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A Drug Trend That Could Resonate South of the Border

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SAN DIEGO -- The New York Times noted this week that compared to the 1980s, cocaine use in the United States is down significantly, while the abuse of prescription painkillers has exploded. It was the cause of more overdose deaths in 2008 than all illicit drugs combined.

Experts note that at least in part, this is due to cocaine use running its course among older addicts, who are “dying or quitting,” while young people get hooked on newer drugs.

This growing prescription-abuse epidemic, which lands thousands in emergency rooms each year, is alarming.

But within the context of the war between Mexican cartels fighting to control U.S.-bound supply routes for cocaine and other illicit drugs, I think the trend begs this question: In the years and decades to come, will a shift in American drug habits do more to temper violence south of the border than will lawmakers, the military, or any number of rotating drug interdiction strategies?

Prescription painkillers, stimulants and other “psychotherapeutics,” as the Times notes, are impossible to interdict. They are homegrown. Indeed, the trend is already forcing American policymakers to confront the problem of domestic addiction, something they’ve been criticized for not doing seriously enough with illicit drugs as a way to help solve Mexico’s brutal drug war.

For his part, Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto has already said the U.S. must do more to curb drug demand. He said he’ll focus on ending the brutal violence that has consumed parts of Mexico for the better part of a decade, leaving outstanding the question of whether he’ll be as aggressive as his predecessor in fighting the flow of drugs.

Whether that means a new, domestic prescription drug problem may eventually become a more reliable -- if troubling -- partner in the U.S.’s effort to stem the northbound flow of illicit drugs remains to be seen.