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Prince’s Killer Drug Plays Role in National Crisis

August 22, 2016
The United States has a drug abuse problem and it is not with Nancy Reagan’s marijuana or Keith Richards’s cocaine.[1] The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), who released a new report discussing the issue, is just the latest high profile organization to sound the alarm on the country’s new enemy number one in the War on Drugs.[2]

By Parker Abt, C’19

In the past few years, heroin addiction has skyrocketed. Many know the painful, personal truth that death often follows addiction. Indeed, since 2010, the number of deaths due to heroin overdose has increased more than threefold according to the CDC.[3]

To make matters worse, a new drug forty times more potent than heroin named fentanyl has entered the market. This drug is so dangerous that authorities must wear Hazmat suits in order to confiscate it in its concentrated form – touching even a few grains can result in death. And for those addicted to prescription drugs, fentanyl has been wrongly sold as Xanax in many areas of the country.[4]

Earlier this year, the drug claimed its highest profile victim when musical icon Prince was found dead in his home from an accidental overdose. As with heroin, deaths from fentanyl are also way up in states that track the statistic.[5]

Given the number of fentanyl deaths and its designation by the DEA as “a significant threat to public safety,” it is a travesty that some states do not track fentanyl deaths and that some crime labs do not even test for it. However, the CDC does report on one troubling statistic: nationwide police seizures of fentanyl have risen from 618 in 2012 to 4,585 in 2014 – an increase of 642%.[6]

Though academics and certain government agencies discuss fentanyl and the heroin epidemic, most Americans do not recognize it as one of the most pressing issues facing our nation. Even for Donald Trump, the king of “America is a wreck” rhetoric, the nation’s malignant drug problem has not been a real topic of discussion.

One reason may be the seemingly localized effects of drug addiction. A quiet addict shooting up in an apartment or dark alley evades the gaze of the average middle class American. When someone overdoses on drugs, they only physically hurt themselves. Their loved ones have to deal with a tragic, unenviable, aftermath but for that average middle class American, the problem can seem far removed.

However, that’s a dangerous falsehood. Another addict shooting heroin or fentanyl does affect society at large.

The money spent on each purchase eventually finds its way back to Mexican drug cartels, who dominate the American market for heroin and fentanyl. The largest of these cartels, known as the Sinaloa, makes $3 billion per year off drugs in the city of Chicago alone.[7]

These cartels are not friendly little dragons. For one, they do not just sit on their side of the border and accept the money as it comes in. In one horror story, an Arizona sheriff recently warned citizens to stay away from certain hiking trails because they are a bloody battleground for sicarios, Mexican cartel assassins who often kill their rivals on .[8]

In the greater United States, the danger is large as well. Cartels often exert control over the American street gangs to which they distribute their increasingly large amount of heroin and fentanyl. A report out of St. Louis describes how the cartels incite violence between local gangs there, catching innocent bystanders in the crossfire and driving up the city’s murder rate.[9]

When drug abuse spills the blood of innocents in our streets, the country’s stolid glass stare must shatter. Recent evidence urges the nation to consider this the breaking point for action.

The head of the DEA, Chuck Rosenberg, recently attributed the growing cartel-driven drug trade to a spate of killings that have seen murder rates jump over 70% since 2014 in cartel hotbeds like San Antonio and Chicago. The United States as a whole has seen its largest one-year jump in murders since 1974 and police officials from Compton to Philadelphia are blaming gang-driven violence. [10]

The message is clear. Drug abuse needs to become a part of the national political conversation. Newscasters need to question Clinton and Trump on it in presidential debates and Americans need to remember it when they think of the biggest dangers facing the United States.

We need to recognize that drug abuse and drug trafficking have far reaching consequences. We need to talk about how this is a problem for all of us, not just addicts and gang members. We need to ask what we as individuals can do about it. And we need to hold our leaders to task.

The War on Drugs is a war worth waging on enemies as dangerous as heroin and fentanyl. If the battle doesn’t start now, we may be the next casualties


  [1] “Who, What, Why: How is Keith Richards still alive?,” BBC, 28-Oct-2010. [Online]. Available: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-11621076. [Accessed: 08-Jul-2016].

  [2] Drug Enforcement Agency, “National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary,” DEA-DCT-DIR-031-16, Jun. 2016.

  [3] “Drug overdose deaths hit record numbers in 2014,” CDC Newsroom, 18-Dec-2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2015/p1218-drug-overdose.html. [Accessed: 08-Jul-2016].

  [4] S. Sidner, “Fentanyl: The opioid that killed Prince,” CNN, 03-Jun-2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/10/health/fentanyl-new-heroin-deadlier/index.html. [Accessed: 08-Jul-2016].

  [5] K. Q. Seelye, “Heroin Epidemic Is Yielding to a Deadlier Cousin: Fentanyl,” The New York Times, 25-Mar-2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/26/us/heroin-fentanyl.html. [Accessed: 08-Jul-2016].

  [6] “Increases in Fentanyl Drug Confiscations and Fentanyl-related Overdose Fatalities,” CDC Health Alert Network CDCHAN-00384, Oct. 2015.

  [7] J. Lippert, N. Cattan, and M. Parker, “Heroin Pushed on Chicago by Cartel Fueling Gang Murders,” Bloomberg, 17-Sep-2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-09-17/heroin-pushed-on-chicago-by-cartel-fueling-gang-murders. [Accessed: 08-Jul-2016].

  [8] C. Prendergast, “Pinal sheriff: Drug cartel hitmen attacking rip crews,” Arizona Daily Star. [Online]. Available: http://tucson.com/news/local/border/pinal-sheriff-drug-cartel-hitmen-attacking-rip-crews/article_81117b3b-1f3d-5df2-a968-35dfc6b09802.html. [Accessed: 09-Jul-2016].

  [9] T. Williams, “Crime Spike in St. Louis Traced to Cheap Heroin and Mexican Cartels,” The New York Times, 02-Apr-2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/03/us/crime-spike-in-st-louis-traced-to-cheap-heroin-and-mexican-cartels.html. [Accessed: 08-Jul-2016].

  [10] M. Barone, “‘Ferguson effect’ is real, and it threatens to harm black Americans most,” Washington Examiner, 18-May-2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/ferguson-effect-is-real-and-it-threatens-to-harm-black-americans-most/article/2591703. [Accessed: 09-Jul-2016].

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


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