Increased/Deadly Potency in Heroin Markets due to Fentanyl

The Boston Globe put out a piece yesterday entitled “DEA details path of deadly heroin blend to N.E.: Potent painkiller fentanyl believed added in Mexico.”

This headline could not be more representative of the problems Dr. Mark Thornton mentions in his book The Economics of Prohibition. To summarize Thornton:

“Prohibition statutes generally consist of three parts. First, to be illegal, products must contain a minimum amount of a certain drug… Second, penalties are generally levied on the basis of weight… Finally, penalties are established for production, distribution, and possession. The prohibition statutes consistently define the product in terms of minimum potency (without constraining the maximum). Also, the heavier the shipment, the more severe the penalty.” (Thornton, 1991, p. 96).

Therefore distributors and traffickers (the Mexican drug cartels moving the heroin that originated in Colombia to the U.S.) have every incentive, in order to avoid detection but keep revenue high, to increase the potency of the drugs they are moving such that they can move the same value of heroin but in a smaller quantity. This is what we see currently happening with Mexican cartels mixing heroin with fentanyl.

From the Boston Globe article, “Ruthless drug organizations are including fentanyl, an opioid 30 times more powerful than heroin, to provide a new, extreme high for addicts who often are unaware the synthetic painkiller has been added.” The final point of this quote is critical. There is a huge information asymmetry between traffickers and the end consumer. Because drugs often change many hands before they reach the final user, quality standards are hard to track and verify. Furthermore, end users have minimal recourse to deal with issues of product contamination or inferior quality. They cannot sue their dealer. They cannot take anyone to court. Therefore, as a direct result of the illegal status of heroin trade, consumers have very few rights and outlets to verify that their product contains what they were expecting. While many people want to point out the Mexican cartels as the villains (and they may very well be on other margins like the relentless killing that is going on as we speak) in this scenario, these cartels are only responding to the incentives set in front of them. If we want to take issue with anyone, we need to look at the laws that have been in place since 1924, and even back to 1914. Since then, these laws have only gotten more restrictive and deadlier to everyone involved in illicit drug trade.

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