Tripped Up

Joel Miller's Bad Trip kills the government's anti-drug buzz. A Reason interview

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Reason: What if cops aren't so overtly corrupt? Are there other ways that drug prohibition effect them?

There are subtle things. It's difficult to make drug arrests because people keep their drug use secret and quiet. One thing that comes up time and again are cops who basically lie about the facts regarding a search so that they can make the search legal on paper even if it wasn't legal in fact.

Then there are cops who plant drugs on suspects because they want to make busts, sometimes for reasons that go beyond drug enforcement. Sometimes they are involved in the drug trade and they are busting a rival, or helping a partner deal with a competitor. There is an awful lot of opportunity for corruption, and police are in the difficult position of not only being very close to lawbreaking but often the only ones who know about it. So they're able to justify all kinds of ill behavior.

Reason: What were some of the more surprising cases that you uncovered for the chapter on smuggling?

Smuggling reflects the most profound thing about human nature, and that is that human beings will do anything if the payoff is big enough.

And when I say anything, I mean anything: dig under the southern border with incredible tunnels, some of which have been open for years. I mention one in Bad Trip that was discovered just south of San Diego. Authorities estimated that it had been open for 10 or 20 years shuttling drugs through. This thing had lights, ventilation ducts, the whole thing. They found a quarter ton of pot in the tunnel when they got there, which means that the people who were operating it were probably alerted to the fact that there was a raid and all got out fine.

That points to problems with enforcement but it also shows the incredible amount of ingenuity and craft that people will put into their smuggling. It includes things like building submarines, training pigeons how to carry packets of drugs across borders. It includes smuggling substances inside of things, disguising them as other things, including taking opium and soaking blankets with it and smuggling the blankets, taking cocaine and mixing it with plastic and fiberglass resin and creating things out of it like dog kennels and bathtubs, and then extracting the cocaine once it's across the border. There's no way to test for it without testing every single item: you can't smell it, can't see it. The only way cops can get it is if they're actually taking chips out of these products and testing them.

Reason: What does the drug trade tell us about how markets work?

It tells us that markets work really well. Faustino Ballv�, the economist, calls black markets the true market, because they're the only markets actually dealing with reality instead of pawing vigorously against it. When people have incentives, people are able to deliver, and there's really no way around that. It's a fact of human nature, and there's no beating human nature.

Reason: Are government efforts making a dent in the supply of drugs?

Not really. We've had drug prohibition in this country since 1914, and yet every administration since Nixon has had to jack up its enforcement budgets, and we're seeing very little in the way of results.

Reason: In the '90s, what happened to the price of drugs?

Consistently, they dropped. With cocaine, the downward slump was not huge, but with heroin it was pretty strong. Prices in general for drugs seem to be on the decline.

Reason: This occurred at the same time as crime rates fell. Does that mean more drugs equal less crime?

Dropping prices can definitely mean increased supply. It could mean other things too, but it's an interesting fact that the only type of crime that began rising in the late '90s while every other type of crime was going down, was gang crime—street crime. That's the crime most closely associated with the drug trade. It was responsible for half of the murders in Los Angeles.

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