war on drugs

The War on Drugs: Where do American Narcotics Come From?

It’s been nearly half a century since president Nixon’s landmark “war on drugs,” and neither law enforcement nor drug traffickers have shown much sign of wavering. But if this is indeed a war, then it might be vitally important to know who’s winning.

A recent report by the Drug Enforcement Agency (pdf) shows that though the presence of some illicit drugs like cocaine and crack have declined in the past decade, others have been worryingly pervasive–among the upsurge are dangerous narcotics like heroin and methamphetamine. Below are three of the most common illicit drugs in the U.S. and what holes in U.S. security they’re seeping through.


Heroin has seen an alarming uptick in recent years. According to the DEA, heroin seizures at the United States’ Southwest border have increased by a shocking 232 percent between 2008 and 2012. Additionally, law enforcement and drug treatment officials have noted that heroin use has seen a resurgence since the proliferation of prescription opioids which are often more expensive and harder to obtain–likely because opioid users are turning to street drugs when prescription medication is unavailable.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 2.46.24 PM

The report notes that increased trafficking correlates with an increase in Mexican and South American heroin production. This influx of heroin has ventured into new U.S. markets in the east and midwest, specifically urban areas like Chicago.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 3.00.57 PM


Where does it come from?

Despite Afghanistan producing around 90 percent (pdf) of the world’s heroin and opium, Afghani heroin is nearly non existent in the U.S. market which is dominated primarily by Mexican and South American distributors. Through the southern border, distributors smuggle their drugs and then disseminate them throughout the greater United States. According to a the UN world drug report (pdf) in 2010, opium production in Mexico grew by 120 percent between 2006 to 2008 making it the world’s third largest market behind Afghanistan and Myanmar.  Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 3.36.04 PM

Using a sample size of 839 packages of heroin in 27 different cities, undercover DEA agents were able to determine the source of 642 samples after lab testing. From these findings, the DEA estimates that Mexico and South America make up 46 percent and 50 percent of the US heroin supply respectively. The vast majority of drugs which enter the United States do so by land (i.e. cars, trucks, foot transport, and sometimes even commercial vehicles) The routes well traveled are very much indicative of their source location.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 4.12.06 PM


Though drugs like heroin and methamphetamine are the most dangerous variety of illicit drugs trafficked into the U.S., cannabis is by far the most common. In 2013 the National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA) summary reported that 88.2 percent (pdf) of respondents indicated a high availability of marijuana in their municipality.

Marijuana has been extremely popular as of late, but to say the drug has seen an uptick in trafficking would be inaccurate–marijuana has stayed unwaveringly present. Marijuana trafficking maintains a steadfastly consistent presence in the U.S. drug market. According to the DEA (pdf), in 2011 more people reported using marijuana in the past decade than all other drugs combined.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 9.47.46 PM


Where does it come from?

The marijuana supply, not unlike other drugs seen throughout the U.S., comes primarily from the Southwest border–specifically Mexico and South America. Since marijuana is often much cheaper in black market pricing, it tends to be smuggled at a much higher volume, especially through border states like Arizona, where the NDTA reports 50 percent of seized Southwestern marijuana has been discovered.

In regard to source locations, what separates marijuana from other drugs smuggled into the States is the involvement of America’s neighbor to the north–Canada. RAND (pdf) estimates that Mexico’s market share in the U.S. is anywhere from 40 to 67 percent, however, Canada also has much to do with trafficking, especially in regard to the higher grade markets.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 10.37.27 PM


Methamphetamine has been forever mythologized by Bryan Cranston’s unsettling role as Walter White–a meth slinging drug kingpin and part-time family man who turns to the drug trade after finding he has cancer. It turns out, Vince Gilligan’s portrayal of the wild West methamphetamine market is not entirely disparate from the reality.

A surge of methamphetamine seizures at the border since 2008 indicates that production has increased considerably in the past decade. According to the White House’s Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the number of domestic methamphetamine labs rose from 596 in 2007 to 966 nationwide.

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 11.28.14 AM

Where does it come from?

Unlike other illicit drugs, methamphetamine is unique in regard to its source location. Though the majority of methamphetamine is still produced in Mexico, according to the DEA (pdf) Domestic production also poses a problem for drug-enforcement officers in the midwest and south. The ONDCP (pdf) reports that meth lab incidents in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, and Florida have increased by 254 percent between 2007 and 2009.

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 12.12.06 PM

Though domestic labs are a growing problem, the NDIC (pdf) notes that most of the supply is consumed locally. Methamphetamine from south of the border, however, is most commonly smuggled through California and Texas and is then distributed to western and southwestern markets. Methamphetamine is rarely seen in eastern states.

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 12.35.42 PM

What’s it all about

Though DEA agents work tirelessly to prevent the flow of drugs past the U.S. border, the problem is seemingly not a domestic one. The strength of Mexican cartels and their venture into foreign markets like Australia is evidence of not just a growing drug problem, but for Mexico and the U.S., a political one.

A seven year war between Mexican cartels and the federal government has left Mexico in political turmoil, 50,000 Mexican citizens dead, and has given cartels virtually free reign over their operations in Mexico and elsewhere around the globe. Though the war on drugs is a noble one–in concept if not in practice–as long as we have cartels, there will be drugs, of that we can be sure.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
James Pero