How Covid-19 Impacted New York City's Drug Market: The Allegedly Original

Good afternoon!

Here at Allegedly, we wanted to start the week by looking at how Covid-19 has impacted New York’s drug trade. It’s been almost a year since everything shut down, which in turn interrupted drug supply—driving prices through the roof. We were wondering what else was up, and saw something interesting: even though Mexican drug cartels have long been unable to establish a significant meth market in New York City, they appeared to be ramping up their efforts amid coronavirus.

The Drug Enforcement Administration’s New York Division said in late January that there was a 214% increase in methamphetamine seized in fiscal year 2020 compared to 2019. In this same period, there was a 59% uptick in fentanyl seized in New York. Officials believe fentanyl is involved in about 60% of New York City's overdose deaths. 

We wanted to find out more, so Allegedly spoke with Ray Donovan, special agent in charge of the DEA’s New York Division. 

Allegedly: Is more fentanyl and more meth winding up, generally, in the market ?

Donovan: More Fentanyl, especially in New York City, seems to be the drug of choice. Methamphetamine here in New York City is a relatively new thing. We would see meth, but it wasn't really destined for New York City. It would come in, and then it would spread out throughout the Northeast.  The reason for [the increase] is they’re both synthetic. We see a lot more meth production in Mexico, and fentanyl production in Mexico, than ever before.

Are meth and fentanyl also winding up in other drugs? 

Do we see it in other illicit narcotics? We see fentanyl get mixed in. Originally, we saw fentanyl get mixed with heroin, for the purpose of making the heroin stronger. That was around 2011, 2012. It was really to make it more potent. And then from there, it slowly went from okay, a mix for heroin, to being sold solely as fentanyl and they called it on the street with such things as “China White,” because it was so much more powerful than heroin. 

We do see fentanyl get mixed with other narcotics, such as methamphetamine and cocaine. We’ve had some instances where fentanyl has been put in marijuana. And for those reasons, we believe that particular dealer or network is lacing the narcotic with fentanyl because of the addictive properties of opioids. So, it’s a stronger addiction, and it brings their client base coming back. 

The problem is, for those individuals that are using that particular drug, they’re unaware that they’re getting cocaine laced with fentanyl. And so it’s that much more deadly. They assume that they’re going to buy one drug but in fact, they’re actually purchasing fentanyl.

Coronavirus-labeled heroin-fentanyl, photo courtesy of DEA.

With the distributor, do they think that someone’s just going to get more addicted to pot with fentanyl in it? Or do they think they’re going to be chasing after fentanyl specifically now? 

It varies from organization to organization. There are some that very purposefully lace their drugs with fentanyl, to bring them back. There are other organizations that would put fentanyl into substances, like cocaine or methamphetamine, to give the user a different feeling, with hopes of bringing them back. It always comes down to money. It always comes back to the user population. That’s what the drug dealer is shooting for is to get as much money as possible, so that they can make their brand of a drug more attractive. 

One of the things that the cartels did, while [...] states would shut down because of COVID, they were stockpiling their drugs. It was causing the prices to go up and the demand never really subsided,  And so they were making more money. That’s why we see a lot more fentanyl, a lot more methamphetamine, in the city. 

So the cartels capitalized on COVID. If they stockpiled things, there would be increased demand, is that their reasoning? 

The demand for fentanyl, here in New York, really never subsided. It’s more and more becoming the drug of choice. The demand pretty much was on the rise, regardless. The unique thing is about meth coming into the city. We’ve never really seen, historically, a market for methamphetamine here in New York, until literally this year. We’ve seen the meth markets Upstate, and places like Buffalo and Rochester.  We see it in southern New Jersey, in Philadelphia. But we didn’t didn’t see meth really take a hold here in the city. So it is unique. 

The other thing that the Mexican cartels were doing: They were stockpiling the drugs there in Mexico. Because of the border security, and now heightened security there, they chose to stockpile it—number one, making the increase in price. Also, [stockpiling] so that they didn't lose loads coming in, trying to get smuggled into the port of entry and then smuggled from state to state, when less people were traveling.

Meth

Meth seized in the Bronx, Photo Courtesy of DEA.

Is there increased demand for meth here because more people have been introduced to it? Or, has it become easier to get than other stimulants? Or, is it like, the cartels are really making a push to bring this into the market, but it hasn’t necessarily taken hold yet?

It’s a combination of variables. When you talk about 2014, and even going earlier than that, if you think about what is a common drug for manufacturing in Mexico, it’s not cocaine. What’s happening with cocaine is the market has really gone worldwide, Europe, Australia, Asia, Canada. The demand for cocaine is much higher now than ever before throughout Europe. Many of the [southern Andean] criminal groups and networks are pushing their cocaine worldwide. 

It’s not necessarily just destined for the United States. That leaves the Mexican cartels with: What can they produce there? They can produce heroin. They could bring in fentanyl from China. They can produce methamphetamine. And so that’s why they stockpile it, because they have a lot more access to it. They didn’t have access to cocaine, like they do down in Colombia, and Peru and Ecuador and Chile. And that’s why the Mexican cartel said: “What can we produce here?  We’re going to continue to produce in the super laboratories, methamphetamine.”  

Eventually, it’s like any other place. If there’s a slight demand, and they keep on pushing it, the Mexican cartels—in particular, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel New Generation—it’s going to start picking up. That’s what we saw happen. 

This is totally unrelated,  but I figured, because Covid makes everything so weird, I would ask: has there been any activity with drugs that  you haven’t seen for a very long time, like quaaludes? 

Like pharmaceuticals, hallucinogens? From time to time we do, but they’re more one- 

off. What we are seeing is a relatively new trend in the city. You have these street distribution organizations that would normally put heroin in a glassine bag, and distribute it on the street. They are now receiving fentanyl and pressing that fentanyl powder into pills. 

We see a lot more organizations trying to get the powder and press it into pills. The reason why they are doing it is because from fentanyl, you could generate millions of dollars just from one kilo. You could literally make 500,000 pills from one kilo of fentanyl, at two milligrams a pill. 

Wait, 500,000 pills? One kilo? 

Yeah. Two milligrams of fentanyl is potent. Potent enough to kill someone. You can press so many more pills from one kilo of fentanyl. What’s happening is they’re looking for different clients. So, if an individual who is afraid of doing drugs, like in a powder form, they get a pill. 

They think that behind the production of that pill, “Well, this was made in a lab. And so there’s some kind of quality control, and therefore it’s safer.” It’s not. It’s fentanyl that some street organization pressed into a pill, and they’re selling it as if it’s an oxy, oxy-30, which is not the case.  

How much does a pill go for? 

A pill goes for about $30; $25, $30 a pill. 

A bag of heroin? 

A deck: ten, $15. It truly varies on that. Here's something to consider: Why are synthetic opioids taking hold in America and why are the cartels pushing it?  It’s the business model. If it takes a cartel three to four months to fully produce three kilos of heroin in a poppy field, by the time they pick all the poppy, they grind it down, they get all the powder turned into paste, they refine it into heroin, that’s about a four-month process. And in that field, they may generate two-and-a-half, three kilos of heroin.  You can buy a kilo of fentanyl for as little as $4,000 from China, and you can make millions of dollars from that one kilo. And then, it’s an unlimited supply because it’s synthetic. It’s manufactured in a laboratory. And now we see more fentanyl labs popping up in Mexico. That is the difference. The business model is more lucrative for synthetic drugs. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.