Anti-drug plan will cause more harm than good

Editorial

President Bush confirmed last week, at the U.S.-Canada-Mexico “summit” meeting, that the U.S. is planning a “robust” aid package to help Mexico combat the illegal drug trade.

There is little question Mexico is experiencing a tragic wave of violence as various drug cartels battle among themselves and with the federales. But throwing more resources into enforcement will make matters worse.

The administration was at pains to say the proposed aid to Mexico was not at all like the “Plan Colombia” program that has seen $800 million to $1.3 billion sent to Colombia every year since 1998, when the Clinton administration started it.

No wonder.

After all that money was spent, the number of acres under coca cultivation in Colombia actually has risen in recent years, and the street price of cocaine in the United States has declined, which is exactly the opposite of what the plan was supposed to accomplish.

The continued availability of illicit drugs in the U.S. should be testimony enough that the “war on drugs” is one of the most massive and socially disruptive policy failures of modern times.

Drug warriors may like to think if they just spent more money and ratcheted up the pressure on traffickers, they would finally end illicit drug use and trafficking. This approach has always failed in the past and will fail in the future, for some obvious reasons.

Prohibition raises the price to consumers to many times the cost of producing the drugs, so as long as the demand is there the potential profits will lure unscrupulous operators into the trade. Conspicuous flurries of enforcement tend to winnow out the least-competent of the dealers, reducing competition for those most skilled at the dark arts of concealment and violence.

Even if a major operator is taken down, a dozen more will scramble to take his place.

Then there’s what former American University law professor Arnold Trebach called the “iron law of prohibition.” Concentrated enforcement, he observed, leads to traffickers moving toward more compact, more easily concealed and higher-margin illicit drugs. In practice this means moving from less harmful drugs like marijuana toward more harmful drugs like heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine.

So dealers in the U.S. could find themselves with smaller supplies of “softer” drugs and better supplies of “hard” drugs, and will push customers in that direction.

Thus the U.S. “anti-drug” aid package to Mexico not only won’t be helpful, it will almost certainly make things worse.