Inconsistencies in the Heroin Narrative

Poppy

If the major news channels are your only source for news, you would think that all bad things come from the southern United States border.  President Trump’s comments have created a frenzy of anti-Mexican sentiment among a constituency eager to place blame on immigrants, liberals and anyone with a differing opinion.

But is this sentiment accurate?  Is Mexico really responsible for the recently acknowledged Opium Epidemic? 

Most of the articles these days claim that Heroin in the United States comes exclusively from Mexico.  The quote from Trumps short statement about the Heroin crisis conservatively claims over 90% of the US heroin supply comes from Mexico.   Both estimates are absurd. CNN isn’t the only one making these claims:

United States journalists have even dubbed the Mexican cultivation area as the “Golden Triangle”, a nod to the now-infamous growing-region of Southeast Asia that dominated the 1960s supply of Heroin.

 

Mexico’s “Golden Triangle” region contains more than 9 million hectares of sparsely-populated land and actually has decent conditions for opium poppy plants to thrive.

It seems, though, that there really is not that much production to be found in Mexico.

The mainstream media narrative is that Mexico supplies the United States’ illicit opioid industry, which is one of the largest markets in the world. Government officials have claimed for a long time that no opium poppy products from Afghanistan supply the US markets, but is this really feasible?

A lot of drug trafficking stories will use seizure statistics to estimate illegal narcotics flows, but this methodology cannot be considered accurate due to corruption and selectively monitored drug trafficking laws applied to various land, air and sea trade routes into the United States. Seizure statistics only show a small percentage of total drug flows to begin with, but when large-scale trafficking organizations and cartels are given preferential treatment, drug busts of small narcotics actors can hardly summarize market conditions. One aspect that those in the plant-based drug supply chain just cannot obscure is their cultivation efforts.  Opium, like cocaine’s coca, takes large acreages of farms to produce at scale.  Measuring regional and farm-gate crop yield along with the total area dedicated to cultivation is really the only way to get an accurate estimate of local, regional and global production. (A third statistic used to estimate drug supply can be health indicators; like drug-related deaths, drug-related hospital treatments and treatment data – but we won’t be using those aside from touching on regional threat assessments due to the variables and availability of those numbers)

One of the world’s leading illicit drug monitoring organizations, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) tends to agree and they use this cultivation methodology (in part) to release detailed cultivation statistics from Afghanistan throughout the year.  From this report, an astounding amount of information can be obtained, down to the changes in year-over-year farming area in particular towns.

 

You can see how much we already know about what’s growing in Afghanistan from this report.  The entire 2017 UNODC Afghanistan Opium Survey can be found at following LINK

Despite UNODC beginning their monitoring work in Mexico in April 2017, very little official data has come out of Mexico, but we have estimates from the Mexican Government to work with.

Despite being able to supply the one of the world’s LARGEST heroin consumers, Mexico produces a rather modest amount of opium poppy.

Mexican Cultivation levels cannot support the US Market

Mexico only produced 14,000 hectares in 2013 and 28,000 hectares in 2015. A hectare is equal to 2.47 acres or 1000 square meters.

Compare Mexico’s 28,000 hectares with what Afghanistan produces. Afghanistan has cultivated at least 54,000 hectares of opium poppy every year since 1994 (except one year where the Taliban had complete control of the country) and an average of 173,000 hectares since 2004, peaking this year at 328,000 hectares. Only a few years ago, every news source in the world ran a headline proclaiming that Afghanistan produced 93% of the worlds opium.  It was true then and not too much has changed.  Southeast Asian producers have increased their cultivation, as has Mexico.  Some “alt-news” styled organizations will come close to admitting that opium products from Afghanistan do reach the US soil, but stop short of saying how much exactly.

The following charts from various sources should illuminate the disparity in opium production.

When 2005 rolled around, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were looking pretty grim. Little substantive progress was being made, no end was in sight.  In addition to the chaos of war, the United States had another major problem: Opium production in Afghanistan. New record highs of 131,000 and 165,000 hectares seemed like a high water mark, but then, by 2007, cultivation area in Afghanistan had bulged to and unbelievable 193,000 hectares, a record level.

Looking at the above chart from the 2017 UNODC Afghan Survey, 2007 seems like a slow and halcyon time in poppy cultivation. 2017 proved to be not only a record year, but a year in which overall cultivation exploded to over 328,000 hectares.

Southeast Asia has slowly increased production since their lows of 20,000 hectares in 2006, but it still contributing relatively little at (58,000 hectares) when compared to Afghanistan.  These days, this region, specifically Myanmar, seems to be the exclusive Heroin producer for China.

Mexico, on the other hand, produces far less than either of these other regions.  Though the chart below is outdated, the small yellow sections of each bar should give the reader an indication of how little Mexico contributes to the overall picture of Heroin in the global market.

It’s true that Mexican farmers and Mexican cartels are opportunists. In the decade between 2000 and 2010, Mexico produced mostly low-grade versions of Heroin. As the US market for high-end, prescription painkillers turned into a market for heroin, the Mexican government started seeing an uptick in cultivation, seizures and precursors. In fact, it was rumored in the period between 2013 and 2015 that the cartels contracted personnel from overseas who were familiar with the farming and laboratory processes to grow, refine and produce higher grades of heroin.

It seems that the cartels took the exact model that Afghanistan is using and reproduced it here to meet market demand for volume and type of heroin.  The period after the year 2010 saw a dramatic increase in opioid prescription pill addicts looking for an alternative once their doctor-facilitated medication ran out. Heroin is what they found. Of course, they were accustomed to Pharmaceutical grade opiates. Low grade Mexican black-tar and brown Heroin would not suffice.

Differing types of Heroin, Production & Yield

We can see that Mexico may have gone through a shift in production, where their product became more like what was coming from overseas – a highly refined, high purity product (probably in the 50-70%+ pure range).

But the fact remains that Mexico’s limited cultivation area combined with aggressive eradication efforts in the nascent years of the Mexican production evolution (2013-2015) surely could not supply the world’s 3rd largest heroin market.  As stated above, the Mexican Army eradicated 26,000 of the 28,000 hectares under cultivation in 2015.  We can combine this with seizure numbers for a further idea of how much of Mexico’s 2015 crop was wiped out before it even hit the streets.

While production doubled from 2013-2015, we only see a 20% increase on the two most popular cross-border routes.  Two other routes that saw a large increase did not really show a dramatically high total seizure level.  In fact, the total weight of heroin seized at the Southern border in 2015 was only 2,120 kilograms.   Of course, seizures are not an accurate representation of total drug trafficking volume, but we would expect to see a larger increase in cross-border seizures with cultivation area (and hence production capacity) doubling in Mexico.

Assuming Mexico continued to double their total area under cultivation every two years, 2017 would have seen a paltry total of 56,000 hectares of land producing opium poppy (about 272,000 hectares less than Afghanistan).

With Mexican Trans-national Crime Organizations (TCOs) improving their cultivation and production capabilities, one would assume they also improve their yield. The latest numbers we have to work with are from 2015 UNODC report. Afghanistan’s 2017 harvest produced an impressive yield of about 27kg of opium per hectare. 2015’s Afghan crop of 183,000 hectares yielded 4,800 tons of raw opium (4,354,487 kilograms), which is about 23.79kg per hectare. Afghanistan clearly has the formula down.

Mexico, on the other hand, had the estimated production capacity of about 499 tons of raw opium from 28,000 hectares in 2015. This is a potential 452,685 kilograms of raw opium, which is a yield of 16.16 kg per hectare. This yield is up only slightly from their 2013 yield of 14.5 kg/hectare. Of course, this is just an estimate, but we can see that Mexicos production quality does not quite compare to Afghan quality. So how did they dominate a market in 2015 to which they supplied so little product?

92% of their known fields were eradicated, leaving about 37,000 kilograms of raw opium to convert into heroin.  Assuming Mexican labs can match their Afghan counterparts, they will yield about a 34% laboratory efficiency and a opium/heroin conversion ratio of 18.5:1.  This would result in approximately 2000 kilograms (2.2 tons) of heroin, almost the exact amount claimed to have been seized at the border.

The estimate we just calculated from cultivation area, yield and efficiency equaling 2.2 tons is a far-cry from the 70 tons (63,000kg) of heroin the aforementioned Reuters story claimed Mexico produced in 2015.  2.2 tons doesn’t even begin to touch the 50+ ton US market demand.

As data becomes more readily available, we’ll get a better look at what exactly is happening inside Mexico.  For now, it’s all a little too neat and tidy, with production and eradication/interdiction numbers aligning pretty well.

Surely, there are unreported opium farms, heroin crossing the border undetected and product arriving to market untouched. But can the heroin that somehow is omitted from all these reports really amount to that much? How many more hectares are being farmed? How many more kilograms cross the border?

Even if the UNODC report underestimated cultivation by half, and eradication was only focused on known farms, the resulting crop would amount to about 26,000 kilograms (28 tons) compared to Afghanistan’s 235,377 kilogram (260 tons) production capacity that same year (2015).  Still not enough to meet even half of the US market demand.

Ignoring Afghanistan Won’t Fix the Problem

There was a time when journalists were starting to admit this fact, but the story quickly went away in favor of shifting blame to a country which the United States didn’t just have near-complete control of, like they do withAfghanistan.

But the vast majority of mainstream news tend to skew towards the US Government & DEA Narrative that the drugs are coming from Mexico. Are they?

Well, sure!  Methamphetamine, Cocaine and other various drugs – including Heroin. But NOT in the quantities the Government would like you to believe.

The above chart shows that in 2015, total seizures for Latin-American produced heroin is approximately 8,700kg where Southeast Asian heroin totaled about 13,500kg.  Yet, in the below chart, we can already see some disparities in seizure reporting. The same product that totaled 13,500 when compared to Mexican heroin totals nearly double when shown by itself.  The below 2015 numbers show over 53,000kg in seizures of ONLY heroin in Pakistan, Iran, China, Turkey, Afghanistan and Russia alone.

From the seizure chart in Figure 3 above, we can already see that the production in the Asian region is far more aggressive and global than the Mexican regions paltry production and distribution.  One would think the Mexico is the natural source for the US heroin market since they are literally right next door, but the black market doesn’t really follow logic – it follows money.

For a long time, Canada has seen Afghan imports, even before the switch to the refined “white” heroin produced today.  As noted above, the trade routes for illicit materials have long been established over land and sea, and the Pacific ocean is no exception.  Tons of illegal shipments blend into the sheer magnitude of goods coming from Asia each and every day.

The routes shown in the official UNODC map highlight the two most likely paths Afghan heroin takes to the United States.  The first is a bit more circuitous, but may escape scrutiny.  The route runs out of the ports of Pakistan into South Eastern Africa, then across the continent to major drug transshipment points on the coast of West Africa, like Lagos, Nigeria. From there, they follow the reverse routes to South America that cocaine takes toward West Africa.

The second, more common route, is the one you can see transiting the Pacific & Atlantic Oceans to Canada.  This is the same route taken by precursor chemicals, Asian amphetamines like Ecstasy and the new Heroin booster, Fentanyl. It would seem that the wide-open spaces of the Canadian provinces is a bit more forgiving than American highways, where even some Americans cannot travel freely (LOL). Evidence of this movement could be see for many years in news reports about the heroin epidemic, starting first in the northern US states like New Hampshire, Minnesota and the like.  It took quite a few years, but southern, border states are just now starting to feel the effects of the Heroin epidemic.

 

When we look at the National Drug Threat Survey, which shows the yearly Heroin threat levels by region, it is clear which states were impacted by heroin the earliest – the Northern states.

It’s strange that despite the evidence suggesting heroin flows from Afghanistan into the US, there is no admission of this flow. Instead they look towards the southern border.  And when there is an admission about Northern border security and a bi-directional drug flow, Afghan heroin is not mentioned. If Mexican & Latin American heroin is impacting the entire United States, why then don’t we see Mexican heroin crossing the border into Canada like we do with cocaine and methamphetamine?

Could Afghan heroin exclusively supply the Canadian market and not the United States market? Not likely. Perhaps, again, the US is not ready to admit it’s part in creating this Global epidemic – invading and further destabilizing Afghanistan, reverting it back to a major narcotics producer only years after the Taliban had completely eradicated opium crops.

The past administrations of Bush and Obama have had a hard enough time admitting there was a problem, let alone actually doing anything about it. Trump finally decided to announce a national heath epidemic in October 2017, but this could just be a move to abuse national emergency powers and further vilify the US’s neighbors to the south, Mexico.

Vilifying Mexico Won’t Fix the Problem

Whether there is a torrent or a trickle from Afghanistan, the problem needs to be addressed. Just “building a wall” at the Southern border won’t work. There are too many ways around it.  To not acknowledge all the possible smuggling routes is foolish and short sighted and it would seem that the current agenda from the White House has more to do with nativism and disdain for immigrants than it has to do with common sense drug policy.

A renewed focus on the Southern border (2,000 miles) will surely dump resources and personnel on that region, but then what happens to the Northern border (5,500 miles) which already has 10x less resources?  It definitely also has less volume, but traffickers tend to go to the point of least resistance…which is and always has been the US/Canada border, a relative smugglers haven.

 

It’s laughable the our Presidents flash their administrations drug-war credentials as they announce programs and make edicts from their podiums, yet, it is clear that they do not even have the basic facts regarding our own borders. Because of this, we should not be surprised that they are so wrong about less ‘illuminated’ lands like Mexico and Afghanistan.

US leader are well aware that fields of poppy plants are enriching the same terror groups they claim to have defeated over the last 15 years. Organized crime is becoming more globally intertwined and drugs are only a small portion of their illicit repertoire, but they are likely the most profitable. With heroin being on the top of the profit & danger pyramids, you would think there would be more urgency to solve this problem on a global level instead of using it as a tool to accomplish pointless party agendas.

But this isn’t necessarily the fault of the Trump Administration.  It seems we’ve been caught in this same cycle since the outlaw of most of these substances.

 

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