypothetically raise prices for a while and actually prevent some New Englanders from consuming heroin, or at least consuming as much. Yet this week’s seizure was reportedly uncut, pure heroin. It had yet to be bagged with additives.

While the cost of heroin has stayed pretty stable ($10 per bag in New York, and up to 40 in other parts of New England) since the 1990s, purity is down. That’s not because the drugs are getting weaker, but because they’re being cut by cheaper, stronger additives. Fluctuation in supply chains, and by extension purity increase overdoses. In fact, overdoses are often a signal for users.

"When someone knows that there are heroin bags that are killing people or making them overdose, then we know that those are the good bags," a 19-year-old recovering heroin addict named Andrew told CNN. "That's the sick thing about addiction."

The DEA statement released another startling fact: the group that was moving the drugs had been receiving similar quantities of drugs for months. While it’s yet to be seen how this bust affects supply, past seizures haven’t shown results. New York State data from 1995 to 2008 didn’t show a single significant dip and, according to a government report “do not support a decrease in price for heroin, but rather points to relative stability followed by a recent increase in price.”

Constructive Criticism

“The problem with law enforcement officials' disingenuous claims that seizures like this one will have an impact on the problem of heroin abuse is that they promote the false hope that arresting more people and seizing more drugs will somehow make the problem better,” said Dungan. “History shows that to be a demonstrably false claim [....] Statistically insignificant seizures are not a serious path to addressing the challenges of drug abuse and addiction.”

Dungan, the former DEA analyst is now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of former cops whose experiences in counter-narcotics and prosecution led them to advocate against prohibition. He advocates major changes to the way that the U.S. fights crime and drug addiction.

“For decades, we've been trying to solve the drug problem with a law enforcement focus [....] Drug abuse isn't a criminal justice problem but a public health problem. If we're serious about solving it, we need to reallocate the billions of dollars we spend on arrests, incarceration, and interdiction to strategies [...] that actually help to save lives-- harm reduction initiatives, treatment, honest educational programs [etc].”

Dungan believes that the public should be wary of hyperbolic headlines inspired by big busts. He points out that the retail value of the heroin seized is only $4.2 million. The DEA could only arrive at the $50 million by calculating potential retail profits of pure heroin cut into packets and sold to individual users. In reality, it’s a loss of potential profit, and doesn’t include business costs, including those that go to legal enterprises. 

“I mention this only to point out that a great deal of sophistry is always employed when DEA agents and other law enforcement officials tout the economic significance of a drug seizure. No cartel or ‘kingpin’ took a $50 million hit.”

What do you think?