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U.S.-Mexico travel restrictions continue to impede the illegal drug trade

By Nickolaus Hayes - GUEST COLUMNIST | Jul 4, 2020

The travel restrictions along the U.S.-Mexico border have made it harder for drug cartels to move drug profits without detection. At the beginning of the lockdowns, the border closures seemed to have severed supply chains for drug smugglers. The disruptions were also seen on the dark web, and websites selling illegal drugs were either shutting down or delaying deliveries, per the Drug Enforcement Administration. Through the border closures, the Mexican cartels were struggling to deliver drugs like methamphetamine, fentanyl, and other synthetic opioids because most of the precursors used to cook these drugs came from China.

Drug Enforcement Field Divisions have reported stockpiling of drugs and money on both sides of the southwest border; however, money laundering activity has decreased. Drug cartels operate best when they can move product with legitimate commerce, but border closures and travel restrictions have made this difficult. Because of the travel restrictions to and from China, drug cartels have not been able to get the precursors needed to manufacture methamphetamine and fentanyl. The amount of methamphetamine being smuggled into the United States has slowed. However, cartels have inflated the price of drugs, especially crystal meth, and some local production has ramped up.

The street-level price of fentanyl and crystal methamphetamine has increased in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee–in the Los Angeles Region, meth prices have doubled. The DEA New England Field Division–which includes Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, and New England, noticed price increases for fentanyl and cocaine. A rise in drug prices means more addicts are not able to afford the drugs they need. Substance use treatment providers have already seen increases in opioid addicts needing help due to not being able to access the drugs they need. Local officials in some cities are predicting a rise in property crime because addicts must get the money from somewhere.

The world has its attention on the COVID-19 pandemic, and representatives at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report the production and trafficking of synthetic drugs and chemicals continue at record levels. What is going to happen when borders are opened, and the stockpile of chemicals and drugs begin to flow back into the country? Will there be another surge in opioid-related overdose deaths on top of the one that already occurred amid lockdowns? As the restrictions begin to ease over the coming months, substance use treatment providers should be prepared for a potential surge in people requiring substance use treatment.

The Mexican drug cartels have found a way to capitalize on the virus despite border closures. The problems include fighting over drug sales and trafficking routes as law enforcement and military have been focused on civil unrest in many parts of the country. The lack of law enforcement at distribution points has promoted trafficking and the domestic sale of drugs. Turf wars have contributed to a spike in homicides in Mexico, which reached record levels in the first four months of 2020. However, once flights and traffic at the border increase, the DEA expects cartels to resume traditional money laundering and drug smuggling.

Even a global pandemic could not completely slow down the rates of substance use within the country. Anyone who was addicted to drugs found other means and other substances to support their habit. The solution to this problem begins within the local communities through prevention, education, and proper substance use treatment. The need for appropriate substance use treatment is going to continue. In 2018, an estimated 21.2 million people aged 12 or older needed substance use treatment in the past year. Approximately 1 in 13 Americans needed treatment for addiction. When compared to 2015 through 2017, the numbers did not change much.

Of course, not everyone will be saved from the chains of addiction, but it is an opportunity now to ramp up our efforts as restrictions are eased, and Americans are going to back to work. In 2018, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated 164.8 million Americans aged 12 or older were past-month substance users. It is going to be some time before any numbers are seen for 2019 and 2020. However, there could be a potential increase. These problems are not going away, and it is our responsibility to help those who are struggling overcome addiction to become drug-free and, in turn, show others it is possible.

Nickolaus Hayes is a healthcare professional in the field of substance abuse and addiction recovery. He utilizes his experience in his writing to provide an expert viewpoint. His primary focus is spreading awareness by educating individuals on the topics surrounding substance abuse. He is a featured author of the healthcare website Addicted.org.


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