By Sean Dunagan, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
As anyone who pays attention to the issue can tell you, the brazen dishonesty of the propaganda front in the war on drugs is enough to make any Madison Avenue ad man wince: Cannabis has no medicinal value. Your brain, on drugs, transforms into a fried egg. Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind (that one’s a quote from Harry Anslinger, the former Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics). It would be a hilarious spectacle, if not for the fact that so many people actually believe what they are told.
Yet, sometimes, the truth—as it is prone to do—finds a way to peek through the veil and let itself be known. Witness last year’s Department of Homeland Security report concluding that eliminating cartel “kingpins” has no impact on drug trafficking levels, and DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young’s 1988 finding that marijuana “has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States” and should, accordingly, be transferred from Schedule I to Schedule II under the Controlled Substances Act.
Another such moment of drug war reason occurred in April in the form of statements made by Dr. Mark Kleiman, a UCLA Professor of Public Policy and former visiting fellow at the DOJ’s National Institute of Justice. In a video posted on the NIJ’s web site, Dr. Kleiman candidly observes:
Everybody knows that drug abuse and crime are sort of the same thing, and therefore fighting the war on drugs is a good way to reduce crime. Unfortunately, that ain’t so. And we need to distinguish sharply between policies to reduce drug abuse and the damage that it does to individuals and the people around them and policies to reduce predatory crime . . .
A lot of the stuff we do that’s supposed to control drug abuse actually turns out to increase predatory crime. We could think about not doing that. In particular, drug law enforcement has a natural tendency to increase the stakes in drug dealing. To put more money on the table, to put more time behind bars at risk, and therefore to increase the value of violence to people engaged in the illicit drug trade. . . That ramping up drug law enforcement is going to increase, rather than decrease, violence. That’s what we’ve been seeing in Mexico.
As a former DEA analyst, I find it astonishing that these statements were made by a DOJ-funded researcher and posted to a DOJ web site. Lest anyone doubt that the drug policy reform movement is succeeding, I would ask you to try to imagine these statements having been allowed during the Just Say No era.
I should note that Dr. Kleiman does not advocate for legalization; instead, he makes the rather strained argument that the drug war is worthwhile, but that law enforcement efforts focusing on violent actors in the drug business would be more effective. I would argue that while such an approach is certainly more morally justifiable than locking up, say, elderly cancer patients who use medical marijuana, it’s inherently inconsistent with his own observations about the causal relationship between prohibition and violence. Locking up elderly cancer patients doesn’t “increase the value of violence” for drug traffickers. Locking up violent drug traffickers does, simply because it raises the stakes.
In economic terms, the illicit drug market is driven almost entirely by risk premiums. In Colombia, a kilogram of cocaine costs less than $3,000. By the time it reaches the U.S., that price has increased at least sixfold. Why? Because the risk of trying to evade the Coast Guard, Customs and DEA folks who try to interdict it along the way has a quantifiable value. The dynamic is multiplied at the retail level. Standing on a street corner selling coke by the gram is a pretty high-exposure (hence high-risk) endeavor, so the price jumps up to roughly $100 a gram in most cities.
That market dynamic in the milieu of prohibition will always engender violence because prohibition ensures that only criminals will be engaged in the market. So, imagine that Dr. Kleiman’s suggested approach were to be adopted so successfully that the risk of arrest for traffickers increased dramatically. Would Chapo Guzman, the billionaire head of the Sinaloa cartel who is listed by Forbes magazine as one of the richest men in the world, decide that drug trafficking had just gotten too risky and find another line of work? I sincerely doubt it. The result would be an upward adjustment of the risk premium. That would mean that drugs became more expensive. That would mean that transporting and selling them became more profitable. That would mean that the stakes would be higher, and traffickers would defend their market share with even greater violence. That would mean, as we have witnessed over and over again, that prohibition makes the problems associated with the drug trade worse, not better.
We see this in a very tangible way in Mexico, where I worked for two years with the DEA. In 2006, there were roughly 2,100 drug-related murders in the country. In December of that year, Felipe Calderon assumed the presidency promising to redouble the country’s fight against drug traffickers. He deployed the military to the streets, waging an all-out assault against the “worst of the worst” (like the one suggested by Dr. Kleiman). Last year, the death toll topped 12,000.
I applaud Dr. Kleiman’s lucid assessment of the relationship between prohibition and crime, but I’m absolutely dumbfounded by his inability to draw a sound conclusion from his own premises. The fact is that drug market violence is a direct and natural consequence of prohibition. To suggest that it can be eradicated without ending prohibition is to suggest that a tree can be killed by plucking a few of its leaves.