Saturday, June 06, 2009

Obama appointees offer more of the same on drug interdiction

I was critical during the campaign of Barack Obama's drug policy stances, so even though I'm disappointed at the contents of his administration's new "National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy," released yesterday at a press conference by Obama's drug czar, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, I'm not surprised to see them proposing more of the same.

This is a tactical document with few if any new strategic elements. They're fiddling around the edges of policies perpetuated by the last four presidents, but nobody appears to be rethinking the fundamental approach.

In a black market, focusing solely on supply-side enforcement ironically enriches the cartels by driving up prices. Because of the volume of cross-border traffic involving legitimate trade and travel, it's literally impossible to interdict most drug shipments, so the the cartels just charge more for the shipments that make it through. To that extent, an enforcement only approach plays right into the hands of the smuggling gangs the policy hopes to undermine.

As the Drug Policy Alliance lamented in a Washington Post story, there's nothing in the plan at all about demand reduction. The problem, to read this document, stems solely from the activities of smugglers, not the predilection of American consumers for their products. To be effective, though, a drug-control strategy must also reduce demand for illegal drugs by reducing consumption through treatment and education. Bottom line: As long as Americans are willing to pay premium prices for illicit narcotics, they're going to come into the United States one way or another. A demand reduction approach might actually reduce drug cartel profits, whereas focusing solely on supply-side interdiction simply maximizes them.

Just as frustrating to me, the policy document mostly ignores official corruption on the US side, barely mentioning the topic from its discussion of investigations and prosecutions. Without prioritizing such investigations, though, the approach is doomed to fail. Cross-border smuggling is incredibly reliant on corrupt, bribable law enforcement and immigration officials; interdiction cannot succeed without reducing that trend. Such investigations are easier than pursuing ghost-like cartel leaders and deliver more bang for the buck in terms of affecting interdiction. But reducing corruption isn't a major focus of the Obama Administration's anti-drug strategy.

Clearly on other issues - healthcare, the environment, Middle East policy - Barack Obama's administration represents a major change from his predecessor. On the drug war, though, as Pete Townsend wrote, it's "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

RELATED: Obama's Mexico policy so far depressingly familiar


Anonymous said...

Did you really expect the administration to come out and dispute what the generations of administrations has been pushing for some 50 or more years. (remember Reefer Madness?) and let's face it, how angry would the American people be if they found out that the government has been mis-spending trillions of tax dollars on the wrong causes?

Anonymous said...

Obama has enough balls in the air without taking this on. Grits, were I you, I would no longer expect a presidential appointment based on this post. But, keep your taxes paid just in case.


Don said...

That's kind of a conundrum, Anon. I can't find any American people that don't know it. They are just not passionate about it, and they embrace the feel-good politics of the grossly misnamed "war on drugs". It's frustrating, but as Grits says, looks like more same ol' same ol'. The "war" on drugs is a multi-billion dollar industry. Nobody has the courage to change it. Besides the economy might really collapse if GM, Chrysler, and WOD all went by the wayside. "Bring 'em on" Obama?

Anonymous said...

I've come to the conclusion that those who are struggling for drug policy reform just must be going about it in the wrong way. There has been only superficial progress on this topic over the past decade. If they can't get this president to come along even just a tiny bit, they have failed.

I'm not just talking about the idiot pot heads that show up acting a fool at legislative hearings as though they literally walked out of the film Refer Madness. I am also talking about the self-appointed leaders at Drug Policy Alliance and the ACLU. Their arrogance has failed.

A totally new approach is necessary.

Plato is right. Obama has many balls in the air. I just can't help think that he and his staff looked around and not only evaluated the import of the issues themselves, but also the caliber of the company they would keep by pursuing those issues.

SB said...

Recently a foreign country voted against legalizing pot but vote to give cocaine addicts their daily dose of drugs. I don't know enough about the problem to give intelligent suggestions but I know we can't cure everyone and wondered how this might affect the cartel.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Plato, my taxes are paid, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for that phone call.

1:45 writes: "those who are struggling for drug policy reform just must be going about it in the wrong way"

I think there's a LOT of truth to that and your opinion is right on point. Too many drug policy reformers confuse activity with achievement and ideology with strategy.

IMO this issue cannot be viewed through the traditional liberal/conservative lens. Modern liberals are MORE harsh and punitive than conservatives - at least judging by who proposes penalty enhancements, drug war funding, etc.. It's only in some abstract fantasy land that liberals are "soft on crime." Ever since Willie Horton, they've been falling all over themselves to be tougher than thou, while fiscal conservatives in the GOP are looking to reduce incarceration costs. So advocates tend to start with false assumptions about the fault lines of the debate then wonder why their strategies fail.

FWIW, I worked for ACLU of Texas for six years and we did have a few successes: Texas' drug task force system was abolished after the Tulia debacle and the Lege passed bills diverting drug offenders from prison. But I was essentially run out on a rail because I wouldn't play the identity politics game on the drug war. The national group thought if you're not screaming "Racist!," you can't be trusted and deserve to be purged. That's the biggest barrier to changing their approach: A circular firing squad never won a skirmish.

That still doesn't absolve Obama - who likes to boast that his administration can do more than one thing at a time - for putting his stamp on George Bush's drug control policy.

Hook Em Horns said...

There is no drug control, just a lot of people getting rich and a lot of people getting high!

Anonymous said...


There is politically fixable but right now it's appears like it's either legalization or enforcement.

Start a debate on removing some of the mechanisms that support enforcement like asset forfeiture. Work to reduce the ability to enforce and see if the enforcement tide doesn't begin to recede.

It's change but it's politically possible because the new mantra would be "let the trafficker pay for those they addict".

I guarantee you taking this funding mechanism away will drastically change the day to day operations of every Drug Task Force in this country.

Use the asset forfeiture money to fund treatment, drug courts, and education.

Hook Em Horns said...

Anonymous said...
6/06/2009 08:21:00 PM

Use the asset forfeiture money to fund treatment, drug courts, and education.

They are to busy stealing the asset forfeiture money to throw drunken parties for the DA's office in Montgomery County. I totally agree with what you said, however, as we all know this is NOT ABOUT stopping drugs, it's all ABOUT THE MONEY!!

Anonymous said...

Grits I agree with yours and others' critiques here of drug policy reform advocates.

I'd add that this isn't the only policy area where Obama has disappointed his supporters: DADT, civil liberties issues, executive power issues, come to mind.

My sense is that Obama is picking his battles very carefully. There are three or four policy issues that he has chosen to prioritize. In all other areas he seems unwilling to expend any political capital - and drug policy reform is one of those areas that he and his staff probably view as a "distraction" that would diminish his ability to carry out other policies.

I'm disappointed but hardly surprised. At the same time, this seems to me to be something that could change over the next 4-8 years.


Anonymous said...

I have a better Idea that will solve the whole issue. Legalize the damn drugs. Problem solved. Really whats the worst that could happen from it corruption would end??
Honestly, I wonder what happens when there is corruption with in drug cartels or among gangsters? They snuff that out quick don't they? Matter of fact those people are damn serious about what they do to people being caught playing for the other team. Kind of makes me wonder who would be a better man or woman for the position of DRUG CZAR. I would be willing to bet my life that a drug cartel would NOT get ripped off by one man for 67 billion dollars over the course of 10 plus years and live to tell about it locked up in a fancy prison. I wonder who the bad guys really are in this whole situation. Most recent case in point The Montague County Jail Scandal. The real criminals there were running the jail. We all just thought it was safe in the land of the free.
Im sickened that we are being run by the very thing that so many many people have died for through out history since history. Oppression and tyranny. Plain and simple the Drug Czar and every person in authority who runs our 'great nation' have a problem that is so bad people are suffering and more crimes are the result of the bigger issue/crime and they have a solution to solve the problem and then refuse to solve the problem for the good of the people then they are a tyrant and we are being oppressed by our government. Our government is unrestrained by our constitution. ~Angela H.