Four years ago, heroin accounted for 80% of the opioid seizures at the Mexico/U.S. border; as of 2022, it now accounts for only 7%. What has replaced the opioid seizures? If you have read my previous blog posts, you know the answer is fentanyl. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, fentanyl seizures at our southern border tripled (by weight) from 2021 to 2022. It may be surprising to learn that 20% of those fentanyl seizures were found on pedestrians crossing the border, often secreted on or inside the pedestrian’s body. Considering how potent the drug is, it is perhaps not all that surprising as a small amount can go a long way.  The majority of Fentanyl seizures are in the form of pills or tablets. In the U.S. the number of people who fatally overdose on fentanyl is seven times higher than for that of heroin. Between 2015-2022, 325,000 individuals had died from a fentanyl overdose.

The fentanyl trade has been devastating to both the U.S. and Mexico. In my previous blog, I discussed how fentanyl has supplanted the heroin production in Mexico. While nobody should be crying over less heroin production, the truth is, fentanyl is far more deadly and dangerous and the end of heroin production in Mexico has displaced subsistence farmers who once tended the poppy fields and has made the cartels even stronger.

Heroin addiction has historically accounted for the majority of opioid addictions in the U.S., but  that is no longer true. In the 1990’s until around 2010, when regulators cracked down, Americans were prescribed – and got hooked on – painkillers such as Oxycontin. When those prescriptions became harder to come by, the hundreds of thousands of addicts turned to heroin.  The docudrama series “Dopesick” dramatizes this trajectory. The series depicts how individuals suffering from chronic pain eventually became opioid addicts. Opioids affect the brain processes-rewiring the circuity so to speak-and any attempt to withdraw from use of the drug results in intense physical and psychological symptoms. Thus, many who got addicted to prescription opioids but found in the late 2000’s, when those opioids came under scrutiny and tight regulation, that their doctor could no longer fill the prescriptions they needed, turned to heroin. A former DEA agent told a Reuters reporter that prescription opioid painkillers created the market that moved from heroin and now to fentanyl.

The demand for an alternative to prescription opioids boosted the heroin poppy production in Mexico, which became a primary business of the drug cartels. But beginning in 2014, China began flooding the market with fentanyl, which was often cut with heroin or sold as heroin. In 2019, under pressure from the U.S., the China source was stymied. The Mexican cartels quickly took up the slack. The transition from heroin to fentanyl was a function of easier production and transport along with greater and easier profits.

Now customs agents say heroin has almost disappeared, but fentanyl has flooded the U.S. markets. Authorities in Mexico and the U.S. can’t keep up as the cartels come up with ever innovative production and distribution methods. As one professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City put it: “Fentanyl is a game changer.”

Opioid addicts often will do anything to get their drug. This leads to petty crimes such as shoplifting and trading in stolen property to finance the addiction. The California legislature has  recognized that such crimes are fueled by addiction and has instituted innovative alternatives to incarceration. There are collaborative courts that offer the drug user a chance at rehabilitation in lieu of a criminal sentence. There are also drug court programs and other diversionary sentencing schemes. If you have been charged with a drug crime or a crime related to drug addiction, your criminal defense attorney can guide you through the alternatives to criminal court and sentencing for which you may be eligible.

Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg offers a complimentary consultation where he will review your matter and offer his opinion as to your options. He may be contacted at his Irvine office by calling 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at bill@williamweinberg.com.