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.