America’s demand for illegal drugs is still strong and the supply remains steady.
by Shelly Feuer Domash
Economically speaking, street drugs and club drugs are commodities. They are mass-produced products subject to fluctuations in price due to changes in supply and demand. The way you track the demand on a commodity is to check its market value. But there’s no organized commodity market for illegal drugs, so to gauge demand you have to do a little research, you have to talk to the people who know the drug market.
That’s exactly what POLICE decided to do for this look at trends in the narcotics market. We talked to the experts, in this case narcotics officers, and we asked them for their insight into the supply of and demand for illegal drugs on the streets and in the clubs.
One way to measure the "health" of the illegal drug market in the United States is to monitor the seizure of narcotics. By that standard, it is extremely strong. Last year the New York Police Department captured 34,000 pounds of narcotic contraband, confiscated 323 weapons, made 44,000 arrests, and seized $57 million in cash.
That’s just a fraction of the illegal drug activity in just one city. But experts say such figures can be used to make educated assumptions about the overall narcotics market. "Seizures are a bellwether for us, as well as hospital admissions. [We use] them to make an educated estimate on what is going on out there," says Anthony Izzo, chief of the NYPD’s narcotics bureau.
One thing that researchers learn when they study the supply and demand of any product in the U.S. market is that different regions of the country like different products. DEA spokesman Bill Grant says the same is true for illegal drugs.
According to Grant, heroin is the drug of choice in the Northeast; cocaine, crack, and crystal methamphetamine are strong in the South; and crystal meth dominates the market in the Midwest. As it does with every other aspect of American culture, the West paves the way for the popularity of new drugs and new ways to get high that may not even be illegal yet but represent a danger to both the user and the public.
The regional demand for certain drugs is no surprise to most narcotics officers. They’ve monitored the ebb and flow of the supply of and demand for certain illegal substances for years, and they know that any number of factors can contribute to a surge of popularity for a specific drug.
For example, Det. Glen Stanley of the Los Angeles Police Department says crystal methamphetamine is the drug of choice among gay men in California. The drug, more associated by the public with rural "tweakers" than urban gays, first made a splash in the Los Angeles gay community at "circuit" parties.
Stanley explains that crystal meth, which gives the user intense energy, became the drug of choice at such parties because the participants "wanted to stay up all night to dance and have the energy left for sexual activity."
Better Delivery Method
Crystal meth is also an example of how a drug can gain a larger market when it becomes easier to get and easier to use. When it was introduced, methamphetamine had to be injected. Most people are not too keen on the idea of jabbing themselves with needles and even crackheads pride themselves on the fact that they are not needle users, so this factor delayed the spread of the drug. However, some enterprising cooker made a few adjustments to the drug’s chemistry, and the result was crystal meth that could be smoked or snorted.
Not only was the new form of the drug easier to use, it was also cheaper and easier to make, and it offered the tweaker a more intense high for less money. Crystal meth is now sold in capsules, pills, powder, or chunks, and it can be injected, snorted, or smoked.
As most cops know, crystal meth is imported into the country and it is also produced domestically in a variety of cooking operations, including mobile labs that have been found in trucks, in cars, and even attached to motorcycles. Because the chemicals used to process the drug are both toxic and explosive, meth labs represent a great danger to people living nearby, to the cookers, and to law enforcement officers.
Crystal meth is sometimes popular on the club scene, but the most common club drug is ecstasy, and the up-and-coming club drug is GHB (gamma-hydroxyl-butenal). Lt. Louis Feta, a narcotics officer with the Miami-Dade Police Department says GHB and other so-called "date-rape" drugs are common in local nightspots and at raves and parties. However, he adds that the availability of these drugs has declined since the Miami-Dade PD started working with local club owners to fight the problem.
The big trend in South Florida clubs is now the abuse of legal drugs for recreational purposes. Feta says he’s seeing a lot of Viagra, Xanax, and steroids on the local scene. And, of course, cocaine and marijuana use remain strong in the South Florida region.
In California, LAPD’s Stanley spends much of his time studying and teaching drug trends. His latest research shows that the term "club drug" may 2005 now be a misnomer. Locally, many of the drugs that have been primarily viewed as party and club drugs, including ecstasy, ketamine, and GHB, have now also spread into the general population and into general use.
Stanley says that ecstasy use in Los Angeles is an example of what can sometimes happen when the demand for a drug far exceeds the supply. Sometimes people go looking for substitutes and sometimes dealers pass the substitutes off as the real thing.
According to Stanley, in the past year, faux ecstasy has become extremely popular in Southern California. Stanley says that when ecstasy became hard to find, local police witnessed a sudden upsurge in enterprising people who were trying to manufacture and distribute it, often with substitute ingredients that are analogues for the drug. "Some people who had not taken the drug before didn’t know the difference," Stanley says.
The acceptance of these "X" substitutes has sparked a market for such compounds and a surge of dealers looking to make a quick buck on ersatz X. "We have seen a huge explosion of new drug users and analogues," says Stanley.
Never Out of Style
Yet, despite the popularity of club drugs and crystal meth, one thing that’s constant in America’s illegal drug market is that there is always demand for heroin and cocaine. This is a major concern for narcotics officers because the world political climate could lead to an increased supply of both drugs.
LAPD’s Stanley says that the Los Angeles area is already seeing a resurgence of powder cocaine. "Meth had replaced cocaine in a lot of places because it offered the users more bang for your buck. But now we are seeing more cocaine coming in," he says.
Stanley also believes that American law enforcement will soon see an explosion of heroin. "All of a sudden there is a lot of talk about it on the Internet," he explains. "I keep an eye on trends, and I never have seen the interest in heroin go up as much as I’ve seen it recently. It seems like a lot of kids are more interested in heroin."
Like many experts, Stanley points to several factors leading to a boom in the heroin market. He believes that people who have tried the heroin analogue Oxycontin are curious about the real thing. And of course, the resurrection of the opium industry in Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban has an effect on the supply of heroin in both Europe and the United States.
"I don’t know how much impact over all it will have on the availability of heroin," Stanley says. "But it causes the purity to go up and, when the purity goes up, more people smoke and snort it." A lot of people falsely believe that they won’t get hooked on heroin if they don’t inject it, Stanley explains.
Perhaps the most important new trend in the drug market is the online dealer. Experts say that cops have to stop limiting their vision of drug distribution to gangbangers on street corners or shady characters in nightclubs. Today’s pusher is as likely to be operating in cyberspace as hanging around in the park.
"There is a whole rave culture that grew up with the Internet; it is their second way of communicating. They have chat rooms and message boards and there is a lot of communication about what is happening with drugs on the Internet," says Stanley.
Ecstasy substitutes are some of the most popular drugs sold on the Net. They fall into two categories: phenethylamines, a group of compounds that are derivatives of beta-aminoethylbenzene. These chemicals are structurally and pharmacologically related to amphetamine and to tryptamines, hallucinogenic substances that exist naturally in some plants, fungi, and animals. The tryptamines, which can now be synthesized, tend to have an affect similar to LSD, while the Phenethylamines are most like ecstasy, making the user feel tingly and energized.
According to Stanley, there are approximately 186 different types of phenethylamines and 110 different types of tryptamines. Which makes enforcement almost impossible. As Stanley explains "only about eight or 10 of these substances are illegal."
Worse, from the point of view of law enforcement is the fact that many of the online dealers cloak their activities in legitimate clothing. "Internet companies keep popping up and selling these chemicals under the guise of research," says Stanley. "Kids can go online and order them and have them delivered right to their house. That has a lot to do with their popularity. The DEA has done a good job on the most popular ones but, for every one they take off, another one pops up."
Last July, the DEA announced the culmination of "Operation Web Tryp," which targeted five Websites and made 10 arrests. The sites allegedly were distributing highly dangerous designer drug analogues under the name "research chemicals." They had thousands of customers, and the operators were accused of selling substances that led to the fatal overdoses of at least two people in addition to 14 non-fatal overdoses.
Despite these arrests, a quick look at the Internet shows a large number of sites still willing to sell the drugs.
These sites are only a small part of the online drug market. Cyberspace is as friendly to narco traffickers and dealers as it is to terrorists. Consequently, the Internet has become a major source of illegal drugs, and law enforcement will be forced to respond.
"It is a difficult problem to tackle," says DEA spokesman Grant. "It is difficult to look at from the DEA’s perspective where we have to dismantle organizations and have to find the top. On the Internet you basically have to trace Internet lines to find out where they are coming from."
The challenge of 21st-century drug enforcement is not just making street busts and seizing the caches and shipments of dealers and distributors. New drugs are being marketed and old drugs are being modified to make them more acceptable to users. Also, new delivery and distribution methods are being developed to take advantage of the Internet.
Consequently, it’s critical that narcotics officers know the trends in the market. In this field, as in almost every police operation, information is the difference between success and failure.
Shelly Feuer Domash is a Long Island-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to POLICE magazine.