Monday, November 04, 2019

Even arresting 'kingpins' won't reduce US drug demand

Arresting drug dealers was never a winning Drug War strategy because, as long as demand existed, there was always a willing supplier ready to replace anyone who was arrested, prosecuted, jailed, or even killed. As it turns out, that's true at the highest echelons of the international drug trade.

These changes arguably justify dismantling much of the federal drug enforcement infrastructure as we know it, argued an article in Foreign Affairs by Steven Dudley published this spring, declaring "the days of the monolithic, hegemonic criminal groups with all-powerful leaders are over." As a result, "For U.S. policymakers, it may be overkill to direct the resources of six federal law enforcement agencies toward dismantling these groups, especially in the era of synthetic drugs."

The author observed that today there are "a wide variety of American, Chinese, Dominican, Indian, and Mexican groups supplying the U.S. market, some that conduct almost all of their business online from within the United States."

The FA story linked to a detailed report on Fentanyl smuggling via Mexico and China that's worth a look for those interested in either addiction or drug enforcement. Texas largely has been spared a huge fentanyl problem essentially by chance: the cartels that supply Texas sell "black tar" heroin which doesn't mix well with fentanyl, while heroin that comes to the northeast and midwest from Dominican suppliers or from the Sinaloa cartel on the west coast is more easily mixed. Check out the spike in national overdose deaths associated with the rise of fentanyl:

None of this is to say Texas has no overdose problem. We do, and it's worsening. But it's so far been focused more on meth and cocaine than opiods.

Regardless, the death total was heightened by the Governor's veto of and continued opposition to Good Samaritan legislation. Moreover, the state's failure to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act keeps drug treatment out of reach for nearly all low-income people except through the justice system. Jails and prisons are a poor and ineffective substitute for free-world healthcare, for addiction as much as for mental illness.

Notice, none of the things that would actually save lives involve chasing down drug suppliers in other countries. That has shown to be fruitless. What Americans refer to as "cartels" are really vast hydra-like webs of interconnected companies and criminal organizations that readily reproduce the function of any and every severed limb. Many, many billions of US taxpayer dollars have been spent trying to slay these beasts and for every head severed, two grow in its place.

This isn't new, by the way, it's always been true. It was easy for anyone paying attention to the world of drug smuggling to see that shooting Pablo Escobar solved nothing. Only reducing US-side demand can scale back the scope of the drug trade.

American law enforcement largely has failed, or more aptly, refused to accept this reality. As Upton Sinclair famously put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The "kingpin" model justified numerous law-enforcement strategies - e.g., expanded use of asset forfeiture, reduced Fourth Amendment protections, abetting the rise of SWAT teams and execution search warrants via SWAT-like "dynamic entry" -  that in practice mostly empower law enforcement in petty, workaday cases. For many years, the drug war was also a reliable source of federal pork.

All this was justified by the idea that trolling for "little fish" could lead to catching "big fish." But even the big fish turned out to be parts of massive schools and were easily replaced. We have decades of evidence that catching, jailing, or even killing "kingpins" does nothing to reduce addiction in the United States.

So if supply-side interdiction has proved pointless, what might affect the demand side? The best way to reduce demand would be to expand Medicaid to access treatment funds to fight addiction. Another recently proven method is to encourage legal, domestic sourcing. Pot legalization in many states has bolstered domestic supply and substantially reduced, but not eliminated, demand for illegal imported marijuana, as demonstrated in this data from the fentanyl report mentioned above:

One final thought: The myopic focus of US drug policy on Latin America is an odd thing, because Afghanistan is overwhelmingly the most important source of illicit opiods coming into the US, according to the Department of State (p. 29 of the pdf):

But drugs are almost exclusively portrayed in the press as a Mexico problem. (China's role was particularly highlighted in the fentanyl report.) In fact, the international illicit drug trade is a global problem, one fueled almost entirely by an insatiable US demand. As long as demand, and prices, remain high, no supply-side intervention will ever "solve" it. As the Foreign Affairs story colorfully concluded:
El Chapo was a powerful and wealthy drug lord, and bringing him down was an undeniably important step in curtailing the reach of Mexico’s cartels. But burnishing his status as a kingpin perpetuates a false narrative that destroying him—and those like him—will solve the problems posed by the drug trade. In fact, convicting one drug lord is more akin to plucking a single bee from the hive.


Gadfly said...

On opioids, I'm not a pain meds puritan, but the demand side also has to address Perdue, et al, and the overprescribing doctors who were willing allies — "kingpins" themselves.

Gordon L. Dilmore said...

That's your opinion which really isn't worth a hell of a lot!

Oil Lease said...

Gadfly's points seem germane to me. One European family that owns a huge amount of facilities for producing opioids made $2B. Being pharmaceutical drugs sold in this country, who do you think authorized their sale?

What most people don't get is doctors are highly awarded for selling opioids. The greedy ones write huge amounts of prescriptions. They make a LOT of money in doing so. "Kingpins" are as apt a moniker to describe them as anyone.

Gunny Thompson said...

From Unfiltered Minds of Independent Thinkers of the 3rd Grade Dropout Section:

"The Solutions To Resolving Our Problems Is An Inside Job."

Reports has it that the conditions that created the drug market is one that was in existence well before WW I, and are used to this day to prop up governments. There is some reports that the total elimination of drugs would cause Wall Street Stock Markets' failure.

The African-American community most often is the target of "War on Drugs," while the Anglo Saxon community is most often has a higher percentage of users Which corporate media is prohibited from addressing.

The reference was made that the capture of "El Chapo" was not the solution to drug distribution in this country is apropos that "El Chapo" was allowed to exist and was used as pawn by the CIA, DEA and others. If we as a people wish to control unauthorized drug use, we would demand the reorganization of the CIA and DEA for more transparency and accountability and prohibit their interference with sovereign countries. We keep going down this Rabbit Hole without a GPS, expecting to find a way out. That won't happen. "Just Saying"

Anonymous said...

What most people don't realize is that there wasn't a heroin problem before we attacked Afghanistan as the Taliban had outlawed poppy cultivation and if farmers were caught growing it they were executed. After the US invasion the DEA which sets drug policy all around the world ordered American prosecutors and police to conduct zero tolerance on pain pill addicts and the pill mills that prescribed them. This policy gave rise to the current heroin epidemic as it forced pill heads to the streets to get their fix. The DEA is the most corrupt agency in the entire world.