The Heroin Business is Like Big Pharma

On a drizzly May afternoon, a man in gray sweatpants and a black Bengals hoodie sold a half-gram of heroin for $70 inside a dingy market on the west side of Cincinnati. The buyer was a plainclothes police officer; the seller was promptly handcuffed. The bust was the first of two that a team of local police would make that Thursday and one of several heroin-related cases to cross their radios: Three people overdosed, and another was caught driving under the influence. Compared with some days in their district, it was pretty slow.

Heroin has become so pervasive in cities such as Cincinnati and so profitable for the cartels that supply it that even cops admit the sporadic arrests they make have little effect. “It’s really not going to make any impact out on the street,” says Detective Brandon Connley, speaking from the damp parking lot outside the market. “Everybody and their mom sells drugs these days. There’s always somebody right there to pick back up.”

Millions of Americans got hooked on pain pills during a prescription binge that started in the 1990s and peaked around 2011. As states have tightened monitoring and doctors have reduced dosages, it’s become harder for addicts to get prescription painkillers, driving many to get their fix off street drugs. Mexican cartels and big-city gangs have capitalized on the shift, extending networks of dealers across the U.S. and flooding the market with cheap heroin, according to law enforcement.

Cartels have begun lacing heroin with synthetic opioids including fentanyl, making a dose more addictive and cheaper to produce. Overdose reversal shots are helping addicts survive, often to use again, giving dealers a steady supply of repeat customers. With persistent demand and increasingly wide profit margins, 2017 is shaping up as the most profitable year ever for the U.S. heroin trade.

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