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Can Trump’s Wall Stop The Opioid Epidemic?

by Landmark Recovery

January 30, 2019
A stop sign. Many individuals are realizing how dangerous fentanyl is and how the spread needs to stop.

During his address on 1/8/19, President Trump iterated that building his proposed wall on the southern border would help lessen the effects of the opioid epidemic by stopping the flow of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl into the United States. But how truthful is that claim?

While other measures that the president has included with his proposal, such as better scanning software and more border agents, could potentially reduce the flow of illicit narcotics into the U.S., the physical wall itself is not likely to create an impact.

The reality of the situation is that most illegal drugs make it into the U.S. through legal ports of entry such as airplanes, border checkpoints, and seaports. The wall will do nothing to change this fact. Even the experts agree that most drug traffickers could easily find a way around the wall and that more emphasis needs to be on large scale transportation.

According to Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, the wall will do nothing but slightly change the way that a small percentage of drugs are smuggled into the U.S. “A wall alone cannot stop the flow of drugs into the United States. If we’re talking about a broader increase in border security, there could be some — probably minor — implications for the overall numbers of drugs being trafficked. But history shows us that border enforcement has been much more effective at changing the when and where of drugs being brought into the United States rather than the overall amount of drugs being brought into the United States.”


Most Drugs Come Through Legal Ports of Entry

A port with shipping containers. Many drugs are brought in through legal ports.

The vast quantity of drugs that make it illegally into the U.S. do not come on the backs of migrants attempting to cross the border. The reality is that most drugs are smuggled through legal ports of entry in transportation vehicles, which is what allows for the massive quantities we see hitting the streets. From the 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary from the DEA:

“Mexican TCOs transport the bulk of their drugs over the Southwest Border through ports of entry (POEs) using passenger vehicles or tractor trailers. The drugs are typically secreted in hidden compartments when transported in passenger vehicles or commingled with legitimate goods when transported in tractor trailers. Once across the Southwest Border, the drugs are transported to stash houses in hub cities such as Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, and then transported via these same conveyances to distribution groups in the Midwest and on the East Coast.”

“Mexican TCOs also smuggle drugs across the Southwest Border using other methods. Marijuana is occasionally trafficked through subterranean tunnels connected to a network of safe houses on both the Mexico and the US sides of the border. Mexican TCOs also transport marijuana via commercial cargo trains and on small boats, often referred to as “pangas,” from the West Coast of Baja California north to the central California coast. Finally, Mexican TCOs have also transported drugs across the Southwest Border using ultralight aircraft.

Here is what we know about the various drug seizures made at the border, based on Customs and Border Patrol data from the last six years.



From 2011 to 2016, methamphetamine seizures increased by 347%. Border patrol agents seized 8,125 pounds in methamphetamine at the border in 2016. According to the DEA, the majority of this methamphetamine was transported in tractor trailers and passenger vehicles, or through mail service and couriers on buses and airplanes.



The amount of heroin seized at the border has increased 45% from 6,191 pounds in 2011 to 8,961 pounds in 2016. According to the DEA, most heroin smuggled across the border is transported in privately-owned vehicles, usually through California, as well as through south Texas.



Roughly 4,183 pounds of cocaine were seized at the border in 2016 — down 52% from 8,763 pounds in 2011. Just like Heroin and methamphetamine, cocaine is trafficked using tractor trailers and passenger vehicles, hidden among legitimate cargo or stored in secret compartments.



While there is less data available on the trafficking of fentanyl, the DEA reported seizures of over 2,100 pounds of the substance in 2017. Of that quantity, the majority was transported through the southern border. The DEA has indicated that fentanyl shipped directly from China often has purity levels above 90%, while fentanyl trafficked through the Southwest border from Mexico often has purity levels below 10%. In fiscal year 2017, Customs and Border Patrol seized over 780 lbs of fentanyl at San Diego ports of entry, accounting for 82% of all border crossing seizures nationwide, according to updated CBP data.

Even John Kelly, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary and now Chief of Staff, has acknowledged that most narcotics come through legal ports of entry, not through areas that the wall would impact.

Said Kelly in April of 2018, “The big issue really right now in drugs coming into the United States is the ports of entry. Technology that looks into trucks, tractor-trailers is pretty good but I know there’s better stuff out there…mostly the drugs come in, we believe, we know comes in, in relatively small amounts, 10, 15 kilos at a time in — in automobiles and those kind of conveyances.”

If you think about it from the drug traffickers perspective, it makes sense why so many choose to use legal ports of entry as opposed to illegal. When there is such a high quantity of legal traffic to hide within, it makes more sense and is more reliable to do that then to risk the perilous trip through the desert or a river.


Drug Traffickers Will Figure a Way Around the Wall

While some drug trafficking will be impacted by the implementation of the wall, drug traffickers will quickly find a way to get around this barrier. For example, they may turn to legal ports of entry or they may simply use different tactics and tools to get past the wall.

Some examples of ingenuitive approaches to getting past the border wall include tunnels, drones, submarines, slingshots, torpedoes, and more. Just looking at the lengths to which many Drug Trafficking Organizations go in order to sell their products shows how ineffective a wall will be at stopping anything.

Building the wall will only create what’s known as a balloon effect, wherein creating one area of pressure will only push the rest the air to another area. The same process would happen on the border, where creating pressure on one method of entry is guaranteed to only shift the pressure to another area.

According to Wilson, “Enforcement along the US-Mexico border could, potentially, push things back to the Caribbean or to some other routes, whether it pushes people to smuggle more drugs on flights into the United States [or] open a new route in the Pacific. We don’t know, but one of the things we’ve seen over time is that there’s been a balloon effect.”


Fentanyl Needs to be Stopped

A stop sign. Many individuals are realizing how dangerous fentanyl is and how the spread needs to stop.

The pipeline of fentanyl into the U.S. often ends in the hands of dead Americans. Before that, it takes a long and convoluted trip from across the ocean, sometimes into Mexico, sometimes into Canada, and sometimes directly into the U.S., to reach drug users who unwittingly inject and overdose. So where does fentanyl come from and how do we stop it?

Most of the fentanyl in the U.S. is manufactured in China. It is here where the product is either assembled and shipped, or the prerequisite materials are gathered and sold to Mexico to be made into the final product in cartel labs. In some cases, the drug is heavily diluted with fillers and marketed as cocaine, heroin, or meth, or it is sold in pill form as oxycodone. Pure fentanyl may also be laced into other drugs in order to increase the potency.

Through the mail, fentanyl and its analogues are easily slipped into packages and allowed to go unnoticed before arriving in the mailbox of buyers in the United States. These buyers often use the dark web and get their supply in small quantities from bedroom operations in China. In some cases, fentanyl is shipped through mail from China and then smuggled into Mexico for further production before it gets smuggled back.

Through Mexico, the product is shipped and prepared to be smuggled across the border at San Diego and other southwest ports of entry. Most fentanyl that comes through Mexico is much less potent and arrives mixed with other substances compared to directly from China. In some cases, fentanyl is shipped from China to Canada, where it is either smuggled across the border or mailed into the U.S.


How Opioids Spread

The severity of the opioid crisis can be mapped to a very specific pattern of spreading. You can see that before the 2000’s, opioids were less widely used, and began being abused in the southwestern United States. From 2000 to 2015, usage exploded, likely owing to a growth in manufacturers along with doctors prescribing it. The areas most prominently affected are the Southwest, Appalachian, and New England regions of the country.

We also know that in the 1960’s roughly 4 out of 5 heroin addicts began with heroin, but by 2000, 3 out of 4 heroin addicts began with prescription opioids. We know that the only way these drugs could be entering the streets is through illegal diversion or through over prescribing. Studies have shown that the majority of people who have abused a pain reliever in 2016 gained access to it through a friend or relative, with the second most common reason being prescribed through a doctor. What this tells us is that there is an over saturation problem, with too many pills being left available after a doctor has prescribed them.

This leads to the growing demand for illicit narcotics such as fentanyl and heroin that are overflowing our borders.


Medicare Part D

One study examined the effects that the introduction of Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit Program, known as Medicare Part D. This program increased opioid availability to the 65+ population, and research showed that this increase utilization lead to a significant increase in abuse, substance abuse treatment admissions, and opioid related deaths among the Medicare ineligible population. What does this mean? It Indicates a clear spillover of pills from the prescribed population to the recreational usage population. Based on evidence, the researchers asserted that a 10% increase in medical opioid distribution lead to a 7.4% increase in opioid related deaths and 14.1% increase in substance abuse treatment admission rates.


Risk Factors

Researchers found a number of risk factors associated with higher potential for opiate abuse while being prescribed the medication. Some of the most prominent include:

  • Daily doses of more than 100 MME (Morphine Milligram Equivalent)
  • Opioid Use of longer than 3 months
  • Daily use of more than two 15 mg tablets of oxycodone a day
  • Increasing daily usage by more than 20 MME doubles your risk of overdose
  • Being Younger (18-25)

Since 2012, opioid prescriptions have steadily declined, but during the mid 2000’s the rate had soared and peaked in 2012. We can ascribe a certain amount of responsibility to private insurance and Medicare, which accounted for most spending on opioid prescriptions. Medicare’s share of spending rose from $135 million in 1999 to nearly $648 million in 2012, adjusting for inflation. Opioid expenditures by age group for medicare and medicaid recipients was actually highest for those under the age of 65.


Broken Down by Geography

A U.S. map. Drugs are trafficked throughout different states in the U.S.

There are even regional differences in the types of drugs consumed. When broken down by type of opioid, we see that synthetic forms such as fentanyl are more concentrated in the eastern United States, while west of the Mississippi, heroin is largely consumed in the form of black tar. This could likely be due to the easier ability to disguise substances such as fentanyl and its derivatives in an urban setting while there is less need in more rural settings. The appearance of fentanyl has exploded since 2013, with seizures jumping from less than 5,000 in 2012 to over 35,000 in 2016.


In Conclusion

If you or a loved one are seeking help to treat a substance abuse disorder, reach out to Landmark Recovery. At Landmark, we approach treatment from the perspective that everyone is different, and requires a unique and ongoing solution. Reach out to Landmark Recovery today to begin your journey with drug and alcohol rehab towards a better tomorrow.


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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.