America Has a Black-Market Problem, Not a Drug Problem

The head of the military's Southern Command wants more money to fight a losing battle.
Reuters

General John F. Kelly, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, testified last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he argued, as generals tend to do, that he has inadequate resources to fulfill the missions assigned to him. 

Here's how the Associated Press summed up his statement:

The U.S. doesn’t have the ships and surveillance capabilities to go after the illegal drugs flowing into the U.S. from Latin America, the top military commander for the region told senators Thursday, adding that the lack of resources means he has to “sit and watch it go by.”

Gen. John Kelly told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he is able to get about 20 percent of the drugs leaving Colombia for the U.S., but the rest gets through. 

Think about that.

Though the U.S. spends billions of dollars each year fighting the War on Drugs, and despite having done so for many years, 80 percent of the drugs from one of the countries we've focused on the most still gets through all of our interdiction efforts. 

Is the answer to throw more money at the prohibitionist strategy?

Kelly requests more resources:

Kelly ... said he would be able to interdict more drugs if he had 16 ships that could be used as the base for helicopters. Generally, law enforcement officials use the helicopters to quickly go after traffickers operating small boats, forcing them to stop and surrender. Currently, Kelly said he has one U.S. Navy ship and two Coast Guard vessels that can be used for the drug operations. The overall goal has been to reduce the amount of drugs coming into the U.S. from Latin America by 40 percent, which officials believe would cut into the profits of the cartels and perhaps turn them against each other.

To reach that goal, he said, would require the 16 ships. 

So best-case scenario, we could spend more ... and maybe, if we're "lucky," spark a bloody cartel war abroad. Somehow, that inclines me to spend those extra billions elsewhere! If we turn to Kelly's full statement, we find a frustrating refusal to frankly state the tradeoffs that we've chosen in our present approach to drug policy.  

In his telling, transnational criminal organizations are a security problem for several reasons. If you think about it, almost all of those reasons are exacerbated by the black market.

  1. "The spread of criminal networks is having a corrosive effect on the integrity of democratic institutions and the stability of several of our partner nations." Without black-market profits, criminal drug networks would almost certainly shrink.
  2. "Transnational criminal organizations threaten citizen security, undermine basic human rights, cripple rule of law through corruption, erode good governance, and hinder economic development." Again, the ability of drug cartels to bribe officials, violate human rights, and cripple the rule of law would be undermined if they suddenly lost their ability to profit from drugs on the black market.
  3. "Illicit trafficking poses a direct threat to our nation’s public health, safety, and border security. Criminal elements make use of the multitude of illicit pathways in our hemisphere to smuggle drugs, contraband, and even humans directly into the United States." Without a black market in narcotics, smuggling operations would be less sophisticated and the money flowing to smugglers would decrease.
  4. "Illegal drugs are an epidemic in our country, wasting lives and fueling violence between rival gangs in most of our nation’s cities." It's possible that more addict lives would be wasted if drugs were legalized, because of increased use and abuse. Drug-fueled gang violence and the lives lost to it would almost certainly decrease.
  5. "The third concern is a potential one, and highlights the vulnerability to our homeland rather than an imminent threat: that terrorist organizations could seek to leverage those same smuggling routes to move operatives with intent to cause grave harm to our citizens or even quite easily bring weapons of mass destruction into the United States." Again, if drugs were legal, fewer resources would be poured into routes and personnel that could be exploited by foreign terrorists. 

Why doesn't the testimony note, as I just did, that the black market in drugs that prohibition creates exacerbates nearly every way in which transnational crime hurts us?

Kelly isn't to blame. He doesn't make policy. He tries to carry it out. But the policy that he's been given is as doomed to fail as it always has been. Prohibition may make some (though not all) people inclined to addiction safer in some ways. But it makes all of us less safe in other ways, and wreaks havoc in foreign countries. It would be nice if hearings on U.S. drug policy acknowledged such tradeoffs.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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