A new Senate report highlights how prescription drug abuse is now one of the biggest health and security problems facing the US, casting doubt on the conventional wisdom that Latin American cartels still present the biggest risk to the US in terms of drug policy.
The latest briefing by the US Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control calls attention to a shift in drug consumption trends observed for several years now. While use of marijuana, cocaine and marijuana appears stable, if not decreasing, prescription drugs are now the second most common form of drug abuse in the US. The White House previously called it the “the Nation’s fastest-growing drug problem.” And as the Senate briefing points out, prescription drugs are now responsible for the majority of overdose deaths in the US, outnumbering deaths involving heroin and cocaine combined. Meanwhile the number of people seeking treatment for addiction to legal opiates increased 400 percent between 2004 and 2008, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Rising prescription drug abuse has also led to increased violent robberies of pharmacies, up 82 percent between 2006 and 2011, the Senate briefing notes. The implication is that not only is prescription drug abuse leading to serious health problems across the US, but it is becoming a security issue as well. From Florida to New England, local law enforcement is reporting a rise in violent crime and theft linked to prescription drugs.
Such findings are further indication that the major drug policy challenges facing the US increasingly have less to do with the illegal drugs traditionally supplied by Latin American criminal organizations. Latin America-based cartels are hardly the main suppliers when it comes the prescription drug epidemic: according to a 2009 government survey on drug use in the US, 70 percent of prescription drug abusers in the US were supplied their pills by a friend or a relative. The epidemic raises the tricky question of just how many resources the US should continue putting into international drug enforcement in Latin America, when it’s clear that the more pressing challenges facing the country lie within its own borders and its domestic laws regarding pharmaceutical drugs.
Shifting drug consumption habits in the US also call into question repeated claims by Latin American countries that their struggle against organized crime is primarily driven by US consumers of cocaine and marijuana. The Senate Caucas report acknowledges the US’s shared responsibility in this problem, stating, “Ultimately, it is drug consumption in the United States that fuels violence throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.”
While it is important for the US to emphasize this, it shouldn’t distract from the evidence showing that much of the violence afflicting places like Colombia, Mexico, and the Northern Triangle is partly driven by growing domestic consumption in those countries. According to the Organization of American States’ (OAS) first ever report on drug consumption trends in the Americas, cocaine and crack use is rising across Latin America. The United Nations International Narcotics Control Board observed a similar trend in their 2011 survey of drug use dynamics in the hemisphere. As cocaine use goes down and prescription drug use goes up in the US, it appears that Latin America is compensating in terms of supplying its own cocaine and crack users.
This year has seen plenty of cries from Latin American leaders for a more nuanced debate on drug policy. One of the fundamental problems is that the US’s traditional focus on Latin America-sourced cocaine, marijuana, and heroin is outdated. Prescription and synthetic drugs -- such as the “bath salts” that are reportedly becoming more widely available in Latin America, and which supposedly drove the “Miami cannibal” incident -- may turn out to be the more significant drug policy challenges in the 21st century.
The US has already rung plenty of alarm bells that the prescription drug epidemic needs plenty of attention from policymakers. And if there are new drugs besides cocaine and marijuana that are causing the most significant health and security problems in the US, policymakers would do well to apply a new drug policy strategy that would have ramifications for Latin America as well. Especially if the new White House drug control strategy is supposed to emphasize drug use prevention and treatment, it would be a lost opportunity not to encourage the same approach south of the border.