If you are struggling to understand just how widespread the drug problem in America is, the DEA’s 2017 Drug Threat Assessment can help highlight the biggest issues we as a nation are facing. Released just this past October, this summary is an invaluable tool that takes an in-depth look at the drug situation.
What is the National Drug Threat Assessment?
The NDTA is a comprehensive evaluation of the drug threat in America. This annual assessment strategically focuses on two areas:
- The threat from both domestic and international drug traffickers
- The threat caused by drug abuse
Why is it So Important to Identify the Drug Threat?
Right now, drug overdose deaths are higher than they have ever been, killing more Americans annually than suicides, murders, guns, or even car crashes. The latest estimates project that close to 74 THOUSAND lives will be lost in 2017—the most ever.
But here’s the thing—at the time, 2014’s total of 47,055 drug deaths was the “most ever”.
Until a new record of 52,404 was set in 2015.
Which was again broken in 2016, when more than 64,000 Americans died because of drugs.
In fact, the number of drug deaths has increased every year since 1999.
47,000… 52,000… 64,000… 74,000… If we are to ever stem the tide of needless overdose death, we must identify where to focus our efforts.
And because the drug landscape in America continues to shift, up-to-date reports like the NDTA become critical resources for law enforcement personnel, prevention and recovery specialists, policymakers, and anyone whose life is affected by substance abuse.
How Is the Drug Threat Assessment Put Together?
The NDTA is prepared by the Strategic Intelligence Section of the DEA, in cooperation with agencies at every level – federal, state, local, and tribal. These disparate entities submit their most recent statistics from their local public health agencies, law enforcement divisions, and intelligence communities, and the DEA compiles this information into a comprehensive and coherent report made available to everyone.
Where Are the Drugs in America Coming from?
The vast majority of illicit drugs in the United States are trafficked by various transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), each with their own sphere of influence.
- Mexican TCOs –The largest criminal drug threat to America. Large sections of the country are devoted to cultivating, producing, importing, exporting, and transporting illicit drugs. Mexican cartels dominate the trafficking of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamines in the United States.
- Colombian TCOs – Primarily responsible for producing and supplying cocaine to Mexican TCOs. 92% of the cocaine in America comes from Columbia.
- Dominican TCOs – Operating mainly on the East Coast, Dominican factions work with other TCOs to receive and distribute wholesale quantities of drugs.
- Asian TCOs – Maintaining a large present on the East and West Coasts, Asian cartels are heavily involved with the trafficking of marijuana and synthetic drugs.
- Gangs – Closely tied to TCOs, gangs make a major impact on domestic drug distribution. There are literally HUNDREDS of gangs in America that depend on drug trafficking as their main source of income. The associated crime, violence, and resultant drug addiction threatens virtually every community.
A Quick Snapshot of the US Drug Threat
After analyzing law enforcement and intelligence reports, the DEA is able to report on apparent trends within the illicit drug trade.
- Controlled prescription drugs—More people abuse CDPs than heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA, and PCP combined. CDPs are also responsible for more overdose deaths than any other class of illicit drugs.
As of April 2017, all US states and the territory of Guam track in-state prescriptions, thereby greatly curtailing fraudulent abuse. However, as legitimate prescriptions become harder to obtain, more addicts are switching to cheaper, easily-acquired heroin.
- Heroin—As Mexican production of low-cost, high-purity heroin has surged, availability, seizures by law enforcement, and overdose deaths have increased. Significantly, while the number of people who abuse prescription opioids is roughly 10 times greater than the number of people who use heroin, the number of prescription opioid overdose deaths is only about twice that of overdose deaths involving heroin.
- Fentanyl/synthetic opioids –The ongoing opioid epidemic is now being driven by the growing presence of powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl. The biggest danger arises when the synthetics are mixed in or substituted for heroin, usually while the user is unaware. Most of the country’s illicit fentanyl is imported from Mexico or China.
- Methamphetamine – Because domestic production has decreased dramatically within the past decade, most of the meth in America is produced in Mexico.
- Cocaine – Colombian cocaine production continues to increase. By some measures, cocaine has a bigger presence in America than it has since 2007.
- Marijuana – Because of its increasingly-relaxed legal status, the demand for greater quantities of potent marijuana strains and powerful THC concentrations is booming.
- New psychoactive substances – Synthetic cathinones and cannabinoids – typically imported from China – continually undergo formulation changes designed to circumvent existing laws. These products are often sold openly online or in convenience stores, truck stops, head shops, etc.
What Are the Biggest Drug Threats in America?
The 2017 NDTA surveyed 10,650 law enforcement agencies across the country, and among respondents, the most-commonly reported “greatest drug threat” – by far – was heroin. Here are the top responses from law enforcement:
- Heroin – 44.8% (In Philadelphia, 85.9% of law enforcement agencies listed heroin as the #1 threat)
Special note – 2010-2015, the number of overdose deaths involving heroin spiked by 328%. Importantly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the overdose figure is actually undercounted – by 30%.
- Methamphetamine – 29.8% (Dallas – 67.9%)
Special note – Demand for methamphetamine is growing because of purity, potency, and price. In 2011, street meth was less than 86% pure and sold for $98 per gram. By 2016, the average sample was 96% pure and over 90% potent, but sold for only $58 per gram.
- Controlled prescription drugs – 9.3% (New Orleans – 16.4%)
Special note – Over 40% of people who misuse prescription painkillers were GIVEN their drugs by a relative or friend for free.
- Fentanyl – 6.3% (New England – 25.5%)
Special note – In 2016, US law enforcement agencies seized 287 kg of fentanyl. This represents a 72% increase over 2015. Significantly, a lethal dose of fentanyl is only 2 mg.
- Marijuana – 5.6% (San Diego – 16.7%)
Special note – In the past 10 years, the number of monthly marijuana users has increased by 38%. In 1995, the average THC concentration found in hash oil concentrates was 13.23%. However, by 2015, the average potency had increased to 55.85%, with some testing over 90%.
- Cocaine – 3.2% (Miami – 15.9%)
Special note – Between 2015 and 2016, positive workplace drug tests indicating cocaine use increased by 12%.
- New psychoactive substances – 0.8% (Miami – 2.8%)
Special note – There are 644 identified NPSs, and that number is constantly growing.
The Drug Threat Differs by Region
In the West and Southwest regions, methamphetamines are considered the largest drug threat. For instance, in Dallas, Houston, and El Paso, over 60% of law enforcement agencies put meth in the top spot.
In the Great Lakes region and on the East Coast, respondents cite heroin as the largest drug threat. At least 77% of respondents in New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia listed heroin as the #1 problem.
From these responses, it is clear how the threat pattern from drugs shifts with time.
For example, from 2007 through 2010, cocaine was the most-commonly reported greatest threat. Heroin, on the other hand, increased as a perceived threat starting in 2010, eventually taking over the top spot in 2015.
Methamphetamine is consistently listed as one of the top threats, while the danger from marijuana, which has always been considered a low-level threat, is decreasing.
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Which Drugs Are Most Widely Available?
Not surprisingly, the 2017 NDTA reports that marijuana has the highest availability of any drug. The percentage of respondents reporting that a particular substance is highly available in their region are:
- Marijuana – 80.3% (Denver ranked #1, with 91%)
- Controlled Prescription Drugs – 51.9% (New Orleans – 71%)
- Heroin – 48.8% (Philadelphia – 80%)
- Methamphetamine – 45.3 (Phoenix and San Francisco – 81%)
- Cocaine – 22.5% (Miami – 51%)
- Fentanyl – 14.6% (New England – 44%)
- New psychoactive substances – 8.8% (San Diego – 33%)
- MDMA – 6.1% (San Diego – 22%)
- Hallucinogens – 2.9% (San Diego – 22%)
Which Drugs Are Being Used the Most?
There are three relevant patterns of drug use usually examined by experts – lifetime, past year, and past month. This roughly translates to “experimentation”, “occasional use”, and “regular use/abuse”.
2015 is the most recent year reported, except in the case of prescription painkillers, where 2014 is the most recent year.
- Lifetime use – 117,865,000 people
- Past year – 36,043,000
- Past month – 22,226,000
- Note – Use is slightly up over the previous year
- Prescription psychotherapeutics
- Lifetime use – 54,395,000
- Past year – 18,492,000
- Past month – 6,365,000
- Note – Use is slightly up over the previous year
- Cocaine, in any form
- Lifetime use – 38,744,000.
- Past year – 4,828,000.
- Past month – 1,876,000
- Note – Past year and past month use is significantly up over the previous year.
- Prescription pain medication
- Lifetime use – 36,064,000.
- Past year – 12,462,000
- Past month – 3,775,000.
- Note – Lifetime use is up slightly over the previous year
- Lifetime use – 14,511,000
- Past year – 1,713,000
- Past month – 897,000
- Lifetime use 5,099,000.
- Past year – 828,000.
- Past month – 329,000
Which Drugs Contribute the Most to Crime?
Methamphetamine is the drug that is most likely to be involved with violent crimes:
- Methamphetamine – 36.3% (82.4% of respondents in Los Angeles linked meth and violent crime)
- Heroin – 25.8% (Philadelphia – 58.6%)
- Cocaine – 10.5% (Miami – 36.9%)
- Marijuana – 5.5% (San Francisco – 20.7%)
- Controlled prescription drugs – 4.3% (Atlanta – 8.9%)
- New psychoactive substances – 2.1% (Miami – 7.4%)
- Fentanyl – 1.4% (New England – 7.8%)
Over 70% of respondents in Los Angeles, San Diego, El Paso, and Dallas reported the link between violent crime and methamphetamine, while heroin-involved violence was most-often reported by over half of respondents in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York.
The drugs most likely to contribute to property crimes are slightly different:
- Heroin – 38.5% (New Jersey – 80.2%)
- Methamphetamine – 31.9% (Dallas – 74.4%)
- Controlled prescription drugs – 9.5% (Atlanta – 19.5%)
- Marijuana – 6.9% (Houston – 14.6%)
- Cocaine – 5.6% (Miami – 26.1%)
- Fentanyl – 1.8% (New England – 11.5%)
- New psychoactive substances – 0.4% (Los Angeles – 4.1%)
At least two-thirds of respondents in Dallas, San Diego, El Paso, and San Francisco reported the link between property crime and methamphetamine, while between 70% and 80% of respondents in New Jersey, Philadelphia, New York, and New England listed heroin.
Which Drugs Take Up the Most Law Enforcement Resources?
This is a different consideration than just violent or property crime. It also includes disturbances, emergency situations, investigations, incarceration, etc.
- Heroin – 36.1% (76% of resources in Philadelphia)
- Methamphetamine – 30% (San Diego – 72.2%)
- Controlled prescription drugs – 15.5% (San Francisco – 35.3%)
- Fentanyl – 8.2% (Atlanta – 18%)
- Marijuana – 3.5% (Miami – 17%)
- Cocaine – 2.6% (New England – 14.8%)
- New psychoactive substances – 0.9% (Houston – 3.7%)
What Can We Do with All This Information about the Drug Threat in America?
Besides just increasing awareness, this information from the DEA can be utilized in a number of ways:
- Communities can allocate resources more productively.
- Law enforcement agencies can prioritize counter drug activities by focusing on where they will have the most impact.
- Recovery specialists can expand treatment services as needed.
Most importantly, armed with this information, concerned families can better protect their loved ones from the pervasive and growing threat of substance abuse that is affecting every region of the country and every level of society.