Mexican Drugs, U.S. Markets

DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney offers details on the kind of drugs flowing into the United States from Mexico — including where they go and who is buying them.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. This week, when President Obama and Mexican President Calderon talked about the elicit drug trade, it was against the backdrop of an unusual admission by Washington, that the reason drugs come north from Mexico into the U.S. is Americans have a huge appetite for drugs. How huge, and how much of that appetite is satisfied by the Mexican drug cartels? Well, we're going to hear from Garrison Courtney, who is spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Hi, welcome.

Mr. GARRISON COURTNEY (Spokesman, Drug Enforcement Administration): Hi. Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: First of all, what drugs are coming up from Mexico into the U.S.?

Mr. COURTNEY: Pick a drug. I mean, it's basically the drug pinwheel. And when you look at what's coming from Mexico, most people don't realize that the biggest import in the U.S. from Mexico is marijuana, and that's about 70 percent of the drugs coming across through Mexico. But Mexico also serves as a transit zone for our - any cocaine's coming from Central South America. There's a lot of methamphetamine made in Mexico now. It's actually about 80 percent of the U.S. supply. Then you also have heroin, which a lot of that really comes from Colombia and other areas, but what they do is they bring it up, grab the loads, cut them down, and make into their own type of Mexican black tar heroin that goes to the Midwest and West Coast.

SIEGEL: And in the case of methamphetamine, it used to be - a lot of it was cooked up in the States, with ingredients you could go buy at Wal-Mart. Did our ban on pseudoephedrine, more or less, turn methamphetamine into an exclusively imported drug?

Mr. COURTNEY: Drastically. You know, methamphetamine was a huge West Coast product. And in 2005, when they restricted the pseudo, a lot of it pushed south into Mexico. And now they have just gigantic, super labs down there that are bringing in, you know, hundreds of pounds of methamphetamine a year. And the problem with that for the Mexicans is that for each pound of methamphetamine that's made, there's five pounds of toxic materials. And this is something that we saw in the United States. But they really don't have the capacity to deal with that right now. So it's not only a drug problem. It's now an environmental problem for a lot of the provinces down there.

SIEGEL: In terms of the different drugs that are coming across the border from Mexico into the U.S., which are the highest profit-margin drugs and which are the low profit margin, high-volume products?

Mr. COURTNEY: It really runs neck-in-neck for the highest profit margin between marijuana and heroin. Marijuana, you have about a 600 to 700 percent return rate. And with heroin, you know, it's roughly 500 to 600 percent. So between those two, you run neck-in-neck with the profit margin you can get out of it. After that, it becomes methamphetamine and then cocaine. And then, you know, below that - actually the most abused drug we see right now are pharmaceutical drugs.

SIEGEL: So far as the DEA knows, where do the Mexican drugs and the drugs trans-shipped through Mexico go in the U.S. after they get across the border?

Mr. COURTNEY: Most of them hit the southwestern border cities. What they'll do is they'll go to Phoenix, you know; they'll hit areas like Houston, El Paso, Atlanta. And then from Atlanta, it would basically go into the eastern seaboard, you know, places like Washington, D.C. We just had a huge criminal ring broken up in Baltimore yesterday, where 24 gang members were arrested and, you know, those gang members were getting their drugs from Mexico.

SIEGEL: Now give us a picture of, as best your agency can tell - the DEA - how many Americans are on the consuming end of this, do you figure?

Mr. COURTNEY: You know, surprisingly, since the '70s, the number's gone down. In 19, I think it was '72-'73, you had, really, close to 20 percent of Americans had either tried or were users of some drugs. Now the number sits about 4 and 10 percent, which is a significant downturn. That number is good. It's a sign of success. But until we get rid of, you know, kind of the idea that drugs are sexy and the idea that, you know, drugs are going to get you through your day, you know, you're still going to have a high percentage of people - and you'll never get away from the problem of drug abuse. You'll always have some individual somewhere - since beginning of time. The best quote I heard was the other day from somebody in our agency - you know, the first controlled substance was in the Garden of Eden. So, you know, it's been around, it will be around. But, you know, I think the best expectation is minimalize it.

SIEGEL: Mr. Courtney, thank you very much.

Mr. COURTNEY: Yeah, thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Garrison Courtney, who is spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

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