Could Rising US Prescription Drug Abuse Create Market for Mexican Drug Gangs?

by Christopher Looft
InSight Crime

As cocaine use in the US falls, prescription drug abuse has been on the rise, a phenomenon that Mexican drug traffickers may seek to exploit in the future to offset losses from a dwindling cocaine market north of the border.

According to the most recent US National Survey on Drugs, released in September last year, since 2006, there has been a 39 percent drop in people aged 12 or above who regularly use cocaine. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2011 report (see pdf) observed a similar fall, estimating a drop of 37 percent in US cocaine consumption from a volume of 248 metric tons in 2006 to 157 in 2009.

Taken together, these numbers clearly indicate a downward trend in cocaine use in the US, suggesting that Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations — who are thought to be responsible for 95 percent of the US cocaine supply — are bringing less across the border.

Given that cocaine is estimated by some, like University of Maryland Public Policy Professor Peter Reuter, to be the top source of income for Mexican drug gangs, this trend could have significant financial implications for the groups.

However, there could be a new market opening up for these drug gangs. While cocaine use has been falling steadily, prescription drug abuse in the US has picked up, according to a New York Times report. A US Senate report released in June found similarly, declaring that prescription drugs are the second most common form of drug abuse in the US.

This rise in prescription drug abuse could potentially offset the decline in the illicit drug economy being felt by cocaine traffickers, as drug trafficking organizations move in to what is an increasingly lucrative industry. For example, according to the report by the New York Times, one health care consulting company estimated that $8.5 billion in prescription painkillers were sold in 2011, compared to $4.4 billion in 2001.

It is important to note that the differing trajectories of cocaine and prescription drug use does not mean drug users are simply switching from one to the other. Despite the potential for prescription drugs to fill the void left by cocaine from a economic standpoint, both Reuter and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) denied a connection between the users leaving the ranks of regular cocaine consumers and those now abusing prescription drugs.

“The populations look fairly different. Prescription drug abuse is very broadly spread. Cocaine use is much narrower in terms of demographics,” Reuter explained.

According to Reuter, it’s likely that drug gangs could offset the loss of income from illicit drugs by exploiting people’s reliance on prescription narcotics, particularly if the US begins to clamp down on it.

“Let’s say the US figured out a way of tightening up domestic control of prescription drugs that have become widely abused, like Oxycontin. Then, I think, you have to worry about foreign, particularly Mexican, trafficking organizations filling the niche,” he explained. “Controls are going to be less tight in Mexico, just as they are with the precursor [chemicals for] methamphetamine. The precursors are tightly controlled [in the US], so they have carried the market to Mexico.”

That niche, however, has not been filled by the Mexicans yet, according to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokeswoman Barbara Carreno. But, she added, some other groups have made the leap into the new market.

“A lot of the ‘pill mills’ that we shut down in Southern Florida were run by criminals that used to run heroin and cocaine that moved into prescription drugs when they saw an opportunity,” she said.

“Pill mills” are clinics staffed by doctors willing to dispense prescription drugs like Oxycontin to buyers who would then resell the drugs on the street.

As an example, Carreno cited the case of Vincent Colangelo, arrested in Florida in February 2011 and sentenced in June 2012. He was a convicted felon and former heroin and cocaine trafficker, arrested for running a chain of pill mills.

US authorities are indeed beginning to take note of the rise in illegal prescription drug operations. Florida, for example, is a top state for pill mills, like those run by Colangelo, due to its lax regulations, though the state recently amended its laws. This prompted many pill mill operations to move to Georgia, Carreno said. She likened the phenomenon to cockroaches running into a dimly lit room when lights are turned on in another.

“Most states”, Carreno added, “now have prescription drug monitoring systems.”

The original appeared in InSight Crime.

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