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Proximity to the US–Mexico border: a key to explaining geographic variation in US methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin purity


James K. Cunningham, University of Arizona, 1450 N. Cherry Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85719, USA. E-mail:


Aims  Although illicit drug purity is a widely discussed health risk, research explaining its geographic variation within a country is rare. This study examines whether proximity to the US–Mexico border, the United States' primary drug import portal, is associated with geographic variation in US methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine purity.

Design  Distances (proximity) between the US–Mexico border and locations of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin seizures/acquisitions (n = 239 070) recorded in STRIDE (System to Retrieve Information from Drug Evidence) were calculated for the period of 1990–2004. The association of drug purity with these distances and other variables, including time and seizure/acquisition size, was examined using hierarchical multivariate linear modeling (HMLM).

Setting  Coterminous United States.

Findings  Methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin purity generally decreased with distance from the US–Mexico border. Heroin purity, however, after initially declining with distance, turned upwards—a U-shaped association. During 2000–04, methamphetamine purity also had a U-shaped association with distance. For each of the three drugs, temporal changes in the purity of small acquisitions (<10 g) were typically more dynamic in areas closer to the US–Mexico border.

Conclusions  Geographic variance in methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin purity throughout the coterminous United States was associated with US–Mexico border proximity. The U-shaped associations between border-distance and purity for heroin and methamphetamine may be due to imports of those drugs via the eastern United States and southeast Canada, respectively. That said, areas closer to the US–Mexico border generally had relatively high illicit drug purity, as well as more dynamic change in the purity of small (‘retail level’) drug amounts.

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