Mother Jones Worries That Sequestration Will Hurt the Poor, the Environment…and the War on Drugs?


Mother Jones

This week Mother Jones has been sounding the alarm about the deleterious effects of the automatic budget cuts that started taking effect last Friday. On Monday, for example, Erika Eichelberger counted "12 Ways the Sequester Will Screw the Poor." Yesterday morning, Zaineb Mohammed listed "6 Ways the Sequester Will Mess Up the Environment." In the afternoon, Andy Kroll warned us that "More Cocaine Could Soon Be on Our Streets, Thanks to the Sequester."

Hang on. One of these things is not like the others. You would expect a progressive magazine to defend welfare and the evironment. But the war on drugs? Isn't Mother Jones supposed to be against that?

Yesterday Nick Gillespie tweeted Kroll's piece, wondering if "@MotherJones really frets #sequester will lead to less drug interdiction." Mother Jones Co-Editor Monika Bauerlein replied: "More 'takes note that.' We try to keep our fretting to a minimum in general." In other words, Mother Jones, which frequently condemns the war on drugs, is making no judgment about whether de-escalating it would be a good or bad development. Is that really such a hard call? It seems obvious to me that less enforcement of drug prohibition, like less imprisonment of people whose only crime is living and working in the United States without official permission, should be counted as a benefit of sequestration. In their eagerness to decry allegedly draconian spending cuts, the folks at Mother Jones seem to have forgotten that they do not actually like everything the government does.

Contrary to Bauerlein's description, Kroll did not merely "note that" the Navy plans to cut back on its drug interdiction efforts in the Caribbean. He implicitly endorsed the idea that drug interdiction is an effective way of preventing Americans from obtaining psychoactive substances that politicians have arbitrarily decreed they should not consume. He worried that sequestration will result in "more cocaine on our streets" because "the Navy is pulling back from an operation that kept 160 tons of cocaine and 25,000 pounds of marijuana out of the United States last year." It is interesting that Kroll does not seem worried about more marijuana on our streets, which may have something to do with his own pharmocological preferences—a possibility I am just noting, without passing judgment one way or the other.

In any case, Kroll seems to have a naive view of how drug interdiction works: When the Navy seizes 160 tons of cocaine, he seems to think, it reduces the supply of cocaine by 160 tons. If so, it should be a snap to eliminate all cocaine use in this country. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Americans consume something like 188 tons of cocaine a year. So a few more ships should be all we need to decisively defeat the cocaine scourge.

In reality, interdiction merely imposes a cost on cocaine traffickers—and not a very big cost, since cocaine acquires the bulk of its value after it arrives in the United States. Kroll inadvertently makes that point by quoting a Virginian-Pilot article that says Operation Martillo, which involves the Air Force, the Coast Guard, and the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the Navy, last year "intercepted and captured $4 billion worth of cocaine, valued at $12 billion in street resale value." Although we should not put too much stock in government estimates of seized drugs' value, which law enforcement agencies have an interest in exaggerating, the gap between those two numbers is notable, and the $4 billion estimate presumably reflects the wholesale cost of cocaine once it gets to the U.S., which is several times the replacement cost for cocaine seized in transit.

Given all the myriad ways in which smugglers can avoid interception, the best drug warriors can hope for is to raise traffickers' costs enough to boost the retail price of cocaine. But that strategy has never had a lasting impact on prices or consumption. As drug policy scholars such as Peter Reuter have been pointing out for decades, the economics of the black market make interdiction a highly inefficient way of stopping Americans from putting forbidden chemicals in their noses, lungs, or veins. 

Am I really explaining to Mother Jones that the war on drugs has been a disastrous failure? Yes, I am, and I guess we can count that as yet another cost of sequestration.