Heroin and prescription opiate addiction

Tracing the West’s heroin highways

Illicit drugs move through this region at farther distances and greater speeds.

Along Interstate 19 where it runs from Nogales, Arizona, one of the West's busiest drug corridors, to the Mexican border. | Ken Lund, Flickr user

Along Interstate 19 where it runs from Nogales, Arizona, one of the West's busiest drug corridors, to the Mexican border. | Ken Lund, Flickr user

This story originally appeared in High Country News. The following text is an excerpt. Read the original, here.

Heroin enters the West like blood through veins. The heart, down in Mexico, pumps out its illicit products in cars headed north through small border towns like Antelope Wells, New Mexico. As regular as a heart beat, cheap and potent black-tar heroin comes north from cartel strongholds in the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Nayarit, over the border and on to Denver, to Salt Lake City, to Laramie and then even further: Bellingham, Washington; Salem, Oregon; and Anchorage, Alaska.

In 2014, the Drug Enforcement Agency estimated that a quarter-million pounds of heroin passed through the West. Since then, officials estimate that Mexico has increased its heroin production by 50 percent to quench the United States’ growing thirst for heroin.

The West’s open spaces allow drugs like black-market prescription drugs, narcotics and heroin to move faster here than in the highly compartmentalized East, which has higher populations concentrated in smaller spaces, says Ernie Martinez, director of the executive board for the National Narcotics Officers Association Coalition, a collaboration between federal drug enforcement officials and state and local-level officers, among others.

The West’s geography stymies law enforcement’s efforts to crack down: Isolated Western highway corridors span states and allow illegal drugs to move vast distances without being detected. “You have to look at the geography,” Martinez says. “The landscape is a lot wider and traffickers are moving through remote areas. It’s much tougher to find them.”


While the national heroin epidemic has put Eastern cities in the spotlight, the percentage of drug users in the West is actually greater than those in the East. Alaska, Montana, Oregon, Montana and Colorado have the highest percentage of people aged 12 and older that have used illicit drugs like heroin or methamphetamine in the past month, according to an anonymous survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

Opioids, which encompass the numerous prescription painkillers on the market as well as street-manufactured heroin, now kill more people nationwide than guns or car crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oregon and Colorado lead the country in rates of abuse of prescription painkillers.

Western overdose rates are also likely under-reported, says Tim Condon, a researcher at the Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addictions at the University of New Mexico. “Populations in the West are dealing with this epidemic in a more isolated way (than in the East),” he says. “Fewer people are coming out about their own abuse, so there is this incorrect assumption that it’s not happening here. It is.” 

Continue reading this story at High Country News.