Behind America's Skyrocketing Overdose Death Rates
Data compiled by the New York Times has shown that the number of drug overdose deaths in 2016 exceeded the 59,000 mark. If this initial assessment stands after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releases its official data in December, the high rates of overdose deaths reported in 2016 will represent a 19 percent rise from the previous year.
As it stands, drug overdoses are the leading cause of death among U.S. residents under the age of 50, and states that have been hit the hardest by the overdose epidemic are all located on the East Coast, where, perhaps, access to pure heroin might be somewhat affected by a diminished supply of drugs coming from Mexican cartels.
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Researchers claim that as the number of patients with painkiller prescriptions increases, patients are moving from prescription opioids to illicit opioid varieties. As the supply of heroin in several states across the country is not enough to meet the demand for opioids in the black market, dealers begin to sell heroin strains laced with carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer, or fentanyl. Unfortunately, both substances are so powerful that first responders often use multiple doses of the anti-overdose medication
Despite the research showing the overdose epidemic has gone farther than ever in the history of this country, many are quick to blame the high rates only on prescription opioid use, alone.
They argue that as pharmaceutical companies pressure doctors to make use of their treatment by “minimizing the risk of addiction,” they consequently create more drug addicts, often ignoring the root cause of the prevalence of overdoses: drug prohibition.
To be fair, drug prohibition as a policy remains strong because Big Pharma has, for quite some time, lobbied to keep several illicit drugs scheduled as such. Even cannabis has been the target of their ire.
As an industry with a monopoly (or near-monopoly) power over drug development and distribution, keeping drugs illegal guarantees that Big Pharma’s share of the market won’t be affected in the slightest. As we have seen with states that have legalized or decriminalized weed consumption, over-reliance on opioids and other heavy treatments that are highly addictive has waned. Still, weed decriminalization alone is not the end-all solution to the drug overdose problem.
Prohibition Breeds Violence In Regulated Markets, Too
As we have explained previously, the opioid business has been booming for Mexican cartels. But as the demand grows, especially on the East Coast, the supply of heroin is exhausted. With no access to everybody’s favorite opioid, these cartels have instead looked to fentanyl as a gold mine.
With the mass production of fentanyl and other variations of highly powerful opioid strains becoming the trend due to the scarcity of heroin, dealers have found an incentive to continue selling these products as if they were pure heroin. As cartels also fight their own wars against competing organizations, consumers are left with a very restricted number of providers.
As a result, access to quality products becomes impossible. Instead, they take whatever they can get their hands on to obtain their fix. Unfortunately, dealing with product providers who operate in the shadows and have no standards to meet is tricky considering they aren’t in the business of keeping customers happy. The result is deadly: addicts, in search of heroin, instead get the extra powerful and more affordable fentanyl. Ultimately, they overdose as a result, often fatally.
When products are traded out in the open, the concept of branding helps both consumers and product manufacturers. That occurs because consumers are able to economize on scarce knowledge regarding a particular product by being loyal to a particular brand. As such, competitors are forced to compete both in quality and price as they attempt to lure the loyal consumer into switching brands.
Consumers gain from this because companies offer them options to keep loyal customers faithful to their products and their brand. In contrast, members of the black market do not have to compete out in the open because their type of competition is a much darker and ferocious one. Instead of pushing better, safer, and more affordable products to compete with members of the same industry, they engage in wars with other gangsters. Instead of competing to become better businessmen, they compete to be better murderers.
Ultimately, killing — either consumers or competitors — isn’t what lands them in jail. Instead, engaging in drug trafficking is what does the trick.
If America legalized heroin tomorrow, economic historian Chris Calton writes, cartels would compete to make the product safe. But when “goods are made illegal,” Calton continues, “smugglers will continue to trade them, but the ability to establish brand consistency is suppressed.”
With prohibition, drug markets become violent, and industries such as the pharmaceutical industry become fearful of changes. As they lobby lawmakers to ignore calls for legalization, they do so not because they are concerned with the safety of the consumer, but because they do not want to compete in the open. Like drug cartels, these organizations operate by using an aggressive method to neutralize competition, refusing to compete in the open by producing better, safer treatments.
To fix both the illicit drug-related overdose problem and the prescription opioid crisis, the only solution is to eliminate both industries’ incentives to act aggressively, and that means putting an end to prohibition and making sure lawmakers have no more power over legislating drug use.