CA struggles to curb heroin spike

heroinAs loosening marijuana regulation and enforcement upends the drug culture in California, heroin use has become an increasing problem in the Golden State, new hospital data suggested.

“The number of young adults admitted to California hospital emergency rooms with heroin poisoning increased sixfold over the past decade, the state said, the latest evidence of growing abuse of the highly addictive drug,” according to Reuters. “According to the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, emergency rooms across the state saw 1,300 heroin poisoning cases involving young adults between the ages of 20 and 29 in 2014, compared to 200 in 2005,” Circa reported.

The news has driven home challenges policymakers face in reckoning with legal pot’s effect on broader drug markets and the broader battle against illicit substances.

Shifting markets

Experts have not established the relationship between more accessible marijuana and increased heroin use. One recent study published by JAMA Internal Medicine reported, with regard to states that had legalized marijuana for medical use, there was “about a 25 percent decrease in the projected amount of people expected to overdose in those states in 2010. This means that about 1,700 less people died than were expected to in states with medical marijuana.”

But some analysts have warned that the uptick in heroin use can be at least indirectly attributed to the creeping legalization of marijuana. “Made-in-the-USA marijuana is quickly displacing the cheap, seedy, hard-packed version harvested by the bushel in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains,” the Washington Post reported from San Ysidro, CA. “That has prompted Mexican drug farmers to plant more opium poppies, and the sticky brown and black ‘tar’ heroin they produce is channeled by traffickers into the U.S. communities hit hardest by prescription painkiller abuse, offering addicts a $10 alternative to $80-a-pill oxycodone.”

California hasn’t been ranked atop the list of states where oxycodone abuse runs highest. But OxyContin peddling had become so pervasive and lucrative in the San Francisco Bay Area that it earned an SF Weekly cover story three years ago. Since then, the Golden State’s place on the front lines of Mexican drug smuggling has remained unchanged. Raul Benitez-Manaut, who researches the drug war at the National Autonomous University in Mexico, told the Post that pot decriminalization “has given U.S. consumers access to high-quality marijuana, with genetically improved strains, grown in greenhouses. That’s why the Mexican cartels are switching to heroin and meth.”

A string of busts

In Santa Cruz County, heroin busts have tracked with the increase in use seen statewide, according to Mario Sulay, commander of the county’s anti-crime force. “The seizure of the half-pound of heroin in Navarro’s three residences increased the amount of the drug seized so far by the team in the county this year to nearly 4 kilos, more than it has confiscated over the past five years combined,” reported Patch from Gilroy. Sulay “attributed the large amount to an uptick in the heroin being trafficked through the U.S. border from Mexico, which has grown by 300 percent over previous years[.]”

Californians have also recently been caught up in the heroin trade across state lines. In New Mexico, Darmarvis Marquel Lee of San Bernardino pled guilty this month to trafficking almost 3 kilograms of heroin. The charges ensured he could face up to two decades in federal prison.

In a stunning sign of the scope of California’s heroin problem, the Fresno police force was sent reeling in March by a multi-agency federal bust of a drug ring allegedly led by Deputy Police Chief Keith Foster. Along with five others, Foster was charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin and oxycodone, in addition to marijuana:

“The arrests, which were announced at a news conference Thursday afternoon at the FBI office in northwest Fresno, stemmed from an ‘intensive’ ongoing, year-long joint investigation by the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that involved ‘considerable’ surveillance and wiretaps, said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, the region’s top federal law-enforcement official.”

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