The Foolish War on Drugs: Providing More Effective Drug Enforcement

This article draws heavily from an amazing article on the September/October 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs. However, it also draws from other sources and offers some original thoughts and analysis.

I am now staunchly in favor of legalization of all drugs, but I have not edited this article. I highly recommend Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari.

On October 7, Mexico’s marines killed Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano in a gunfight. Some believe that it could be a major victory for Mexico. Indeed, 25 of the list of 37 suspected cartel leaders Mexico published in 2009 are out of commission, whether arrested, murdered, executed, or in prison.

Despite this, the war on drugs is foolish and costly. So far, all we have succeeded in doing is making America #1 in prison population and letting 50,000 Mexicans die since the escalation of the drug war in 2006. Mark Kleiman, editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis, explains:

The United States sends five times as many drug dealers to prison today as it did 30 years ago, but this has not prevented the 80–90 percent reductions in the prices of cocaine and heroin over that time, which came as a result of falling dealers’ wages and increased efficiency in trafficking. Thus, conventional drug enforcement represents a dead end.

Reforms that Don’t Work

  1. Legalization of hard drugs

Legalization of drugs, particularly of marijuana, has been gaining ground over the past couple years. While legalization of marijuana makes sense on both humanitarian and fiscal grounds, the picture is more ambiguous for hard drugs.

Kleiman continues:

A small minority of drug users in the United States account for about 80 percent of hard-drug (that is, non-cannabis) consumption and an even larger share of the associated costs of drug abuse, including crime. Among heavy users of hard drugs, about 75 percent have at least one felony arrest in the course of a typical year. Hard drugs account for about 80 percent of the revenue of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations. All this means that reducing the demand for cannabis or the demand for cocaine among casual cocaine users cannot reduce the northbound flow of drugs or the southbound flow of drug money. Shrinking the market would require reducing the hard-drug use of about three million people in the United States who are both heavy users of expensive illicit drugs and also active lawbreakers.

Legalization of marijuana can definitely place financial pressure on cartels, which rely on marijuana for as much as 40 percent of revenues. It would also substantially reduce prison populations. On the other hand, while legalizing hard drugs can increase access to critical health services such as needle exchanges and STD tests, it may not materially improve public health and might not prevent high-induced violent behavior.

  1. Drug Courts and Coerced Treatment

Another popular proposal is the use of drug courts to mandate treatment and imprison those who take the drug again during or after rehab. Many Americans agree that drug abuse should be treated primarily as a health problem rather than a criminal problem.

While coerced rehabilitation enforced by criminal penalties seems excellent in theory, it does not work as well in practice because it improperly mixes the treatment and punitive measures. This mixture makes it so that those who are most dependent on drug use are the most likely to be punished. Moreover, racial minorities and lower socioeconomic classes who are more likely to commit (violent) crime to fund their drug abuse are ineligible for drug courts, which undergo stringent background checks. As such, it is conceivable that drug courts sometimes lead to longersentences than conventional criminal courts.

Kleiman furthers:

Coerced treatment for drug abusers is not very successful, both because drug treatment itself is not very successful and because the coercion is generally more nominal than real. Those on probation or parole are forbidden to use illicit drugs. But that mandate is not effectively enforced. The threat of probation or parole revocation is too severe (and expensive) to be carried out often and not swift or certain enough to change behavior dramatically. As a result, most violations go unpunished. By reducing the severity of the punishment for breaking the rules, it is possible to dramatically increase its swiftness and certainty — and swiftness and certainty matter more than severity in changing behavior.

As a result, drug courts are likely to have mixed results and barely benefit the most dependent people who are responsible for most illicit drug use.


The best way to curb drugs and drug violence is fourfold:

  • Target the most violence cartels and gangs. When tackling cartels, the aims shouldn’t to be to arrest as many leaders as possible, it should be to decrease the level of violence. The best way to do so is to provide a “scorecard” that would identify the most violent cartels and severely crack down on them and only them.

Kleiman enumerates:

The Mexican government could craft and announce a set of violence-related metrics to be applied to each organization over a period of weeks or months. Such a scoring system could consider a group’s total number of killings, the distribution of its targets (among other dealers, enforcement agents, ordinary citizens, journalists, community leaders, and elected officials), its use or threat of terrorism, and its nonfatal shootings and kidnappings. Mexican officials have no difficulty attributing each killing to a specific trafficking organization, in part because the organizations boast of their violence rather than trying to hide it. At the end of the scoring period, or once it became clear that one organization ranked first, the police would designate the most violent organization for destruction. That might not require the arrest of the kingpins, as long as the targeted organization came under sufficiently heavy enforcement pressure to make it uncompetitive.

The points of maximum vulnerability for the Mexican trafficking organizations might not even be within Mexico. U.S. law enforcement agencies believe that for every major domestic distribution organization in the United States, they can identify one or more of the six dominant Mexican trafficking organizations as the primary source or sources. If the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration were to announce that its domestic target-selection process would give high priority to distributors supplied by Mexico’s designated “most violent organization,” the result would likely be a scramble to find new sources.

At the same time, the most violent drug gangs in the U.S. should be aggressively attacked. However, it must also avoid making too many arrests, which would further burden overcrowded prisons.

Kleimen again:

David Kennedy and his colleagues at the National Network for Safe Communities have developed a promising tactic. The Drug Market Intervention strategy, first employed to great success in 2004 in High Point, North Carolina, identifies all the active dealers in a flagrant market area, builds cases against them, arrests and prosecutes a handful of the most violent players, and warns the rest, publicly and simultaneously, that anyone who does not stop dealing is headed to prison. By forcing all the dealers to stop at the same time, the intervention causes the market to disappear literally overnight, and the police make only a handful of arrests in the process. (This is another application of the principle that a credible threat rarely needs to be carried out.) Focusing U.S. domestic b law enforcement on reducing violence and disorder could allow a very substantial cutback in the overall level of drug arrests, prosecutions, and incarcerations. Neither the availability of drugs nor the level of drug abuse in the United States would change dramatically if the current number of drug dealers behind bars were cut in half.

These targeted actions against the most violent groups would not reduce the level of drug trafficking and might even increase violence in the short term by creating disturbances. However, in the long term, they would also considerably decrease the incentives for violence for both sides of the border, which would also increase public support for drug enforcement.

  • Renew and revamp the assault weapons ban. Cartels get the lion’s share of cheap, convenient weapons from the U.S. In 2010, 80 percent of confiscated assault weapons were traced back to the United States. This would gradually reduce the level of violence over time as ammunition and guns dry up. Of course, the new bill should address loopholes and all automatic weapons, and could even ban ownership of the weapons.
  • Increase the compensation of U.S. border guards and law enforcement officials in Latin America. The U.S. can siphon off the enormous funds it uses to maintain its overcrowded prisons to help Mexico fund this. Because the wages of Mexican police officers are very low and their lives are overtly threatened by drug cartels, they have every incentive supplement their income and protect themselves and their families with corruption. Along with the reduction of violence that would accompany the two recommendations above, increased compensation would make enforcement significantly better.
  • The HOPE program should be aggressively pursued. Kleiman elaborates:

Frequent or random drug testing, with a guaranteed short jail stay (as little as two days) for each incident of detected use, can have remarkable efficacy in reducing offenders’ drug use: Hawaii’s now-famous HOPE project manages to get 80 percent of its long-term methamphetamine users clean and out of confinement after one year. The program more than pays for itself by reducing the incarceration rate in that group to less than half that of a randomly selected control group under probation as usual. HOPE participants are not forced to receive drug treatment; instead, they are required to stop using drugs. About 15 percent fail repeatedly, and that small group is ordered into treatment, but most succeed without it. Fewer than ten percent wind up back in prison.

These impressive results have led to similar efforts in Alaska, Arizona, California, and Washington State; where the HOPE model is faithfully followed, the outcomes are as consistent and positive as those in Hawaii. The U.S. federal government is set to sponsor four new attempts to reproduce those results. If HOPE were to be successfully implemented as part of routine probation and parole supervision, the resulting reduction in drug use could shrink the market — and thus the revenue of Mexico’s drug-trafficking organizations — by as much as 40 percent. The potential gains on both sides of the border justify the attempt, despite the daunting managerial challenges.

Because Hawaii is far smaller and therefore imposes a smaller footprint on the government, the results in this program may not be easily replicated. This makes the implementation elsewhere expensive and a bureaucratic nightmare. It would be important for the administrators of successful pilot programs to advise other fledging ones throughout the nation.

— –

The war on drugs has created severe problems throughout the Americas. In the U.S., it has triggered prison overpopulation and drug dealing violence without reducing the overall level of drug usage. In the Americas, cartels kill many civilians, law enforcement, and reformist politicians, and entrench corruption and crony governance, making it more difficult to solve other social and economic issues. Smart drug policy would help reduce both of these effects.


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