iStock_000017279422_FullOn November 4, 2015, DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg announced the results of the 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary (NDTA). In addition to reporting in-depth findings regarding the availability and use of nine drugs of abuse, the 2015 NDTA focuses on the increasing threat of transnational criminal organizations (“TCOs”), confirming Michelle Leonhart’s testimony before her departure from the Agency about the integral role of TCOs in the “new face of organized crime.”   

Controlled Prescription Drugs

The number of individuals reporting current non-medical use of Controlled Prescription Drugs (CPDs) is more than those reporting use of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, MDMA, and PCP combined.  Even in the midst of rising death rates from heroin overdose, the number of deaths attributable to CPDs continues to outpace that of heroin and cocaine combined.  But the NDTA shows that the perceived threat of CPDs nationally has decreased by a consistent margin since 2013 (from 28% of respondents in 2013, to 22% of respondents in 2014, and now only 15% of respondents in 2015).  The perceived threat of heroin and methamphetamine, on the other hand, have each trended in the opposite direction.  And when reported perceptions are organized regionally, the perceived threat of methamphetamine or heroin tower over that of CPDs in every US region.

Perhaps one reason why the perceived threat of CPDs is relatively low compared to the rates of death and addiction associated with these drugs is that users generally obtain CPDs from very different sources than users of other illicit drugs.  The NDTA reports that most non-medical users of pain relievers (53%) obtain the drugs from a friend or relative for free or without asking.  Even “frequent or chronic users” obtain 40% of their pain relievers for free from friends or relatives, with just 25% of their supply being purchased from friends, relatives, dealers, or the internet.  Thus, although the abuse of CPDs is epidemic, the manner in which these drugs are distributed for non-medical use likely does present fewer threats to public safety.

Transnational Criminal Organizations

In contrast to the family and friends who supply most of the CPDs being misused, Mexican TCOs trafficking heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana dominate the criminal drug threat to the US.  This year’s NDTA provides a detailed look at the most significant TCOs operating in the US, where they are known to be operating, how they operate and integrate with domestic gangs, and their tactics for moving drug proceeds into, within, and out of the United States.

In particular, DEA identifies significant growth by the Mexican TCO called New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG).  Although CJNG was not even on the DEA’s map in 2014 (literally), the organization is “quickly becoming one of the most powerful TCOs in Mexico,” and has trafficking operations in Asia, Europe, and Oceania that rival the most active TCO supplier in the US, Sinaloa Cartel.  There has also been significant growth in Mexican TCOs’ control over the heroin market.  In another 2015 report, DEA explains that Mexican TCOs are now the most prominent wholesale-level heroin traffickers in the DEA Chicago, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and DC districts.

One of the factors contributing to the rise of Mexican TCOs is their willingness to capitalize on partnership opportunities with street gangs in the US.  National-level gangs and neighborhood gangs continue to form relationships with Mexican TCOs.  Gangs use Mexican TCOs as their primary source of drug supply, for the enforcement of drug payments, and for protection of drug transportation corridors from use by rival gangs.  The TCOs benefit from the street-level gangs’ ability to distribute among an existing customer base.  As a result of this opportunistic relationship, the highest-ranking members of Mexican TCOs can remain in Mexico while their drug product is distributed through US gang networks.

The level of detail provided in the 2015 NDTA, particularly with respect to TCOs’ areas of influence and known gang affiliations, speaks to the efforts and commitment of the local, state, tribal, and federal agencies that provided the information for this report.  It is a recommended read for anyone interested in the drug issues facing the US today.