In the 2000 film Traffic, Robert Wakefield is a superior court judge newly appointed to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). In one scene, Wakefield compliments the outgoing drug czar on his successes, only to receive a quizzical look and a resigned reply: “I’m not sure I made the slightest difference.”
Such is the sentiment of much of society concerning the war on drugs and drug trafficking in the United States. Many argue that the war on drugs costs America far too much in tax dollars, law enforcement effort, and people’s lives, and that, despite an overwhelming effort, little progress has been made. The drug control budget in the United States has increased from $9.7 billion in 1990 to $17.7 billion in 2000. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) increased its number of agents from 3,191 in 1990 to 4,561 in 2000. In spite of these increases, the number of drug users increased from 5.8 percent of the population in 1992 to 6.7 percent in 1998. In 1999 an estimated 14.8 million Americans were current users of illegal drugs, and there were approximately 208,000 users of heroin, more than triple the 1993 figure of 68,000. Drug use in America has steadily risen in the last ten years despite increases in law enforcement efforts, budgets, and staffing.
In 1968 Richard Nixon coined the phrase “war on drugs” to describe America’s efforts to battle the production, distribution, and use of illegal drugs. In 1972 Nixon combined four government agencies dedicated to combating drugs to create the DEA. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan revived the war on drugs and increased the efforts of the DEA to reduce the supply of drugs entering the United States. Reagan initiated a series of laws allowing federal officials to access military intelligence, training, and equipment to track and intercept drug traffickers. Around the same time, federal and local governments passed laws allowing property and assets derived from drug profits to be confiscated and retained by officials. Under the Reagan administration, drug treatment and education programs were initiated, including Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign in which children were encouraged by media messages and slogans to resist offers of drugs.
The increase in law enforcement efforts was intended to reduce drug trafficking by enacting more severe legal sanctions for convicted drug dealers, but the enormity of profits to be made from smuggling and selling drugs overrides the threat of punishment. The international drug trade is estimated to generate $300 billion to $400 billion annually. Such a large profit not only provides a strong incentive to sell drugs, but also allows criminals greater access to technological advantages. Because the traffickers have a higher budget than drug enforcement officers do, they are able to develop more sophisticated means of producing, transporting, and hiding their drugs. According to journalists John Ward Anderson and William Branigin, “In recent years, drug mafias have bought commercial jetliners and built a fleet of two-man submarines to move drugs to the United States. They have secreted loads in propane tanks and containers of hazardous materials, in small cans of tuna fish and five-gallon drums of jalapeño peppers. One trafficking group fashioned a special mold that was used to successfully ship cocaine from Mexico through the United States and into Canada completely sealed inside the walls of porcelain toilets.” The existing budget to fight the supply of drugs cannot compete with the limitless resources available to drug traffickers.
Critics of the drug war argue that the amount of money spent on unsuccessfully reducing the supply of drugs would be better used to fight the enormous demand for drugs in the United States. To accomplish this, many favor drug prevention education programs that strive to deter children from experimenting with drugs. They speak favorably of the “Just Say No” campaign of the Reagan administration, which launched the “This is your brain on drugs” commercials as well as posters with the slogan “Drugs Kill.” They also support the current Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, in which trained, uniformed police officers speak to classrooms about the negative consequences of drug use and teach children the skills to resist peer pressure and intimidation. Supporters of these programs contend that children are less likely to succumb to the dangers of drug use—and less likely to become drug-abusing adults—if they are informed about the risks.
In addition to drug education, proponents of the demand-reduction approach advocate increased funding for drug treatment programs. Treatment programs include various drug rehabilitation clinics and job support and training for rehabilitated drug addicts. Another form of treatment is the distribution of methadone to heroin addicts. Methadone is a synthetic opiate that blocks the craving for heroin and reduces the painful and debilitating withdrawal symptoms. According to Michael Massing, author of The Fix, a book about America’s drug problem,
Relying solely on drug-fighting efforts abroad, the government would have to spend $783 million more a year to reduce cocaine consumption by 1 percent; relying on interdiction, it would have to spend $366 million more, and on domestic law enforcement, $246 million. Relying solely on treatment, however, the government would have to spend only $34 million more to achieve that 1 percent reduction. In other words [according to a 1994 RAND study], treatment was seven times more cost-effective than local law enforcement, ten times more effective than interdiction, and twenty-three times more effective than attacking drugs at their source.
Massing and others maintain that drug treatment is not only more effective at reducing drug use than interdiction efforts, but also more cost effective for American taxpayers.
Others contend that attacking the supply of drugs is essential to reduce drug use and the social ills it produces. According to talk-show host and syndicated columnist Oliver North, “The prevalence of so many drugs, in such astounding quantities and purity, results in extraordinary violence, corruption, and downright lawlessness here in the United States.” North and others argue that the effort poured into drug interdiction and law enforcement is necessary to maintain the no-tolerance drug policy in the United States. Law enforcement seized $82 million worth of drugs in 1999, more than three times the 1990 figure of $24 million. The DEA argues that this increase in drug seizures demonstrates the effectiveness of supply reduction in the war on drugs.
Despite many arguments against America’s war on drugs, the prevailing sentiment strongly advocates a no-tolerance drug policy. Drug Trafficking: Current Controversies offers perspectives on the various effects drug trafficking has on society and the efforts law enforcement and the government are making to combat it. While drug trafficking is seen as a transnational threat, attempts to eradicate it have caused much controversy in the United States.