Seizures of Drugs

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The seizure of drugs is a salient consequence of a variety of U.S. enforcement programs, but particularly of interdiction. It provides evidence that the U.S. criminal-justice system is imposing costs on drug distribution. A large seizure offers the most vivid evidence that senior members of the drug trades are subject to serious risks.

Seizures from smugglers have often been used as a measure of the effectiveness of interdiction efforts. One argument suggests that the larger the quantity of drugs seized, the more smugglers have been hurt by interdiction. Others view seizures as an indicator of the quantity smuggled; this view assumes that the share of imports seized is effectively a constant. Clearly these are extreme assumptions. The quantity seized is a function of at least three factors: the quantity shipped, the relative skill of the interdictors, and the care taken by smugglers. The last element, given least attention in discussion of seizures, probably depends on the replacement cost of the drugs; if that cost goes down (e.g., because of good growing conditions in the producer country), smugglers will invest less in concealment and protection of shipments and thus the seizure rate (i.e., the share of shipments seized) is likely to rise.

Seizures of Cocaine rose throughout the 1980s, probably reflecting both the rapid increase in total shipments and the declining replacement cost of the drug. In 1989, federal authorities seized over 218,000 pounds of cocaine and that figure continued to rise during the 1990s. In 1999, cocaine seizures reached almost 291,000 pounds. Marijuana seizures grew dramatically during the same period. Federal authorities seized about 1.1 million pounds in 1989 and by 1999 the figure reached 2.3 million pounds. This is largely the result of increased U.S. cultivation and production of marijuana. Heroin seizures fluctuated between 1989 and 1999 but the overall trend was less dramatic than with other drugs. In 1989, federal authorities seized 2,415 pounds of heroin; in 1999, 2,788 pounds were seized. The total amount of drugs seized during this period, which also includes hashish, almost doubled. In 1989, the federal government seized a total of 1.343 million pounds of drugs. In 1999, the figure had risen to 2.62 million pounds.

Drugs are also seized by state and local police. Estimates are difficult to calculate at these levels of law enforcement, but it is believed that seizures at these levels have also grown during the 1990s. The growth of domestically grown marijuana has placed state and local police closer to the criminal activity. Likewise, the proliferation of domestic methamphetamine labs has made such facilities targets for both federal and state law enforcement.

(See also: Drug Interdiction ; International Drug Supply Systems ; Operation Intercept ; Source Countries for Illicit Drugs )


Godshaw, J., Koppel, R., & Pancoast, R. (1987). Antidrug law enforcement efforts and their impact.

Maguire, K.&Pastore, A.L. (eds.) (1998). Sourcebook of criminal justice statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. (2000). National drug control strategy: 2000 annual report. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Peter Reuter

Revised by Frederick K. Grittner