Saturday, June 11, 2005

America's big game of Whack a Mole: the "war" on drugs

Today I'm going to talk about a war that America and other Western countries have clearly been losing. No, not the war in Iraq, and no, not the war on terror either. I'm talking about the self-styled "war on drugs" that has been waged by successive US presidents. And, this is a war the US is clearly losing.

Think about this: despite all the taxpayer dollars that are going towards drug enforcement, how many Americans who want access to illicit drugs are unable to buy them? Not very many. For those willing to pay the price, drugs are still very available, from the street-corner drug pushers in the housing projects, to the guys wearing suits peddling cocaine to the high-roller stock traders on Wall Street.

Why? The law of supply and demand: when the demand stays the same, and the supply is short, the price goes up.

America's "war" on drugs has spent almost all of its effort targeting the supply of drugs, and very little effort targeting the demand. In targeting the supply, America has successfully taken some of the drugs off the market, but not all of them, and this pushes up the price for the remaining drugs. As the price goes up, the dealer's profit margin goes up, and the expense to which he/she is willing to go to import drugs goes up with it.

Having spent enough time in Jamaica, and having met a couple of farmers down there who grow marijuana for a living, I know that a typical price the dealers pay the farmer there for a pound of marijuana is about $20 per pound. That same pound of marijuana will sell for about $1,000 on the street corner here in the United States. Knowing this, is there any wonder why you see the DEA drug-dog pacing around the immigration area whenever a flight from Jamaica arrives, or that you hear about tourists being arrested with suitcases packed full of marijuana? Think about the windfall one of these tourists could make if he/she gets through - you spend $400 in Jamaica on something, then sell it for $20,000 up here. And that is just marijuana - perhaps the least potent illicit drug, and one of the cheapest and most readily available.

On the other side of the spectrum you have cocaine, which is one of the most expensive drugs on the street. Cocaine is a naturally occurring substance that is extracted from the leaves of the coca plant. Drug dealers have become very crafty with ways of sneaking cocaine into the country, including fast boats, airplanes, people swallowing condoms full of cocaine, etc. They have found ways of dissolving cocaine in bottles of imported rum (for later extraction), soaking sweaters with a cocaine-soaked solution for later drying and packing in suitcases, putting false compartments in suitcases or shipping containers, bribing airport workers and customs agents, etc.

America's drug eradication program seems like a game of "whack a mole" like one might play at a fair. You take the mallet and whack a mole, but no sooner do you do it that others pop up, and keep popping up over and over. You whack some, but others slip by. The more drugs the American government is successful at removing, the higher the price will be for the remaining drugs, and the higher the expense and effort a drug dealer will be willing to undertake to circumvent the American system.

America's war on drugs bears a striking similarity to an earlier failed effort: prohibition. Back in the 1920s, America banned the sale of alcoholic beverages. Did that stop anyone from having a drink? No, it just drove the price up, and made guys like Al Capone and his Mafia rich. Likewise, today's "war" on drugs is only serving to drive the price up and channel money into the hands of criminals, gangs, and terrorists. If you criminalize something, than the only place you can buy it is from a criminal.

America needs to get serious here - either tinkle or get off the potty. Either take the "war" on drugs seriously and impose severe punishments on the users of recreational drugs, or stop this ludicrous "war" and legalize them. The way things are now, by targeting only the supply and not the demand, is not working, and is feeding crime problems in inner-city America, as well as other countries like Jamaica, Mexico, and Colombia. Legalizing some of these drugs would allow America to better control the drugs' use, and would prevent all of this money from being channeled into the hands of criminals.