Drug that Killed Prince Wreaks Havoc in U.S.

Fans mourned when the musician Prince overdosed on an extremely potent heroin variant named fentanyl. But Prince may be yet another tragic casualty of something Americans ignore at their peril. New evidence suggests that the American heroin epidemic — heroin use went up over 300 percent between 2007 and 2014 — is responsible for a demonstrable spike in deaths. And Mexican drug cartels, which produce fentanyl, are the culprits.

Fifty to a hundred times stronger than common street heroin, fentanyl is often mixed or “cut” with filler and its less potent cousin, reducing the dose necessary to give users a high. It’s also being mixed with black market pharmaceuticals like Norco, a common painkiller. Even more shockingly, fentanyl has found its way into counterfeit prescriptions for the common anti-anxiety medicine, Xanax, which is not even an opioid. 

Fentanyl has already killed hundreds of Americans who are ignorant of its power — or even its presence — in the drugs they are taking.

In fact, fentanyl’s potency may be responsible for the lion’s share of the heroin-related deaths in the United States. Last year in New Hampshire — where the heroin crisis is most severe — an astounding  70 percent of all overdose deaths involved fentanyl. A similar pattern is evident in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where Cleveland is located, with 64 percent of all overdose fatalities resulting from fentanyl. Statewide, Ohio’s fentanyl-related deaths were up 600 percent in 2014.

It remains unclear how Prince obtained the strong painkiller, which can still be legally prescribed by a physician. But the prevalence, availability, and use of the drug has increased dramatically over the past decade, and especially since 2014. This is due to illegal manufacturing and importing by Mexican drug cartels, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Even more worrying is that we may not even be aware of the scope of the problem nationally. According to a new DEA report, many coroners and state crime labs nationwide don’t even test for the drug, so many fentanyl related deaths may be misreported.

Thanks to the volume of drugs needed to feed these monstrous and growing habits, cartel activity is now on the rise, too. Increased demand for heroin swells the wealth and power of the Mexican cartels. For example, the Sinaloa cartel, the largest heroin producer for the American market, rakes in $3 billion a year off the Chicago drug trade alone.

To maintain market share, street-level gangs with links to the cartels are perpetrating violent crimes — including brutal homicides. According an analysis of local police data and preliminary FBI reports, violent crime (particularly homicide) is up substantially since 2014. Homicides in Chicago, for example, are up 70 percent in the first half of 2016 over the same period in 2014, compared to a national increase of 6.2 percent between the first half of 2014 and 2015.

Prior to early 2014, a relative calm persisted in the Mexican cartel hierarchy. Then Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was captured, unleashing chaos in the drug world. Although Guzman later escaped and was recaptured, the Sinaloas lost their exclusive grip on trafficking in many cities as rival cartels competed for control of heroin importation.

According to the DEA, the power vacuum in the heroin market of major American cities caused a conflict between multiple rival cartels, who, in turn, used their street gang allies to fight each other for customer bases. The struggle caught local communities in the crossfire and a surge in the murder rate ensued.

Such violent street gang warfare — exacerbated by inter-cartel rivalries — link the spike in crime, heroin, and its deadly cousin, fentanyl. 

According to the DEA, this is because “many [street-level] gangs [in the U.S.] rely on Mexican TCOs [e.g. cartels] as their primary drug source of supply, and Mexican TCOs depend on street-level gangs, many of which already have a customer base, for drug distribution.” These street gangs — as authorities in St. Louis have acknowledged — are under orders from their Mexican cartel bosses to corner the local market on heroin sales using any means necessary.

Of 25 major American cities surveyed, homicide rates are up from 2014 in most of the places where rival cartels vie for turf (as in Chicago) and down in those that have a single cartel in control (as in Boston). 21 of the 25 cities track this pattern.

And the latest news out of Mexico suggests that it may get a lot worse before it gets better. Rival cartels have targeted the mother of the now-imprisoned El Chapo, while U.S. authorities attempt to extradite the former drug kingpin, both potentially plunging American streets into further chaos.

Prince’s tragic death may be just the beginning of America’s next drug-craze and its resulting violence.

Sean Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in Washington, D.C. Parker Abt is a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

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