The black market’s best friend is the state. And thanks to the criminalization of substances such as heroin, West Virginia is seeing a horrific spike in the number of fentanyl-related deaths.
But while law enforcement officials struggle to come up with new ways to halt the illegal trade, they remain hopelessly clueless as to how this rise came about.
In a report from West Virginia University School of Public Health, epidemiologist Gordon Smith argues that illegal fentanyl imports from China are partly to blame for the 122% rise in related deaths between 2015 and 2017. Prior to the introduction of the substances coming from China, Smith explained, former prescription drug users were getting heroin and other opioids from gangs selling products coming into the country from Mexico.
As clandestine laboratories proliferated across China, fentanyl became widely available.
According to Smith, these clandestine drug producers are always “one step ahead of drug-enforcement agencies,” making it difficult for officials to keep track. But that’s not because these particular lawbreakers are better at selling drugs in the black market. Instead, when law enforcement puts a drug dealer in jail, another one takes his place.
Enabled by an environment that makes selling certain substances illegal, these dealers have no incentive to provide quality products to their consumers. And because users have few options, they end up buying stronger doses or substances that are mixed with other more potent drugs such as carfentanil.
Because both carfentanil and fentanyl are stronger than morphine and heroin, dealers only need small amounts of the drug. So importing the substances is as easy as sending an envelope in the mail. Needless to say, dealers are exploiting their options, even if that involves putting lives in danger because of the drug’s potency.
But perhaps what’s more heartbreaking is that while the rise in fentanyl-related deaths in West Virginia is terrifyingly high, it is part of a countrywide trend. And one that wouldn’t exist without the drug war.
Blame the Government — and Crony Capitalism
When it comes to the drug war, it’s easy to simply blame any crisis on prohibition alone. However, when it comes to the epidemic directly related to prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, government isn’t the only culprit.
In the mid-1990s, the U.S. government granted Purdue Pharma a 17-year patent on OcyContin, making the company the only supplier of the potent painkiller in the United States. The drug, which is addictive and deadly, was then added to the list of medications covered by Medicaid and Social Security Disability Insurance, protecting Purdue Pharma’s profits and endangering countless patients.
Additionally, the government moved several opioid painkillers to Schedule 2, forcing doctors to prescribe 30-day supplies of the drug instead of just what was needed. This made addiction more likely as patients would be exposed to the drug for longer than needed. And because medical marijuana was not an option, there were few alternatives to the top painkiller in the market.
As the government tied Medicaid funds to performance, penalizing institutions that got poor reviews on pain treatment, hospitals and doctors had enough incentives to treat opioids like aspirin.
In time, patients who could no longer rely on prescriptions ended up going to the black market for painkillers such as heroin. But as the demand for heroin grew, so did the spread of similar, but stronger, drugs. That’s how West Virginia became one of the hardest-hit states.
If law enforcement agencies trying to deal with this crisis were truly worried about people’s safety, they should look at rolling back the war on drugs. More specifically, they would be lobbying the federal government to put an end to similar deals between the state and pharmaceutical companies.
The greater the regulatory burden, the easier it is for a company to explore it in order to boost its bottom line. And as we’ve learned from this mess, we simply cannot rely on the government to keep an eye on itself.