Mexico Drug Cartel Super-Labs Help Drive Overdose Deaths in California

Heroin paraphernalia (Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty)

The combination of Mexican drug cartel super-labs increasing the purity of illegal drugs, and an ongoing prescription painkiller boom, is set to drive up overdose death rates in California.

The Los Angeles Times, citing the RAND Corporation, reports that authorities are increasingly worried that increasing demand for increasingly more refined drugs smuggled from Mexico foreshadows an increase in carnage from the drug epidemic.

For decades, heroin was produced in Mexico with rudimentary equipment, then distributed on the West Coast with a dark brown color. Ghe purity rate was about 15 percent, which is how it won the nickname “Mexican tar.”

Because of the West Coast’s relatively low drug potency, heroin overdose rates were usually much less prevalent than on the East Coast, where the color was almost white, and the purity was about 40 percent. The East Coast supply was usually smuggled in from China under the nickname of “China white.”

But thanks to proliferating technology, Mexican drug cartels drastically upped their potency game over the last decade and now produce their own China white that is now flooding the West Coast with some of the highest-grade illicit drugs on the planet. Mexican heroin purity has risen from 15 percent to over 50 percent; the average purity of methamphetamine has climbed from 39 to almost 93 percent; and the average purity of Fentanyl has risen from 5 percent to 90 percent.

In 1999, CNN reports, only 9 American states had deaths from drug and opioid overdoses above 7.5 per 100,000, and the West Coast states averaged only 7.8 deaths per 100,000. By 2015, American annual deaths from drug and opioid overdoses had more than doubled to about 40,000, only 3 states had deaths overdoses below 7.5 per 100,000, and the West Coast averaged 13.1 overdose deaths per 100,000.

California only had 1,925 opioid-linked overdose deaths last year, according to the Sacramento Bee. But California overdose death rates seem ready to boom, given that 80 percent of serious drug users initially get hooked on legal opioid prescription drugs.

The Bee reported that California’s fourth-least populated Trinity County, with just 13,628 residents, had 18,439 prescriptions for opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone last year. But having more prescriptions than residents is not unusual in the state. The 10 Northern California counties that include Trinity, Lake, Shasta, Tuolumne, Del Norte, El Dorado, Placer and Sacramento counties all had opioid pain-killer prescription rates that exceeded the number of residents last year.

Rural Northern California prescription opioids use is now similar to the “gateway drug” prescription rates of rural West Virginia, Ohio and New England, where legal and illegal opioid use is blamed for over 183,000 overdose deaths between 1999 and 2015.


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