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EDITORIAL: ‘El Chapo’ will rot in prison, but America’s drug abuse crisis rages on

The problem is not only illegal drugs such as heroin, but also the opioid-based pills of Big Pharma, which have been overprescribed and overused

Jesus Raul Beltran Leon was a top lieutenant to now-imprisoned Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera (above).
Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera.
Associated Press

In a secretly taped phone call almost a decade ago, the co-leader of “El Chapo’s” drug cartel, Ismael Zambada, gave his son permission to tell federal investigators everything he knew — because it no longer mattered.

The drug cartels had moved on, and anything the son could tell investigators was utterly out of date and irrelevant.

The lesson?

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s sentencing Wednesday in New York — to life plus 30 years in prison for crimes ranging from narcotics trafficking to a murder conspiracy — won’t make a dent in the illegal drug trade in the United States, not even in Chicago, where El Chapo once reigned.

The illegal drug trade across borders — heroin, cocaine and marijuana — is too big and lucrative to be slowed by a single conviction, even the conviction of a drug kingpin such as Guzman. If the United States is serious about curbing the use of illegal drugs, as well as the violence the drug trade brings, it must address the much larger problem of drug abuse and dependency.

Wholesale drug abuse is a scourge that involves not only illegally produced drugs like heroin, but also the opioid-based pills of Big Pharma, which have been overprescribed and overused.

Just this week, the Washington Post reported that America’s largest drug companies saturated the country with 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills from 2006 through 2012, a likely major explanation for an epidemic of drug overdose deaths.

It’s all part of the same story, experts say. When an addicted person no longer has access to one kind of drug, he or she will turn to another. Or, to use a specific example, when a person hooked on Oxycontin can no longer get a prescription opioid, he or she may turn to black market heroin.

Guzman profited off that desperation. He saw America’s increasing addiction to prescription opioid drugs, and he went more heavily into moving heroin. He saw — and wanted to capitalize on — the growing demand.

But let’s make a distinction. El Chapo was a parasite, not a businessman.

The mission of the big legal pharmaceutical companies is to develop responsible drugs that meet crucial needs. Vicodin, an opioid, is often what you want after, say, painful oral surgery. You are glad a doctor can prescribe it — if used responsibly.

Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel sold street drugs to anybody, regardless of the human toll. It is pathetic, though historically consistent, that he was seen as a folk hero by some, just like Al Capone and other killers.

Consider how deeply Guzman hurt Chicago, one of his top distribution centers and markets. His cocaine and heroin were all over the streets, and so was the violence. Remember how, in 2015, 7-year-old Amari Brown was shot down accidentally in a gang dispute that was believed to have been fueled by illegal drugs.

In the 25 years Guzman was at the top, his Sinaloa cartel brought an ocean of illegal drugs into the United States, much of it flowing through our city.

Thankfully, our nation’s opioid addiction crisis might, finally, be easing. Preliminary government data released Wednesday shows that overdose deaths dropped nationwide by about 5% last year, the first decline since 1990.

But as much as we’re happy that Guzman, 62, will rot away the rest of his life in a federal prison, we know his apprehension had little to nothing to do with that decline in opioid deaths. We know the challenge is greater.

“My message as a former federal prosecutor is we need to treat addiction as a public health crisis, not as a criminal issue,” Thomas Shakeshaft, a former assistant U.S. attorney who supervised the investigation that led to Guzman’s arrest in 2016, told us on Wednesday.

As long as there is the demand, there will be another El Chapo.

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