(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.