War on Drugs? Time for a Different Strategy

(Please forgive me for using this space to make a proposal that, if accepted, might result in diverting significant funds from the Coast Guard, but I believe this is important. I also know that the Coast Guard is adaptable and has survived major mission changes in the past–plus probably no one will listen.)

We have been waging the “War on Drugs” for decades now. Nixon declared war in 1971, but it started much earlier than that, and it would be hard to argue that our efforts have been successful.

US drug consumption finances terrorism in many parts of the world. Our anti-drug efforts often cause anti-American backlash. Mexico is in crisis and narco-terrorism is starting to spill over the border. To avoid the definition of insanity–continuing to do the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results–we need to do something different.

It’s not enough simply to make drugs more expensive, which is our current strategy. Like all economic activity, distribution of illegal drugs can be discussed in terms of elasticity of demand and supply. The attempt to stop the maximum amount of product assumes that Demand is elastic and that supply is not. That is, it assumes that the drug consumers will choose not to buy drugs if they become more expensive and that the suppliers will not create additional supply to offset losses by passing the higher cost along to the consumer.

This assumption is dead wrong because people who are addicted don’t make good financial decisions, and as the price goes up more criminals are attracted to the trade.

My suspicion is that supply is highly elastic, meaning as the price goes up, supply will expand rapidly, and as price goes down, supply is going to fall off rapidly. On the other hand, I suspect demand is not highly elastic. Those that want their fix will pay anything, while others would not buy it if the price fell to zero.

Whenever you hear officials talk about the “War on Drugs,” they inevitably talk about taking a multi-layered approach to  interdiction, as if that were obviously the best approach. Perhaps in terms of intercepting the maximum amount of product it is. But if the intention is to actually stop the trafficking in drugs, I think there may be a better way. (I am talking here only about hard drugs that represent a serious health hazard, because I’m going to suggest a radically different approach that would require a much more hard nosed approach on the part of the justice system.)

If we look at it from the smuggler’s point of view. There are lots of steps and lots of people involved. Bringing the product to market is a multi-step process, including growing or manufacturing, shipping to storage, warehousing, one or more additional legs of the journey to market,  warehousing at the destination, repackaging, wholesale distribution, and ultimately retail sale. In most cases, because  this is big business, the individuals responsible for each step are different and each makes a profit even if we successfully intercept the product at some step further down the chain. In addition there are management, facilitators, and agents who profit fro the trade. The risk is spread out so that the risk for any one highly profitable step may be less than 1%. No wonder this is a thriving business.

If the idea is to actually stop the trade in drugs, its not enough to interdict a small portion of the drugs at each step in the distribution chain. We have to break one link in the distribution chain (and really, it only needs to be one), by convincing the people involved, that the risks outweigh the rewards and they should go into another line of work. If we adopt a multi-layered approach, we are trying to convince people all up and down the supply chain that they all should go into a different line of work.  This isn’t necessary since breaking one link will stop the process and it dilutes our efforts. We need to target precisely and divert all the money and effort we now spread over many forms of drug enforcement to attack the most vulnerable link in the distribution chain.

What is that link? The retail representative, the one person in the chain who has to advertise that he is in the drug distribution business. We have to make the probable consequences of being a drug dealer so unpleasant that no right thinking criminal would choose that line of work. What will be the result? First the drug dealers share of the profit will go up as the risk increases. There will be attempts at “mass marketing” by internet sales that will have to be addressed, but if there are no direct sellers, wholesale demand will dry up at the same time supply competition will increase, destroying the profitability of the business.

Ultimately drug lords will have to get another job–like stock broker.

How do we go about this? Make taking drug dealers off the street a number 1 priority, then apply mandatory sentences of say 20 years. Overcrowd the prisons? I don’t think so. Once we start applying this vigorously and consistently, being a dealer will no longer be worth the risks, but if we need a bit more space in the prisons, start treating marijuana abuse like alcohol abuse. We need to establish priorities and apply them ruthlessly in order to destroy the traffic in hard drugs.

Need a moral basis for hard time for drug dealers? Every sale is an attempted murder. If they haven’t killed someone already, its just an accident. Its a serious crime and it deserves to be taken seriously. More importantly, without dealers, the entire organization will crash.

18 thoughts on “War on Drugs? Time for a Different Strategy

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention War on Drugs? Time for a Different Strategy - CGBlog.org -- Topsy.com

  2. I like your thinking. We do not seem to be able to get rid of the demand side so spending a larger portion of our effort on a single part of the chain appears to be the most cost effective way to deal with “The War on Drugs”. I don’t see us completely stopping interdiction effort, although I do believe from my experience as a boarding officer on WMECs for 9 years it really was a hit or miss evolution and generally a waste of CG resources.

  3. There are two underlying assumptions with this approach that I think prevent its success. The first is that the risk/reward ratio as it exists today is stacked in favor of dealing. Despite the stereotype there are few if any “rich” dealers and there are currently very real and very severe risks of death or injury from your market competition. This leads to the next assumption which is that the risk/reward analysis will impact if someone becomes a dealer. Just as there are few wealthy dealers there are few old dealers. It is a young man’s occupation and young men are not very good at risk/reward analysis.

  4. Sorry Chuck, but I have to disagree. The war on drugs has been an abject failure and is directly leading to the destabilization of Mexico. There have already been many experiments with mandatory sentencing laws and the only result has been to pack our prisons to the gills. Focusing only on “dealers” would be like trying to stop the rain. There is too much demand and too much money for people to be deterred.

    I simply think that it is only a matter of time before we see the decriminalization of at least marijuana and a shift to a greater focus on treatment for harder drugs… and I have no problem with this. The war on drugs has led to the militarization of law enforcement in the U.S. and abuse of private property rights through Civil Asset Forfeiture. Too many people in the younger generation have known too many marijuana users in high school and after that have gone on to be completely functional and contributing members of society. The end of prohibition is coming and the sooner we can get over our Puritanical attitudes towards drugs, the better off the rest of us will be.

  5. I agree with cc that there is an element of youthful stupidity in the choice of drug dealer as a profession. To make this work, the certainty that being a drug dealer is the expressway to prison and that they will stay there until they were an “old man” would have to be very clear, even to a drug clouded brain.

    And I agree with Bradley to the extent that it is time to treat marijuana more like we treat alcohol abuse. On the other hand I see no prospect we are going to legalize Cocaine or Heroin. So if we are going to continue to attempt to eradicate it, what is the best strategy?

    The problem I see with what we have done is that it has been hit or miss. For a young man without prospects, looking to score, being a dealer still looks like the way to a good life.

    I can’t believe that finding dealer is that hard. If we really wanted to clean up this mess we could. Instead it has become job security for Coast Guard, DEA, Cops, lawyers, judges, councilors, rehab, half way houses, you name it. It is a growth industry. Slap on the wrist and they’re back in business. We need to make sure that there is at least a 50% probability that within a month of opening for business a pusher will be arrested, that there will be a 50/50 chance each succeeding month, and that when convicted they will serve substantial time. I think in terms of a federally mandated standard of 15 to 20 with no parole before the 15 year mark.

    Legalize Marijuana. Don’t jail the users. Don’t interfere in the inner workings of foreign nations. Simply clean up the streets by sweeping away the dealers. Take care of our problem here at home.

  6. Legalization of MJ, education and treatment are all good ideas. However, one element that will prevent all the other programs, including smuggling prevention, to fail is our own U. S. Congress.

    Some of the more brave congressmen, those without a large agricultural constituency, have proposed ending tariff restrictions and farm subsidies that prevent the poor farming nations of the world to compete in the U. S. Such ideas to allow Colombian farmers access to the U. S. peanut market brought huge cries and wails here in Georgia. Most of the farmers do not see the average of about $50K a year it takes to keep one prisoner in jail as their problems. Besides, there are very few small farmers any more. So, who are the Congress protecting.

    Nope, Congress could help. It would take some large balls to go up against the corporate farms, but if the savings made in the operation of penitentiaries and enforcement could be passed along in individual tax incentives it would ease their “pain.” As it stands, we all pay more for keeping people in jail and for peanuts that lack competition in this country. Besides, aren’t most of the farm workers from way down south? Perhaps if they could stay there on their own farms it would help another problem.

    Let us all first go out and support medical marijuana. I’ve never used it myself but would have liked to have given it a try when undergoing cancer treatments. The heavy duty drugs they gave me only put me in a stupor. Put in on a ballot and I’ll vote for it. Let’s Get ‘er Done before we all get glaucoma.

  7. Matthew, I presume you are saying that I implied all drug users were dependent on drugs. I think any use of heroin or cocaine could be classed as abuse whether dependent or not.

    If you are trying argue that my statement, “people who are addicted don’t make good financial decisions” is wrong, I’d like to point out first that I did say “people who are addicted” and second that the study you cited says nothing about what percentage of the product is consumed by those who are dependent. That 90% of the people who try a drug are not dependent does not mean that 90% of the consumption is by people who are not dependent, in fact it might be completely the opposite. It may be that 90% of the consumption is by the 10% who are dependent. I’ll stand by my assumption that the demand curve is relatively inelastic (not totally inelastic, but compared to the supply curve) until I see some proof otherwise.

  8. A great idea…but I still think the root cause of the problem is the demand. And legalizing narcotics is not the best idea…if we look at China before the Opium Wars I think we can agree that legalizing narcotics won’t be great for the country that does it.

    I still think stricter punishment for drug addicts is required. They are indirectly supporting terrorism and thus should be punished accordingly.

  9. Of course there are legal drug users who need the narcotics for medicinal purposes, such as dying cancer patients who need powerful pain killers, but recreational use is unacceptable.

  10. Sweeping away the dealers ? Was King Cannute able to sweep away the tide?
    I am in federal LE, thank God not the DEA, but we work around the edges of this problem.
    I think we have two choices, we can legalize this crap and take away the scarcity dividend from the drug lords, or we can have a war on drugs, not the current irritant on drugs. Gen Stillwell summed it up very clearly, “If they’re dead, they can’t bother you.” This would of course require someone compatent running the State Department to let the Columbians know that the bombing raid was on druggies, or let their officers ride along. If you think this is a bit extreme, do not ask me about treatment of pedophiles, wouldn’t want to set your socks on fire.

  11. Sorry to dredge up an old one, but this is/was a really good discussion.

    First, I think Chuck’s post has some good analysis of the supply/demand elasticity of the drug trade. However, I agree with the others who point out why Chuck’s approach won’t work. Cc made a great point about drug dealers and their immaturity. I’d add to that the gang sub-culture’s ethos to also discredit Chuck’s concept that we could discourage retail-level dealers with heavy sentencing.

    Second, in spite of the liberal/pro-drug press’ propoganda that our prisons are filled with small-quantity (personal use) pot-heads, the prisons in my state have zero of those, and my state has one of the biggest criminal/prison populations in the US. Pot and paraphernalia for personal use almost aren’t prosecuted any more. If they are, the worst the person will get is probation. My state’s prisons are so over-crowded our governer released a dozen murderers early a couple years ago. A 3-yr. sentence = 6 mos. actual time behind bars in my state. Our country isn’t going to be able to afford housing in prisons the numbers you are talking about.

    Like Rodg, I’ve worked in LE for a long time, front end (patrol/investigations) and back-end (corrections). After working with real criminals for that time, I’ve come to the same conclusion he has. If you really want to address the problem in a meaningful, permanent, and effective way, we’re going to have to put peoples’ lights out. Everyone inside the system from the Judges on down knows this, but there’s those pesky Constitutional principles, which is why nothing really effective will get done about this.

    I agree with legalizing MJ, but I have a little concern/reservation about where that will lead, partially from the slippery slope argument that it may lead to legalizing harder drugs. More concerning to me however, are the horticulturalists who have made modern pot exponentially stronger than the pot of the 60s. How potent will the pot of the 2040s be? Still, even our modern MJ does not have worse effects than alcohol from a societal standpoint.

    Invade or bomb Columbia and Mexico? Well, we’ve been in Afghanistan for 12 years and we haven’t stopped the opium coming out of there. By some reports, we’ve made it safer to grow and export and the net quantity has increased lately. You’d think if hard drugs fund terrorism, it would be doing so there, and therefore it would be a prime mission to address the poppy fields, yet…

    I really think the link in the chain which is easiest to break is border security. Current and past administrations have never done enough meaningful improvements to a finite (yes, BIG, but still finite) problem which IS solvable to a large degree. Would a real fence (really a zone a few miles wide with fence, barbed wire entanglements, motion sensors, counter-tunnelling obstacles, patrolled by USBP in the surplus MRAPs the Army is trying to get rid of plus cameras and UAVs [which I think you’ve covered here, Chuck]) and many fewer, much-more-highly interdicted crossings be that expensive compared to the dilution of funds across all areas of the War on Drugs? I think it would be down-right affordable! Naturally, with the land border secured, the maritime border would be attacked, so the CG, especially D8, D7, and D11 would need equally strong reinforcement. This would be a huge surge in CG funding, equipment, and personnel.

    Since heroin and cocaine do not grow easily in CONUS, (and with MJ, which does, legalized), the only drug to worry about then would be Methamphetamines.

    Most conservatives want border security over immigration. Find some moderates/liberals against drugs or worried about terrorist infiltration, and this might even get passed through Congress…

  12. Pingback: A Magical Metrical Mystery Tour of Ineffective U.S. Drug Policy–USNI | Chuck Hill's CG Blog

  13. From an isolated strategic viewpoint I like the break the link in the chain idea.

    But in practice, draconian sentencing for drug dealers like they have in Singapore is going to get overturned by the courts in the United States even if it could be enacted by Congress. Then of course there is the States rights issue in regards to criminal sentencing standards. So I don’t think it is a policy that could be implemented.

    We are never going to “win” the War on Drugs. But I disagree with the assessment that it has been a complete failure. Cocaine, heroin, and crack have been contained to some degree because of our drug policy. It was much more of a problem in the 80’s than it is now.

    The majority of the public seems to support legalization of marijuana. Personally I don’t really agree with that, but I’m tired of arguing with people about it. Regardless, prohibition of MJ is not going to be effective because the majority of the people no longer support its prohibition. So it is no longer practical to outlaw it in my opinion.

  14. Pretty sure they already tried youre way as part of the war on drugs and already learned that mandatory minimums do nothing but fill up the prisons. Especially with the tendency of the courts to apply thise sentences to certain groups and not others. If you really want to solve the problem then the Portugese method has proven very successful. But we all know the war on drugs really has nothing to do with the greater good. Its simply a way to make sure the LEAs and Coast Guard have a reason to be. Regulate it like they did in portugal then all of sudden certain agencies no longer need to exist and others have to find a reason why they should be kept around.

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