Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Drug Prohibition has Bred Super-Traffickers

(Note: Sanho Tree was my tour guide when I traveled to Colombia back in 2004. I can say without doubt that Sanho is the wisest human I have ever met. He is one of my top role models in the drug policy reform movement.)

Minuteman Media

DECEMBER 26, 2007

What Darwin Teaches Us About the Drug War

by Sanho Tree

With every passing year the drug problem seems to
get worse. The U.S. government responds by
pumping billions more dollars into the war on
drugs. Federal spending for this “war without
end” is more than twenty times what it was in
1980 and still the drug traffickers appear to be
winning. Despite more than six billion dollars
spent on “Plan Colombia” alone, cocaine
production has actually increased in that
country. Now the Bush Administration is asking
for $1.4 billion more to aid the Mexican
government’s drug crackdown through the “Merida Initiative.”

Although it may seem counterintuitive, the “law
and order” response by our politicians only
intensifies the problem. Instead, they might turn
to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to glean
insight as to why these “common sense”
reactionary solutions often are counterproductive.

As illegal drugs become easier to obtain and more
potent, politicians respond in a knee-jerk manner
by ramping up law enforcement. After all, drugs
are bad so why not escalate the war against
drugs? Politicians get to look tough in front of
voters, the drug war bureaucracy is delighted
with ever expanding budgets, and lots of
low-level bad guys get locked up. Everyone wins –
including, unfortunately, the major drug traffickers.

As politicians intensified the drug war decade
after decade, an unintended consequence began to
appear. These “get tough” policies have caused
the drug economy to evolve under Darwinian
principles (i.e., survival of the fittest).
Indeed, the drug war has stimulated this economy
to grow and innovate at a frightening pace.

By escalating the drug war, the kinds of people
the police typically capture are the ones who are
dumb enough to get caught. These criminal
networks are occasionally taken down when people
within the organization get careless. Thus, law
enforcement tends to apprehend the most inept and
least efficient traffickers. The common street
expression puts it best: “the dealer who uses,
loses.” Conversely, the kinds of people law
enforcement tends to miss are the most cunning,
innovative and efficient traffickers.

It’s as though we have had a decades-long
unintended policy of artificial selection. Just
as public health professionals warn against the
overuse of antibiotics because it can lead to
drug resistant strains of bacteria, our overuse
of law enforcement has thinned out the
trafficking herd so that the weak and inefficient
traffickers get captured or killed and only the
most proficient dealers survive and prosper.
Indeed, U.S. drug war policies have selectively bred “super-traffickers.”

Politicians cannot hope to win a war on drugs
when their policies ensure that only the most
efficient trafficking networks survive. Not only
do they survive, but they thrive because law
enforcement has destroyed the competition for
them by picking off the unfit traffickers and
letting the most evolved ones take over the
lucrative trafficking space. The destruction of
the Medellin and Cali cartels, for instance, only
created a vacuum for hundreds of smaller (and
more efficient) operations. Now the police cannot
even count the number of smaller cartels that
have taken over – much less try to infiltrate and disrupt them.

Moreover, the police have constricted the supply
of drugs on the street while the demand remains
constant thus driving up prices and profits for
the remaining dealers. Increasing drug
interdiction creates an unintended price support
for drug dealers which, in turn, lures more
participants into the drug economy. Of all the
laws that Congress can pass or repeal, the law of
supply and demand is apparently not one of them.

A public health approach to dealing with illicit
drugs should take precedence over “law and order”
approaches. Treatment and prevention must take
priority over interdiction and eradication
because drugs are a demand-driven problem.
Politicians, however, continue to devote most
drug funding toward cutting the supply. The
proposed aid package for the notoriously corrupt
Mexican drug war establishment would be better
spent on providing treatment for addicts in the
United States. Over reliance on politically
expedient “get tough” policies will only continue
an endless spiral of drug trafficking evolution.


Sanho Tree is a Fellow at the Institute for
Policy Studies in Washington, DC and directs its
Drug Policy Project. The Institute for Policy
Studies is the only multi-issue progressive think
tank in Washington, D.C. Through books, articles,
films, conferences, and activist education IPS
offers resources for progressive social change
locally, nationally, and globally.

Sanho Tree
Fellow, Drug Policy Project
Institute for Policy Studies
1112 16th St., NW, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036
202/787-5266 (direct line)
202/387-7915 (fax)
202/494-8004 (mobile)

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