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Wednesday, October 3, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the BBC: US claims success in war on drugs

The top US drugs official has said anti-drug efforts are having the best results of the past 20 years.

John Walters, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said cocaine shortages had led to a jump in prices in 37 American cities.

Efforts on both sides of the Mexican border have disrupted the flow of all drugs into the US, Mr Walters said.

But he said it had not yet been proven if the results could be sustained over the long term.

And that last sentence is the key, as the record would indicate that the results will not and cannot be sustained.

Further, to me this situation underscore not the current short-term successes, but the long-term lack of success of the war on drugs. Consider:

“What’s happened for the first time in two decades is we now see widespread reports of cocaine shortages in the United States,” Mr Walters said.

As a result of the drop in supply, the price of cocaine had increased by 24% and nearly doubled in some cities.

So, two decades (and, really, we have been combating cocaine trafficking longer than that) and billions of dollar later, this is the first time that there has been a cocaine shortage of this nature? Now, that could mean that we are at the start of new era of constrained supply, or it could mean that we are seeing a temporary condition in the market before the traffickers adapt. The latter is the much, much more likely scenario.

US interdiction efforts have disrupted drug shipment routes in the past, and the traffickers have shifted those routes over time. For example, Mexico was not always the main gateway for the cocaine to enter the US.

There also is the fact while constricted supply increases price (the goal of the policy), the problem is that if street vendors are getting a 24% markup on product, guess what they are going to want to do? Yes, that’s right: find a way to get more product into the country. The US government’s main policy goals (constricting supply to drive up price) may dissuade some cocaine users from using (although if they are addicted, they will find a way to fund their habit), but it will also incentivize the seller to find more product to sell. The trafficker and the dealer are in it for the money, and so if price is up, profits are up and therefore, they will find a way to get more cocaine into the country.

Other problems will also arise: if, in fact, addicts get desperate to find money to pay the higher prices, this will give them the incentive to engage in more reckless, and perhaps criminal, behavior to acquire the needed cash to fund their habits. Worse, many dealers will see the need to engage in increased violence to protect their turf and the currently higher profits. There will also be an incentive to cut the product with filler to stretch supply and increase profits.

Ultimately, all of this is going to lead to more money being spent in Mexico, as the the current constriction of supply has been as a result of increased law enforcement efforts in that country. As a result, there have already been calls for a “Plan Colombia” (the trillion-dollar+ program started back in the Clinton administration) for Mexico. One expects that the money will be appropriated and spent. One also figures that the ultimate effects on the drug market in the United States over the long haul will be the same as the Colombia-based plan.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

‘’Our belief is that if we could eradicate all coca, we could eradicate all cocaine, because it is the basic ingredient for cocaine.”–Christy McCampbell, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement.

(Source: The Miami Herald: U.S. fears rise in coca production under Morales)

Well, no kidding. And as the old saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

While I fully understand the fact that we may wish that all the cocaine would go away, the fact that we pretend as if that is a viable policy goal is utterly remarkable. Yet, we blithely do so–and waste billions of dollars in the process because would rather live in the Land of Wish than have a debate about what can and can’t be done.

Beyond all of that, if you are interested in the drug question, the article is worth a read.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the BBC: Colombian ‘drug lord’ is captured

Police in Colombia have captured the man they regard as the country’s top drug baron, Diego Montoya.


Mr Montoya - known in Colombia’s underworld as the “boss of bosses” - appears on the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “10 Most Wanted” list.


Colombia’s Defence Minister, Juan Manuel Santos, said Mr Montoya controlled a vast trafficking network responsible for about 70% of the cocaine smuggled to the US and Europe.

Mr Montoya’s private army of assassins, called Los Machos, was behind some 1,500 killings, Mr Santos said.

It would appear that Montoya will be extradited to the US–which is a continuation of President Uribe’s policies in these matters (which is a switch from

Of course, this capture will disrupt the cartel to some degree, but it will hardly stop the flow of cocaine. Even if the arrest somehow leads to the dismantlement of the entire operation, a new group/groups will emerge to take its place. Such are the depressing facts of the drug war.

The AP has more:

Soldiers surrounded Diego Montoya, also known as Don Diego, in a farmhouse where he was hiding with his mother and several other people near the western coffee town of Armenia, capping a more than 7-year manhunt.

Somehow being holed up with one’s mother doesn’t quite fit the image of the big bad drug lord.

At any rate, soft spot for Mom or not, he oversaw a lot of violence:

He consolidated his empire using paramilitaries to brutally control rural areas used to produce and transport cocaine. The “paras” have committed some of the worst massacres and other atrocities of this Andean country’s four-decade-old war between left-wing guerrillas and the government.

I am not sufficiently caffeinated yet to go into the whole “four-decades old war” bit (let’s just say it is a simplification at best), but it is true that the paras have been a major (if not the major) source of violence in Colombia over the last two decades.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Remember the AUC member who was stripped of his cease-fire privileges that I mentioned the other day? Well, the US has requested his extradition (via the BBC: US seeks Colombian paramilitary):

Colombia said Jimenez violated a peace agreement by continuing to organise cocaine shipments and run a criminal empire from prison.

Jimenez is wanted in the US on drug trafficking charges


He is the first jailed warlord to lose benefits agreed under a 2003 peace deal which led paramilitary leaders to surrender and demobilise 31,000 of their men in exchange for reduced jail terms and extradition protection.

The Uribe administration has been quite willing to extradite such persons to the US, so the track record suggests that they will do so here. Further since, Jimenez was caught breaking the demobilization agreement, I suspect that the Colombian government will want to make an example of him. Given that one of the things that narcos have wanted to avoid is extradition to the US this situation will give Uribe a chance to send a signal to the other AUC commanders: behave or be sent to the US for trial.=.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the NYT: Taliban Raise Poppy Production to a Record Again

Afghanistan produced record levels of opium in 2007 for the second straight year, led by a staggering 45 percent increase in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand Province, according to a new United Nations survey to be released Monday.


Anyone who thinks that the Taliban oppose poppy cultivation and opium sales because of their religious fundamentalism are quite incorrect. It is true that during their reign in Afghanistan that opium production was severely cut , but they continued to tax the trade (and the cut in question was for only one year). Indeed, if one looks at the numbers, the policy on production to have been nothing more than an attempt to control price, not to eliminate the product (see here).

Back to the story:

The report is likely to touch off renewed debate about the United States’ $600 million counternarcotics program in Afghanistan, which has been hampered by security challenges and endemic corruption within the Afghan government.

That and the fact that crop elimination programs don’t really work, even thought we are always keen on pretending like they would, if only we had a tad more money.

Former Ambassador to Colombia, now in that job in Afghanistan, starts out well in the next paragraph, and then goes off the deep end:

“I think it is safe to say that we should be looking for a new strategy,” said William B. Wood, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, commenting on the report’s overall findings. “And I think that we are finding one.”

He’s right, we need a strategy, but I am highly dubious that we have found a new one.

Indeed, the entire enterprise continues to be one of rose-colored glasses. The piece noted that officials see “positive” signs in recent trends, yet the story also notes that last year Afghanistan sets a record for opium poppy production and that it amounted to 92% of the world’s supply. The state of denial over what constitutes “positive” outcomes and policy “success” continues to stagger.

And here is the heart of the problem:

Poppy prices that are 10 times higher than those for wheat have so warped the local economy that some farmhands refused to take jobs harvesting legal crops this year, local farmers said. And farmers dismiss the threat of eradication, arguing that so many local officials are involved in the poppy trade that a significant clearing of crops will never be done.

Let me submit: this isn’t a case of the poppy prices having “warped” the economy, the poppy prices simply reflect the prevailing economy. There is a higher demand for opium poppies than there is for wheat, and therefore the price goes up and wages for harvesting a product that pays a better price makes all the economic sense in the world. If there are any distortions in the local economy it is the fact that prohibition drives up price. That is simply a fact, whether one support prohibition or not.

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Friday, August 24, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the AP: Lawmakers promise legislation to reduce prison overcrowding

Members of a legislative oversight committee on Thursday committed to push for legislation next year that would create more drug courts and enhance other programs aimed at reducing prison overcrowding.

But one legislator warned that such programs may be used against them by political opponents.

“They will charge that you are soft on crime,” said Sen. Pat Lindsey, D-Butler.

This is a typical response from most politicians anytime anything dealing with drugs emerges: they run for the tall grass afraid that they are going to be accused of being soft on crime and/or for making it easier for preschoolers to use heroin. Although to be fair: the Committee is debating the proposal–whether it becomes law remains to be seen, of course.

The bottom line is that the state of Alabama (and other states) are having to spend remarkable sums of money on prisons, and much of that is driven by drugs convictions.

Prisons Commissioner Richard Allen said there are currently 24,500 inmates in state facilities, including 21,500 in permanent prisons, which he said were built to hold about 10,400. Allen said about a third of those inmates were charged with drug offenses, while 75 to 80 percent had drug problems that contributed to their crimes.

Which translates into:

“If we don’t stop this thing, our budget for prisons is going to equal what we pay for education,” Rogers said.

No matter how one slices it, that is a problematic situation.

A possible solution is to treat drug problems more as ones of public health, i.e., via treatment, rather than simply something that requires punishment:

In drug court programs, defendants charged with felony drug possession or other drug related crimes undergo an intensive program of treatment and testing supervised by a judge. If the defendant remains drug free for a year, the charges are dropped.

Surely if we can get people to stop using drugs through alternate means and save the taxpayers considerable sums of money, it is worth an open debate and the creation of new policies. Yet, Lindsey is right, a lot of voters will see this as nothing more than being “soft” on drug users. Such attitudes make it difficult to have an open discussion about these issues, and impedes the formulation of efficacious public policy.

It is difficult to look at the numbers (cost, number of prisoners, and drug use stats) and say that the current policies are actually working.

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Monday, August 20, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

What do you call a policy that spends billions of dollars, makes the problem that the policy is designed to address worse, and yet everyone involved in making that policy wants to expand? You call it the “War on Drugs.”

Misha Glenny, writing in WaPo has the latest in a long line of attempts to explain the failure that is the war on drugs: The Lost War:

Thirty-six years and hundreds of billions of dollars after President Richard M. Nixon launched the war on drugs, consumers worldwide are taking more narcotics and criminals are making fatter profits than ever before. The syndicates that control narcotics production and distribution reap the profits from an annual turnover of $400 billion to $500 billion. And terrorist organizations such as the Taliban are using this money to expand their operations and buy ever more sophisticated weapons, threatening Western security.

That is exactly right.

There isn’t an easy alternative, I will grant, but the continuation of our current policy is as wrongheaded as it can be, if what one wants out of public policy is return on investment (i.e., for the money spent to actually accomplish something). We spend billions, and the problem only gets worse and the very metrics employed to measure the efficacy of the policies tell us that this is true. If we look at the availability of product, the street price and the hectares under cultivation, it is clear that the policies are utter failures. Yet, as one article put it, we are “addicted to failure” it would seem.

Not only are the current set of policies ineffective, but they make the situation worse by increasing the profits on these business radically. It is the very fact of prohibition that makes leaves, flowers and weeds into multi-billion dollar industries.

The answer that is always given in Washington is: just a little more money and we’ll get it right. However, this is objectively not true.

Of course, to make such suggestions usually results in scorn, because one is assumed to be pro-drugs if one takes this stance. Or, one is accused of wanting to expose the children of America to heroin usage. Indeed, as I have studied this policy over the years, it is clear that the main motivator seems to be protecting children and this is what has made, as Glenny notes, the war on drugs a “third rail” (the one that electrocutes you if you touch it) in America politics.

In Washington, the war on drugs has been a third-rail issue since its inauguration. It’s obvious why — telling people that their kids can do drugs is the kiss of death at the ballot box. But that was before 9/11. Now the drug war is undermining Western security throughout the world. In one particularly revealing conversation, a senior official at the British Foreign Office told me, “I often think we will look back at the War on Drugs in a hundred years’ time and tell the tale of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ This is so stupid.”

How right he is.


The references to international terrorism in this case are far from gratuitous. The fact of the matter is that drugs are an excellent source of funding that can easily arm a large number of persons, and arm them well. There is no doubt, for example, that the Taliban pre-9/11 was able to accrue cash via taxing poppy sales and the FARC in Colombia have been making tremendous profits off of the cocaine industry for over two decades. As a set of Marxist guerrillas one would have expected the end of the Cold War to have damaged their ability to continue fighting, yet instead they have grown and flourished since that time.

In regards to Afghanistan, I have argued for some time that the drug war was counter-productive to counter-terrorism policies and further recently noted a story about how the US government’s anti-drug zeal is seriously damaging our ability to make political progress in Afghanistan. Glenny makes a similar observation:

Docherty was quick to realize that the military push into northern Helmand province was going to run into serious trouble. The rumor was “that we were there to eradicate the poppy,” he said. “The Taliban aren’t stupid and so they said, ‘These guys are here to destroy your livelihood, so let’s take up arms against them.’ And it’s been a downward spiral since then.”

This is not a good situation, yet no one in Washington even wants to even discuss it (as Dan Drezner also notes).

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via Forbes>: Colombia Checks Admiral for Drug Ties

A high-ranking navy officer is being investigated for alleged ties to drug traffickers and has been removed from his post, in a widening probe into connections between Colombia’s military and drug trafficking.

Colombia’s minister of defense said Monday that Rear Admiral Gabriel Arango, who served along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is the latest in a series of military officers fired for alleged ties to this South American country’s vast cocaine industry.

Colombia’s Caribbean coastal area is rife with big-time drug trafficking and is also the main nexus of the parapolitica business (the infiltration of electoral politcs by paramilitary groups). None of that automatically implicates Arango, of course, but it did provide ample opportunity.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the AP: Colombia navy seizes sub in coke probe - 08/07/2007 -

Colombia’s navy seized a 65-foot submarine that likely was used to haul tons of cocaine on part of its journey to the United States, officials said Tuesday.

No drugs were found or arrests made when the fiberglass submarine was discovered Sunday in a swampy mangrove about six miles off the northernmost point of Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

The blue-colored, diesel-powered vessel had sophisticated communications systems and was capable of carrying up to 11 tons of cocaine

I say “another” in the title, as there have been several of these types of thing seized over the years. It is always an excellent illustration of the lengths to which smugglers will (and can, given the profits) go to move their product.

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Friday, July 27, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the St. Petersburg Times: Freed man still in limbo

Mark O’Hara left jail without handcuffs Wednesday, two years after he went to prison and one week since an appeals court ordered him a new trial.

He was serving a 25-year sentence for having 58 Vicodin pills in his bread truck. Jurors weren’t told that it is legal to possess the drug with a prescription, which he had.


Tampa airport police arrested O’Hara in August 2004 after they found the hydrocodone and a small amount of marijuana in his illegally parked and unattended bread truck.

He refused plea agreements from prosecutors before trial, one for three years in prison. Instead, jurors heard from two doctors who said they had been treating O’Hara since the early 1990s for pain related to gout and auto accident injuries.

Prosecutors did not contend that O’Hara, who went to prison in the 1980s for cocaine trafficking, sold any of the 80 Vicodin pills he had been prescribed in the eight months before his arrest. Under the law, simply possessing the quantity of pills he had constitutes trafficking.

This case underscores the patently absurd nature of our drug laws. Setting aside anything else, how could we get to the point where possession of 58 Vicodin pills could in any way be sufficient grounds for a 25-year jail sentence? As it stands the man has already spent two years in jail for drugs which he had a prescription, not to mention the personal cost:

He sold two condos, his car and his bread business to pay for the appeal. But the state took the proceeds, according to family friend Eric Mastro, to pay toward the $500,000 fine that came with his conviction.

This is an example of the abuse of state power that has grown out of an unhealthy societal fear of drugs. Such examples also point to why I am extremely concerned about, and often quite critical of, many of the anti-terrorism policies that have emerged since 9/11. If we are at a point in the drug war that a guy can lose two years of his freedom and over $500,000 in assets for having 58 painkiller he acquired legally, how far will our fear over terrorism allow us to fuel the power of the state?

h/t: Radley Balko at Hit and Run.

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