Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Strong Drugs Rule
I’m not talking about legal prescriptions. This is a blog about illicit narcotics, government programs to control the drug trade, economics and human nature. And the probable impact of Donald Trump’s Wall on narcotics trafficking. And how, sometimes, clamping down on addictive substances backfires.
Drugs and alcohol have always had a profound social cost. From automobile accidents, criminal behavior (stoned criminals behaving badly, drug dealing and folks doing what they think they have to do to generate money to pay for illegal drugs), lower productivity in the workplace and the disintegration of families by reason of addiction. Wasted lives, expensive treatments and prisons where half the inmates are incarcerated for narcotics-related crimes (half of those for possession). And the U.S. has a quarter of the world’s inmates with only 5% of the earth’s population. Our new Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to reverse the Obama-era move away from long sentences for drug possession, looking more to treatment options. These “tough new” drug policies are going to cost Americans, from taxes and in the lost lives from these hard narcotics, billions of additional dollars.
Sure, some of us are still trying to reduce the prison alternative for drug abusers, even legalizing marijuana in some venues and expanding rehab alternatives, but Johann Hari, writing for the January 14, 2015 Los Angeles Times, explores an issue that is often ignored in examining the drug problem: the increase in potency of illicit narcotics that appears to be directly proportionate to the government efforts to control and limit the drug trade.
The first mega-lesson we apparently did not learn comes from the American experiment with Prohibition (1920 to 1933). Where alcohol was consumed legally, it was primarily in the form of beer and wine. When Prohibition kicked in, those who continued to imbibe turned to hard liquor as their primary alcohol of choice. After Prohibition, America returned to beer and wine. Why? This is where the economics kicks in.
If you are a smuggler, moving low-potency alcohol and narcotics across the border (or manufacturing/growing illegally within the U.S.) is cost inefficient. The number of units of potency that can be moved is much cheaper if the cargo/harvest is more potent. It takes many bottles of wine to equal the impact of a single bottle of hard booze. So given the risk, it just plain makes economic sense to deal in concentrated potency, noting that more potent drugs and alcohol sell for more per unit than low potency items.
Mike Grey wrote a book (Drug Crazy) that deals with such logical anomalies. Hari summarizes: “So why would banning a drug change people's taste? In fact, it didn't. It just changed what they had access to… Imagine if you had to smuggle all the booze to be consumed in your local bar next week in a wagon from the Mexican or Canadian border. If you filled the wagon with beer, you could serve maybe a few hundred drinks. But if you filled the same space with whiskey, you could serve thousands. When you are smuggling anything over distance, ‘you have to put the maximum bang in the smallest possible package,’ as Gray wrote. Bar-goers would prefer beer — but if all they can get is whiskey, plenty will drink that instead…
“Gray points out that you can watch this dynamic any weekend if you go to the stands of any university football game. Students prefer beer, but most college stadiums don't allow or sell any alcohol. It's a zone of prohibition. So what do the students do? They smuggle in hard liquor in flasks…. The technical term for this — coined by the advocate for drug reform Richard Cowan — is ‘the iron law of prohibition.’ As crackdowns on a drug become more harsh, the milder forms of that drug disappear — and the most extreme strains become most widely available.”
Today, just about every form of banned narcotics is stronger than the drugs of even the fairly recent past. Even marijuana today is generally higher in the reactive HTC than the weed of the 1960s. “But using that fact as an argument against legalization misrepresents what is going on. Most cannabis smokers don't want to get totally baked on super skunk, any more than most social drinkers want to get smashed on Smirnoff. But the milder stuff isn't available because the market is [mostly] prohibited.
“The iron law is playing out to devastating effect with opiates. People who become addicted to OxyContin or Percocet want to continue using those drugs. Doctors, however, are required by law to stop prescribing these opiates if they suspect the patient is feeding an addiction, not treating physical pain. Yet when an addict tries to find his drug on the illegal market, Oxy or Percs are almost impossible to get. What is widely available, and cheaper, is a much stronger and completely outlawed opiate: heroin.” Hari writing for the LA Times.
Mexican farmers have been transporting black tar heroin to the US on their bodies, usually in hollowed heels or little compartments in shoes, for a very long time. They are repeating a lesson we should have learned from our experience during Prohibition. But Americans aren’t too good at learning from history these days.
Sam Quinones, writing for the February 16th New York Times, spoke to a couple of south-of-the-border ranchers who, like most of those around them, have supplemented their farm income with short trips across the border. “[W]alls have not stopped drugs, especially heroin. It is the easiest drug to traffic in small batches across a border because it is so easily condensed — and easy to cut later. [A] rancher from Sinaloa told me he put a little more than a pound and a half of heroin in those shoes, clearing as much as $12,000 in a single trip to the States. You could never fit enough cocaine, meth or marijuana into a shoe to make it worth the risk. ‘They’re too voluminous,’ he told me…
“He said he had been deported several years ago and couldn’t return. He was caught smuggling black-tar heroin in his shoes at the Tijuana-San Diego border crossing, he said. Wasn’t much — not quite a kilo. He did this to raise the money to buy a couple of cows, or a tractor.
“In Sinaloa, he said, cobblers do a thriving side business cutting compartments in the soles and heels of shoes and filling them with heroin. There’s a market for this work because so many farmers and ranchers — conservative folks, respectful of tradition — subsidize their small-time agriculture with drug money… Almost every other farmer for miles around did the same, he said. He had smuggled drugs 50 times before he was caught. He spent two years in federal prison and then was deported.”
“It stops being economic to carry anything but the most concentrated narcotics when the barriers get stronger; it’s just not cost-efficient. “Larger Mexican drug operations, of course, ship bigger quantities hidden in trucks, particularly for long-distance hauls to the East Coast. The United States cannot check every one of the millions of trucks that cross north every year… But many ordinary people traffic small amounts of heroin ‘a la hormiga’ — antlike. They need the money, for things like cows or tractors, to finish a house, or simply to spend like kings for a while.
“A lot of heroin trafficking happens a kilo or two at a time. Other ranchers told me they used hollow hammers, toothpaste tubes, a woman’s hair, backpacks or the carburetor of a truck. No wall stops that kind of trafficking. It probably won’t stop trafficking in fentanyl, either, the synthetic opioid vastly more potent than heroin.” Quinones.
For policy-makers, noting how consumed our increasingly expensive criminal justice system is over the narcotics trade, these facts really need to be discussed and prioritized accordingly. The problem with our anti-drug laws is and always has been a rather complete failure to appreciate human nature, from the natural rebellion among high school and college kids to communities where drugs are just a part of daily life to folks escaping one form of pain or another.
Building a wall should result in a whole lot more really strong heroin crossing into the United States… and a lot less of that “weaker stuff.” Think we have problems with fentanyl and opioid addiction? It’s just a guess, but I suspect you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The profit margins on those hard drugs are substantially higher than the “other stuff.” Those thumping and crying about moral imperatives, the need to clamp down even harder of the illicit drug trade with this border wall, have never succeeded in their goals. Never! But they have given rise to mobsters and drug cartels with murderous carnage as their main agenda. Nobody wants that wall more than the cartels.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the United States is increasingly struggling with real world behaviors and real world science in fomenting policies to accomplish realistic goals… and when you ignore reality, you never solve the underlying problems.