Xalisco black tar: old drug, new distribution mechanism

Sam Quinones, in a well-reported series in the LA Times, sounds the alarm about a new style of heroin dealing.

Finding the New Drug Menace has been a staple of American journalism for decades now, and the law-enforcement side of the drug war is always happy to help promote the latest threat. So any particular example of the genre should be taken with more than one grain of salt.

That said, Sam Quinones of the LA Times, in a three-part series, paints a convincing portrait of a new style of retail heroin dealing aimed outside the urban minority neighborhoods where heroin has long been prevalent. Quinones identifies the new style – based on aggressive marketing and retail delivery, rather than the more traditional waiting around for customers to show up – with expatriates from the small municipality of Xalisco, on the southeast coast of the Gulf of California. He reports that the distribution networks are fluid and competitive rather than centralized, and that the new style does far less collateral damage – in particular, generates far less violence – than traditional street-corner dealing.

Quinones provides some information about prices: 100 milligrams for as little as $12.50. That’s not very helpful without some quantitative information about purity, but the story asserts that the black tar is more potent than heroin from Colombia. The most recent official figures I can find (from 2006) show average purity levels of about one-third. If the Xalisco product that sells at $15.50 per 100 mg. were 50% pure, the price-per-pure-milligram would be a modest 25 cents. For a naive user, 5 mg. of pure heroin would be ample, suggesting that the heroin experience is now available for about the price of a candy bar.

Heroin prices have been at historically low levels for more than two decades now, and so far predictions – including mine – of a new heroin epidemic resulting from those lower prices have not come true. But the Xalisco operation as described greatly changes the terms on which heroin is available; that could prove more important than price. The availability of high-dose oxycodone (in the form of Oxycontin) allowed the growth of opiate addiction in areas – parts of Appalachia, for example – were that problem had been very rare, and Quinones reports that Xalisco black tar is being marked in some of those same areas as a cheaper substitute. (Oxycodone, which has somewhere between one-half and one-quarter the potency of heroin, trades on illicit markets for around $1 per milligram, suggesting that Xalisco black tar enjoys something like a tenfold potency-adjusted price advantage.)

Quinones supplies some local overdose and treatment-entry data suggesting local upsurges in the consequences of heroin use. That’s not enough to demonstrate that the next heroin epidemic has begun. But it’s more than enough to worry about. What form that worry should take is less clear; this sort of dealing will not be easily broken up by enforcement activity.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

5 thoughts on “Xalisco black tar: old drug, new distribution mechanism”

  1. I'd be interested to hear what more you have to say about this "home-delivery" dealing, beyond it's direct effects on customers (both current and potential). That is, it would seem to have far less of a blighting effect on communities, contra the open air drug markets you've written about previously.

  2. Gosh – a good opportunity to say "Hey, you know what, rather than continuing to push the mutuation of drugs to ever more potent, cheaper forms — which is all we've ever accomplished with our prohibitionist/law enforcement approach, how about we shift to a harm reduction strategy and stop trying to deal with medical/addiction issues with police."

    I'd like a pony too.

  3. We know exactly how this new market will be handled (but not eliminated). Increasing raids, arrests, and penalties on users and a general rise in intrusiveness by the police. The public will demand it and law enforcement will promise them the only solution is to go after anyone the market has come in contact with.

  4. How does a drug market like this intersect with the selected enforcement techniques Mr Kleinman has discussed.

    For creating a safe community, would the strategy be to crack down first on the most violent and dangerous criminal endeavors?

    Or to go after those most brazenly violating laws, such as structured markets like 'Xalisco black tar'

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