General Says He Will Need More Ships If We Expect Him to Win the War on Drugs


Senate Armed Services Committee

Last month Gen. John F. Kelly, who is in charge of the U.S. Southern Command, complained that marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington has made Latin American officials less eager to join the war on drugs. Yesterday Kelly complained that budget cuts have forced him to dial back drug interdiction in the Caribbean. In both cases, Kelly's complaints sound like good news to me.

"Because of asset shortfalls, we're unable to get after 74 percent of suspected maritime drug smuggling," Kelly told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I simply sit and watch it go by." Mother Jones—which last year warned that "More Cocaine Could Soon Be on Our Streets, Thanks to the Sequester"—may be sympathetic to Kelly's plight. But since trying to stop Americans from snorting arbitrarily proscribed powders up their noses has absolutely nothing to do with national defense, it looks to me like giving the Pentagon a bit less money than it anticipated is forcing some perfectly appropriate and long overdue prioritization.

Even if you support the war on drugs (which, to be fair, Mother Jones does only when partisanship takes precedence over principle), you should not be eager to lavish more taxpayer money on interdiction, which is a highly inefficient way of discouraging people from consuming forbidden intoxicants. "Without assets, certain things will happen," Kelly told reporters later in the day. "Much larger amounts of drugs will flow up from Latin America." Kelly seems to think interdiction reduces the total amount of drugs reaching the United States. But that is not how interdiction works, to the extent that it works at all. Given all the places where drugs can be produced and all the ways they can be transported to people who want them, the most that drug warriors can hope to accomplish is to impose costs on traffickers that are high enough to raise retail prices, thereby discouraging consumption.

How has that been going? "With few exceptions and despite increasing investments in enforcement-based supply reduction efforts aimed at disrupting global drug supply," a 2013 study published by BMJ Open concluded, "illegal drug prices have generally decreased while drug purity has generally increased since 1990. These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing." 

The basic problem is that drugs acquire most of their value after they get to the country where they will be consumed, so seizing them en route has little impact on the cost to consumers. If Kelly got the resources he wants and increased the percentage of "suspected maritime drug smuggling" that triggers a response, there is little reason to think the upshot would be less drug use. The economics of drug prohibition mean there will always be more than enough smuggling to compensate for whatever fraction drug warriors manage to intercept.

What is that fraction? Kelly suggested a number:

Kelly said he estimates that authorities seize roughly 20 percent of narcotics in transit to the United States, a statistic several senators called alarming.

"That's all we get?" Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the committee, asked incredulously.

"All we get," Kelly responded.

Even 20 percent might be an exaggeration. Drug warriors cannot say what share of the total supply they seize without knowing what the total supply is, and they can estimate that only by trying to calculate total consumption and/or production, an exercise that is fraught with uncertainty when you are dealing with contraband. And remember: These are the same folks who produce those impressive-sounding but mostly fictitious "street values."

But the real fallacy here lies in assuming that if drug warriors seize more, the percentage of the total supply they get will go up. If traffickers treat seizures as a cost of doing business and respond by boosting shipments, the percentage seized may stay exactly the same even as the amount seized rises. And since larger seizures do not necessarily translate into noticeably higher retail prices, there is no reason to expect consumption will be reduced, which is the ultimate goal, although it's easy to forget that if you focus on Coast Guard cutters intercepting smugglers in the Caribbean, as Kelly's audience did:

[Kelly] said interdiction efforts would be bolstered with more ships that can transport helicopters. His command has only one Navy ship and two Coast Guard cutters assigned to counter narcotics smuggling, he said.

Kelly said he has 5 percent of the intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance equipment that would give his team a thorough handle on the activities of enterprises smuggling drugs and people to the United States through Central America and the Caribbean.

"I would say 5 percent is jaw-dropping, frankly, in terms of the threats that you've just talked about," Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said. "I think this is something that we better address as a committee.

Simple math will show that if Kelly had 20 times as much equipment, he could intercept 400 percent of the drug supply. That is the fundamental problem with the war on drugs: not enough resources.