The Monitor's View

Obama's real border issue: a heroin surge

Americans are misfocused on the surge of children crossing the US-Mexican border. The bigger border issue is the rapid rise of heroin trafficking, driven by young Americans switching from prescription painkillers.

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    Michael Botticelli, the Acting Director of National Drug Control Policy, meets mothers and their babies at Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare in Roanoke, Va. on July 8. The "drug czar" released the new report on federal strategy toward drugs.
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The big debate in Washington this summer is the surge of children from Central America crossing illegally into the United States. President Obama and Congress still seem far apart on a solution for this immigration crisis. But they may find it easier to agree on another surge across the US-Mexican border, one that is far more costly.

Since 2008, the quantity of heroin seized along the border has jumped nearly fourfold. That is because the number of heroin users in the US has almost doubled during the same period. Most new users are teens and young adults who started out on prescription opioids, such as Oxycodone. But as those controlled drugs have become more expensive and less accessible on the street under a government crackdown, users have switched to heroin.

Most of the heroin comes from Mexico. US officials estimate the country produces about 26 metric tons of pure heroin a year for a US market that is estimated at 15 to 40 metric tons.

In March, US Attorney General Eric Holder called an increase in heroin-related deaths an urgent health crisis. The number of total drug overdose deaths, most of them from prescription opioids and heroin, is close to surpassing the number of people killed in homicides and traffic crashes.

In a report Wednesday from the White House on the federal strategy toward drugs, the Obama administration set a goal of reducing regular drug use among teens by 15 percent by next year. That is an ambitious but necessary target, one that will entail more effort on a range of antidrug areas, especially in supporting Mexico in its battle with drug gangs.

Fortunately, the administration still sees marijuana use among young people as a “serious challenge,” according to the report from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. And it still mostly upholds federal laws that regard pot as dangerous and illegal.

The report also cites the challenge of a “declining” perception of harm about marijuana use among young people. With Washington State following Colorado this year in allowing marijuana to be sold legally, teens may be getting a message that any drug use may be safe. In a poll last year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse found 60 percent of 12th-graders did not view regular marijuana use as harmful.

As most states allow marijuana to be grown legally for either recreational or medicinal use, Mexican drug growers are switching to heroin production. If Washington wants to solve one of the biggest issues along the border, it has a ready-made problem to solve in this heroin trade.

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