Law and Policy: Controls on Drug Trafficking

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Law and Policy: Controls on Drug Trafficking

The United States is one of the largest and most profitable drug markets in the world. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Americans spent approximately $64 billion on illegal drugs in 2000. About $35 billion of that total was spent on cocaine, $10 billion each on heroin and marijuana, and $5 billion on methamphetamine. Major sources of heroin include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Mexico, and Colombia. Most of the cocaine supply comes from Colombia. Marijuana is grown across much of the globe, including in the United States, with Mexico currently being the most important exporter to the U.S. market. Methamphetamine supplies come primarily from Mexican and domestic sources.

According to estimates from the 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 2.8 million Americans are dependent on illegal drugs, and 1.5 million are classified under the less severe category of abuser. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports that there are an estimated 11.5 million marijuana users in the United States, and that one-third of Americans have used marijuana at some point in their lives. The University of Michigan conducts an annual survey, "Monitoring the Future," about drug use by young people. The most recent survey indicates that more than 50 percent of high school seniors experimented with illegal drugs at least once before graduation. Asked about their recent use, 25 percent of seniors said they had used illegal drugs in the month prior to the survey.

Controlling the Drug Supply

In an attempt to combat the sizable illegal drug market, the United States drug control strategy has been based on a simple theory of deterrence. According to this theory, intense law enforcement pressure on the drug supply will reduce drug use by making drugs scarcer, more expensive, and riskier to buy.

Following this basic logic, law enforcement targets each link in the drug trafficking chain. Pressure begins abroad at the point of production and processing of drugs. Next, efforts are made to stop drugs from entering at the U.S. border. And finally, law enforcement attempts to disrupt distribution networks and sales within the United States. The term "supply-side" strategy is used to describe this kind of attempt to reduce illegal drug use by limiting the available supply. The United States has devoted enormous resources to carrying out this supply-side strategy. Federal funding for drug control expanded from $1.5 billion in 1980 to $18.8 billion in 2002. Roughly 70 percent of the budget was devoted to law enforcement. The rest of the federal anti-drug budget focuses on "demand-side" measures that emphasize treatment, prevention, and education.

The first line of defense in the strategy to control drug supply targets the countries that produce and traffic drugs. As a result, drug control has become a major issue of U.S. relations with many of its Latin American and Caribbean neighbors. The United States uses financial aid and international support as rewards for countries that cooperate in efforts to eliminate drug crops, destroy drug-processing labs, and catch traffickers. If these countries fail to cooperate, they face sanctions , public criticism, and cuts in financial aid, trade, or other benefits. The drug strategy's second line of defense is to seize international shipments of drugs at the point of entry into the United States. The Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, and the Customs Service have traditionally fulfilled this mission. However, since the Cold War, the U.S. military has also taken on important drug interdiction duties. The strategy's final line of defense against the drug supply is at home. Local law enforcement agencies aim to disrupt and reduce drug distribution and sales within the United States by increasing the chances of arrest, prosecution, and punishment for those who sell and use drugs.

As the antidrug effort has expanded, record numbers of drugs have been seized and destroyed, and record numbers of traffickers and dealers have been imprisoned. Yet despite this substantial build-up of drug enforcement at home and in other countries, more drugs are produced and available in more places than ever before, from large urban centers to rural towns. As trafficking operations have expanded, they have become more sophisticated and harder to detect. The prices of cocaine and heroin on the nation's streets have fallen by more than half since 1981, and the purity of these drugs has been improved, making the drugs even more desirable to users. The potency of marijuana, the most widely available and popular illegal drug, has tripled since the late 1970s.

Heroin trends are particularly troubling. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the average purity levels of heroin available across the country have increased. In the early 1980s, what was sold as heroin was actually only 7 percent pure heroin. By 2002 the purity level had risen to nearly 40 percent. High-purity heroin can be snorted, meaning that users can avoid the stigma of needle use. More people are willing to use heroin if they do not have to inject it with a needle.

Although in the early twenty-first century there is less casual drug use than there was two decades ago, hard-core abuse and addiction have not declined. In the case of heroin and cocaine, regular users consume most of the imported supply. In another trend, synthetic or designer drugs (drugs created artificially in labs) have become increasingly popular, especially MDMA (ecstasy).

While there is heated political debate over the effectiveness of U.S. drug policy, the supply-side approach to controlling drugs has remained fairly constant over the years. When the policy yields poor results, supporters of the policy tend to blame these failures on a lack of funding or a lack of political commitment and moral resolve. In other words, supply-side supporters argue that the policy has not been forceful enough.

Yet inadequate funds or weak enforcement of drug policies are not the only reason for the failure to control the drug trade. Drug-control policy has enormous difficulty overcoming the powerful economic logic of the drug trade.

How the Drug Trade Works

The drug supply begins at the source of production, moves to the U.S. borders, and then to a network of distributors within the country. Understanding the economics of this supply chain highlights the enormous challenge to U.S. drug policy.

At the Source of Production. In a number of drug-producing countries, a major source of employment and export income is the underground drug economy. The economic importance of the drug trade severely challenges attempts to reduce drug supply. From peasant

Jamaica  214356206208502263641
Belize          49
Total Cannabis11,20015,80016,44719,68920,23913,38614,40713,20813,165
source: Inter national Narcotics Control Strategy Report, 1999. <>.

producers to traffickers, those involved in the drug trade are driven by one or both of two motives: (1) profit, and/or (2) the lack of other ways to make money. As long as demand for drugs and drug profits remain high, production and trafficking in poor nations will likely continue. Drugs are relatively easy to produce, process, and transport. Growing coca, marijuana, or opium poppy produces more income than any legal export crop. As a result, campaigns to eliminate drug crops in one area have simply encouraged peasants to replant them elsewhere. Peasants often find new and more remote areas previously untouched by the illicit trade. And the potential for crop expansion is massive. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that there are 2.5 million square miles in South America alone that are suitable for growing coca, the plant used to produce cocaine. Only a small percentage of this land is currently used to grow coca crops.

Just as trying to eliminate drug crops has been difficult, efforts to break up the operations of trafficking organizations have proven equally frustrating. When antidrug efforts target one group of traffickers, new traffickers enter and fill the gap. For example, after Colombia's infamous Medellin and Cali drug trafficking groups were dismantled, a larger number of smaller trafficking organizations quickly took their place, with no reduction in drug exports. In other words, even successful efforts at targeting individual traffickers

1992 1993 1994 1995 19961997199819992000
Bolivia13,400 22,80052,90070,10075,10085,00089,80084,40080,300
Ecuador-------  100  100
Total Coca650,800613,400586,100574,300552,700497,900290,000271,700333,900
SOURCE: International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, 1 March 2001. <>.

and trafficking organizations have not resulted in less drugs being trafficked.

While U.S. drug policy has so far largely failed to reduce the drug supply at the source of production, some observers also argue that the policy has brought about negative side effects. For example, one aspect of the drug policy is to encourage foreign militaries to take on drug control tasks, such as in some South American drug-producing countries. Military involvement increases the potential for corruption and human rights abuses. In addition, a military role can weaken civilian control in countries that lack strong democratic institutions.

At the Border. People who transport drugs into the United States have proven to be as adaptable and innovative as foreign drug producers. For example, in the mid-1980s U.S. law enforcement increased efforts to stop the flow of drugs through southern Florida and the Caribbean. Smugglers responded by finding new shipping routes through Central America and Mexico. Smugglers have also switched to forms of transport that are more difficult to detect. For example, when law enforcement stepped up interdiction of drugs coming in by air in the 1980s, smugglers turned to cargo ships and other transport methods to camouflage their drug shipments.

In short, smugglers adapt in ways that make their illicit commerce difficult to detect and prevent. As a result, despite increased efforts at the border, U.S. border enforcers are able to intercept only a small percentage of the imported drug supply. Because of the high profits of the drug trade, smugglers view these lost drug loads as an affordable business expense.

Weeding out drug shipments along the border is like searching for a needle in an ever-growing haystack. Because current U.S. trade policy aims to increase levels of legal trade, an enormous amount of goods comes into the country. Each year, 116 million vehicles cross the land borders with Canada and Mexico, and more than 900,000 merchant and passenger ships dock at U.S. ports. In the face of this much traffic at the borders, trying to enforce laws against the illegal drug trade is an extremely frustrating task.

At Home. Drug dealers on U.S. streets and peasants who grow drug crops in drug-producing countries share the same economic incentives: the potential for large profits, and the lack of other attractive ways to make money. Law enforcement within U.S. borders concentrates on catching, prosecuting, and convicting drug distributors and dealers. But these efforts fail to take the profit out of the trade.

In the drug trafficking chain, the most easily replaceable links are street dealers. When one street dealer goes to jail, there is always a new recruit to replace him. As a result, making more arrests does not necessarily lead to fewer dealers. And disrupting dealing in one neighborhood can simply move it to another. All too often, dealing is moved rather than removed.

Meanwhile, drug-related arrests have helped give the United States the highest rate of imprisonment in the developed world. In 1980, 25 percent of the inmate population in federal prisons were drug offenders. In the early twenty-first century, more than 60 percent of inmates are drug offenders. The criminal justice system is so swamped with drug-related cases that investigations and prosecutions of other serious crimes sometimes suffer.

Despite the high imprisonment rate, the threat of punishment does not appear to deter hard-core drug users from buying and abusing drugs. The United States deals with drug abusers mainly by punishing them rather than by helping them get treatment. The funding of research on addiction and the best forms of treatment has taken a back seat to law enforcement. Treatment remains unavailable for a large percentage of the nation's addict population. And many who need help avoid treatment because they fear they will face criminal prosecution.

Although a focus on treatment will not by itself solve the drug problem, researchers believe that it is well worth the investment. A well-known 1994 study concluded that investing $34 million in treatment results in the same reduction in cocaine use as investing $366 million in interdiction or spending $783 million in programs to reduce drug production in source countries.

In Summary

The record to date suggests that U.S. supply-side efforts to cut production, transport, and distribution of drugs have had little success in reducing the availability of drugs. If the past is any predictor of the future, the drug trade will continue to adapt to law enforcement initiatives in order to satisfy the nation's seemingly endless demand for illegal drugs.

see also Adolescents, Drug and Alcohol Use; Law and Policy: Court-Ordered Treatment; Law and Policy: Foreign Policy and Drugs; Law and Policy: Modern Enforcement, Prosecution, and Sentencing; Users.

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Law and Policy: Controls on Drug Trafficking

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Law and Policy: Controls on Drug Trafficking