Today’s scare story about Afghan heroin in the LA Times — planted by some staffer for Diane Feinstein, the Queen of the Camera Hogs — is much ado about what’s really only a little bit of news. In LA County, heroin overdoses are up because purer Afghan stuff is coming in; elsewhere in the country, heroin overdoses are up because the stuff is being spiked with fentanyl. The problem of higher purity is mostly transitional; in steady-state, the risk of an overdose is higher with lower purity, because the chance of a big upside surprise is greater. Someone expecting 10% purity who gets 20% instead might die; someone expecting 80% purity is unlikely to suffer any ill effect if he gets 99% instead. Fentanyl is about five times the potency of heroin, creating enormous overdose risks; given a choice, I’d rather have pure heroin on the street than heroin/fentanyl mixtures.
The reporter places no emphasis on the most astonishing (if true) fact in the story: grams of highly pure Afghan heroin are now trading at $90 in LA. That’s about a dime per pure milligram, compared with $2.50 a pure milligram in New York during the “French Connection” days. For a naive user, 5mg of heroin is a hefty dose, so your first heroin experience is now available for less than the price of a candy bar.
Ain’t competition grand? No doubt Los Angeles heroin treatment centers are bracing for flood of new clients.
The price of having a heroin habit, by contrast, doesn’t go down much. Opiate tolerance is virtually complete, so in the medium term an addict’s consumption is limited only by his ability to find cash; the cheaper the stuff gets, the more he uses, without getting any more pleasure out of it once his receptors have adapted.
The good news is that the collapse from $2.50 to 50 cents seems to have had only a fairly modest impact on the number of new heroin users; that, like the price collapse itself, is not what I would have predicted based on simple microeconomics. Maybe this further decrease also won’t matter much. But I’m still nervous: not so much about inner-city kids, who have lots of vicarious bad experience with heroin addiction, but about suburbanites. Fortunately, opiate addiction is much more treatable (using substitution therapies such as methadone and buprenorphine) than cocaine or methamphetamine addiction.
Footnote Heroin, even more than cocaine, illustrates the near-futility of trying to use drug law enforcement to control drug abuse once a drug has found a mass market. Prices have been dropping (about 80% in inflation-adjusted terms for cocaine, much more than that for heroin) even as the number of dealers going to prison has soared.