Bursting the Balloon


Just before President Bush's February "drug summit" with Latin American leaders in San Antonio, a congressional report explained why the meeting was a waste of time.

Issued by Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D–N.Y.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice, the study begins by expressing support for "international efforts to control the supply of dangerous drugs." But the body of the report, which analyzes the administration's Andean Initiative, points to fundamental problems with drug interdiction and eradication programs, which consume billions of taxpayers' dollars each year.

The subtitle of the study, "Squeezing a Balloon," refers to the futility of trying to stamp out drug production and trafficking. Suppressing production in one area simply pushes it elsewhere: from Southwest Asia to Southeast Asia (heroin), from Mexico and Colombia to the United States (marijuana), from Peru and Bolivia to the rest of Latin America (coca). Similarly, cracking down on one smuggling route shifts traffic elsewhere.

"It is virtually impossible to account for every plot of land planted with coca," the report says. "The land suitable for coca cultivation is virtually limitless….When pressed, Administration officials and DEA agents acknowledge they cannot say with any certainty how much cocaine is being produced or being shipped to the United States."

The study notes that most of cocaine's eventual cost is added after it arrives here, so it's relatively easy for traffickers to replace supplies seized in transit. Consequently, interdiction is a very inefficient way to raise the retail price of cocaine.

"What was envisioned as a quick fix has become a protracted struggle, with no end in sight," the report says. It concludes that government studies of interdiction and eradication "raise doubts about whether any feasible supply-reduction activities can produce a sustained impact on cocaine consumption in the United States."