Seized by Failure

More confiscations doesn't mean the drug warriors are winning


Walking through an airport with a stash of hash is getting harder and harder these days.

Since the September 11 attacks, tighter security at airports, shipping yards, and border crossings have bumped up total drug seizures 66 percent, according to the December 16 New York Times. U.S. Customs positively blushes as it hypes how seizures among commercial traffic along the Canadian border are up 326 percent.

"There has been a definite unintended consequence of the effort against terror: We are doing a better job of keeping illegal drugs out of the United States," gushed Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner. But are they?

"Experts have no clear evidence that the increased seizures have created a shortage of drugs on the street or raised their price there," notes Times reporter Fox Butterfield.

The connection between more seizures and less drugs on the streets only holds true if you assume that incoming supplies of drugs are static. They don't appear to be. For one thing, more seizures mean that heightened security isn't scaring off traffickers. You'd expect seizures to decline if Customs' teeth were adequately sharp. Instead, a boom in narco-nabbing might simply signal that traffickers are tossing more product at the borders to make up for what they expect to get pinched.

"Law enforcement officials are uncertain whether the increase in seizures means only that they are intercepting a larger proportion of the narcotics…or whether the traffickers are…increasing the number or size of their shipments as a way of overwhelming the tighter security," writes Butterfield. The trend over the past decade indicates that the latter is more likely.

Global Illicit Drug Trends 2001, one of those info-clutter publications from the United Nations, shows how genuinely meaningless the seizures are. The U.N. says that total potential production of illicit opiates (raw opium, heroin, morphine, etc.) in 1999 was 576 metric tons, nearly double what it was in 1989. The amount seized has ratcheted up as well, from 9 percent in 1989 to 15 percent in 1999.

But that still leaves 491 metric tons of illicit opiates available for consumption — 182 metric tons more smack than when the first President Bush was reassuring the nation that the U.S. would prevail in the War on Drugs. We're grabbing more all right, but only because there's so much more to grab.

Two simple graphs in the U.N. report make this embarrassingly clear. The first (on page 107) shows global seizures of heroin and morphine from 1989-99. The number of seizures more than doubled, with 27 metric tons seized in 1989 and 61 in 1999. Keep that in mind as you flip to page 207, where a chart tracks the wholesale and retail prices of heroin over the same period. Where a gram of heroin would cost you more than $275 in 1987 (using 1999 dollars), 12 years later the same gram would set you back less than $50. While less dramatic, the downward slope for cocaine is just as obvious.

Even short-term seizure gains aren't promising for drug warriors. Traffickers are making up for shortfalls by simple redirection. Because the Coast Guard has shifted its efforts away from interdiction to anti-terror duties, Butterfield points out that cocaine seizures are down by one-third, and marijuana seizures are only one-fifteenth what they were last year at this time.

Sometimes the banal things are the truest: Where's there's a will, there's a way — and this is true for both sides of the drug war.

As T.W. Arnold explained about alcohol prohibition in his 1937 book, The Folklore of Capitalism, "When men wanted to pretend that the nation was dry, a vast and complex organization of bootleggers became a necessity in order to meet the demand for liquor."

But at the same time, "There was also an elaborate ceremony to be celebrated, i.e., that the nation was dry." As evidenced by all the rumrunners, it wasn't, but the government put on the necessary airs, just as it does now.

Drug warriors bluster and bellow about how the latest seizures are some sort of victory, but as the numbers demonstrate, it's all a show. By jailing a few drug runners and pinching their product, drug warriors can continue to claim their well-loved token successes while drug dealers continue to claim the real ones.