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Operation Intercept



The Multiple Consequences of Public Policy  
By Lawrence A. Gooberman


Operation Intercept: Past, Present, and Future

During late 1969, while the press was publishing accounts of the multiple consequences stemming from the Operation Intercept policy decision, journalists were also pointing out that such strategies had little if any chance of success on a long-term basis.

Concerning the limitations of anti-smuggling campaigns at the United States-Mexican border, those factors cited most frequently included the Mexican peasants' dependence on marihuana as a "cash crop," the know-how of professional smugglers, and the corruptibility of Mexican officials. The East Village Other analyzed the situation in this way:

It's extremely doubtful Mexico will crack down on the Mary Jane growers. This would only result in extreme deprivation for many Mexican villages. Besides, the corruptibility of the Federales is well known. It is to be expected that the Mexican Feds will make a show of burning down a few fields and making some busts, but that's about all.1

Rolling Stone also focused on the Mexican bribery system:

"Agreements" between the U.S. and Mexico are practically unenforceable at the local Mexican level, because of mordida - the system of bribery. Highup Mexican officials humor U.S. politicians, but what one Mexican drug control agent called the "Mexican way of life" cannot be changed.2

Time called a mass audience's attention to all three factors:

Similar U.S. attempts in the past have proved frustrating, largely because drug smuggling is a high-profit, low-risk trade. The new treasure of the Sierra Madre is a traditional sideline crop for thousands of small Mexican farmers, They get up to 40 times as much for a kilo of the prized "Acapulco Gold" as they do for a kilo of corn.

Although marijuana and opium are technically illegal in Mexico, the Mexican government has been reluctant to beef up its unsophisticated mini-force of 40 drug agents, who are so poorly paid that they are easy prey to the Mexican ethos of mordida (the bite, or pay-off). Operation Intercept may discourage the amateurs who smuggle hemp across the border on major highways. It will probably have little effect on the professionals who dominate the trade. As a knowledgeable Texas border scout points out, "There are areas out there where a small army could cross without detection." 3

Newsweek took an equally pessimistic view of the strategy:

Even if Mexico submits to the U.S.'s undiplomatic persuasion, there is little real chance that the available supply of pot will diminish. A two-ton cargo of new Colombian grass was flown into the U.S. last week, and huge tracts of unpoliced land are known to be available throughout Central and South America. 4

In effect, reports such as these, circulated in establishment as well as underground publications, created an additional "credibility gap" for United States' government officials. While the policy makers were claiming a rousing success for the policy, the public was being told that the policy could not possibly succeed on any sustained basis.

Although Operation Intercept represented a last resort in the effort to curb drug abuse in the Sixties, particularly the growing use of marihuana, it defined a new direction with a new emphasis for federal drug policies of the Seventies. In March of 1970, President Nixon announced a United States-Mexican anti-smuggling agreement, including "$1 million in technical assistance to Mexico for the eradication of poppy and marijuana fields."5 According to federai officials, "one of the first targets of the crash program would be marijuana. "6

In May of 1970, a new and intensified Customs Bureau drive was announced, to commence on June 1, 1970. According to Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Eugene T. Rossides, "The new program will be a permanent upgrading of the enforcement, although there may occasionally be an extra-special increase, or blitz inspections lasting a few hours." 7 The program was code-named "Operation Able" by Treasury and Customs officials.8

Anti-smuggling efforts have traditionally been associated with the Bureau of Customs in the Treasury Department. Federal allocations for this bureau have been in keeping with the new emphasis. In fiscal 1972, the Customs budget amounted to $40.5 million.9 Of this sum, $15 million derived from a $155 million supplemental budget request, announced by President Nixon on June 17, 1971.10 Actually, Customs officials estimated that they would spend $52 million during fiscal 1972.11 In fiscal 1971, Customs estimated a $3 1.6 million expenditure in this area.12

Concerning the results of stepped-up Customs activities, comparative data is available for fiscal 1970 and fiscal 1971. Both the number of marihuana seizures and the amount of marihuana confiscated showed marked increases. As compared to 4,115 marihuana seizures reported in fiscal 1970, 5,969 seizures were reported during fiscal 1971.13 And 104,303.86 pounds of marihuana were confiscated in fiscal 1970, as compared to 177,388.44 pounds confiscated in fiscal 1971.14 (It should be noted that between fiscal 1970 and fiscal 1971, the confiscation of "dangerous drugs" dropped approximately 50 percent.15 )

Domestically, the Department of Agriculture has also been involved in the effort to stop marihuana. According to Goldberg and DeLong: "During fiscal 1971, the Department of Agriculture conducted an experimental marijuana-eradication program in eleven Midwest counties. The cost of this project ($55,000) was assumed by BNDD." 16

It would be inaccurate to assume that all efforts to curtail the supply of illegal drugs from coming into the United States are directed by the Bureau of Customs. In February 1970, President Nixon stated that the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (in the Justice Department), would be in charge of "dealing with foreign law enforcement officials on narcotics questions."17 From 1969 to 1971, BNDD increased its number of foreign offices from 13 to 28, and its number of agents assigned to foreign posts from 26 to 61.18 Fifty more agents, 15 of whom were to be assigned to foreign offices, were requested in the 1972 budget.19

In 1972, BNDD received a total budget of approximately $67 million, thus doubling its appropriations in two years.2 0 It was estimated that 90 percent of BNDD's budget was earmarked for law enforcement activities.21 By 1973, the total budget for federal drug enforcement programs was set at $244.2 million.22 It goes without saying that this total expenditure includes huge sums for the international anti-marihuana campaign.

It is impossible to say how many other agencies and what proportion of the anti-drug abuse expenditures are involved in this effort. The $1 million given to Mexico's poppy and marihuana eradication campaign during fiscal 1970 was funded by the AID program - the Agency for International Development.

In spite of these massive efforts, in January of 1972 BNDD's director John Ingersoll (who resigned on June 29, 1973)23, reported to President Nixon that "an astonishing variety of drugs - heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, hashish, marijuana - was continuing to pour into the U.S."24 According to Time.-

The result has been a dramatic change in the U.S. approach to drugs. Only two years ago, U.S. narcotics agencies operated on a miserly $78 million budget. Now the White House is asking Congress for $729 million next year for a flock of new agencies. The agencies are charged with what is essentially a broad-gauged search-and-destroy mission. 25

In essence, the "dramatic change" was really only in the number of dollars and in the concentration of resources committed to the same effort. The 1972 campaign was reported by Time as follows:

The Bureau of Customs, charged with policing thousands of miles of wide-open frontier, is due to add 330 new men to its hard-pressed 532 man border patrol force. Last month Nixon ordered the Air Force to help out by installing new extra-low-level radar at sites in Texas and New Mexico, where it will be used to track the airborne smugglers who scoot across the Mexican border in light planes, avoiding detection by flying at cactus level. Air Force and Air Guard squadrons have been ordered to maintain their F-102 and supersonic F-106 interceptors on alert status, ready to scramble in five minutes. Besides the heroin smugglers, their targets will also include the light planes that deliver something like a ton of Jamaican marijuana daily, mostly at airfields in Florida. 26

Although programs such as these have been unsuccessful in the past (Goldberg and DeLong noted that the $I million AID grant to Mexico followed similar grants, totaling $627,000 made in 1961 and 1965, "without apparent effect ,),27 the Time news release is uncomfortably reminiscent of articles announcing the 1969 Operation Intercept program. Weil's analysis of federal anti-drug policies appears to be an accurate appraisal of developments in these past years:

Many Americans, including many legislators and Government executives, continue to dream that they can make marijuana and narcotics vanish by sealing off borders, eradicating wild hemp, paying foreign governments not to grow opium, and so on. And when, in response to these actions, drug use becomes greater and worse, the only things such persons can see to do is to redouble the effort. 28

Ingersoll's pessimistic overview of the situation, coupled with previous claims of successful progress (from the White House as well as BNDD), appears to typify the rule enforcer's predicament. As stated by Becker:

On the one hand, he must demonstrate to others that the problem still exists: the rules he is supposed to enforce have some point, because infractions occur. On the other hand, he must show that his attempts at enforcement are effective and worthwhile, that the evil he is supposed to deal with is in fact being dealt with adequately. Therefore, enforcement organizations, particularly when they are seeking funds, typically oscillate between two kinds of claims. First, they say that by reason of their efforts the problem they deal with is approaching solution. But, in the same breath, they say the problem is perhaps worse than ever (though through no fault of their own) and requires renewed and increased effort to keep it under control. 29

There is little reason to assume that these types of "redoubled efforts" to curtail the drug abuse problem will be more successful in the Seventies than they were in the Sixties. While the continuing Operation Intercept strategy has had a limited effect on the importation of particular illegal drugs, and then only for short periods of time, it has not curbed the general availability nor the ever-expanding demand for these substances.

On the other hand, it would be foolish to assume that the supply of marihuana entering the United States could not be significantly diminished in the years ahead. Of all the illegal drugs that have been readily available on the black market during the past decade, imported marihuana is probably the least difficult to control. However, in light of the continuing demand for and availability of many illegal drugs, as well as the overriding social concern with the general drug abuse problem in this country, the findings of this study suggest that the Operation Intercept strategy is particularly inappropriate when applied to the "marihuana problem." This estimation is based on an examination of recent trends and on the application of data that has already been presented in this report.

First, it must be recognized that the expansion of illegal drug use has continued for the past five years. Simmons has estimated "that every passing week fifty thousand new people per week try marijuana in this country."30 While some may regard this estimate as high, the upward trend appears to be beyond doubt.

The Fleischmann Commission Report, released in October of 1972, found that in New York City 45 percent of the students in the 10th through 12th grades are "currently users of some psychoactive drug."31 According to Will Riggan, the Commission's Associate Research Director, "users" referred to "more than just weekenders" (occasional users), but did not include "hard-core addicts" who had been expelled or who had dropped out of school.32 The House Select Committee on Crime released its latest report on the drug problem on June 29, 1973, stating that "Drug abuse in New York City's schools has become so pervasive that it is scandalous - it is spreading tragically like a raging and uncontrollable epidemic."33 (The report notes that the New York City Board of Education maintained a "head-in-the-sand" attitude toward the drug problem until after 1969.34 It seems quite possible that the effects of the Operation Intercept policy decision, which were most evident during the fall 1969 school term, had a direct bearing on the Board's belated recognition of the problem.) Latest figures indicate that by the end of 1972 some 26,000,000 Americans had used marihuana at some time.

Current information leads one to the conclusion that as the proportion of drug users continues to increase, the average age of initiation into illegal drug usage is decreasing. In other words, a large proportion of the new recruits are coming from younger and younger age groups.35 Thus, the use of marihuana and other illicitly obtained drugs is more entrenched in our culture than ever before, and these practices continue to make great gains in those age groups in which individuals are most prone to use these substances in a harmful and often reckless manner.

It must also be recognized that due to the continuing availability of many drugs on the illicit market (the House Select Committee called for more "research" into the matter of control of the licit manufacture of barbiturates )36 and the unabated trend toward multiple drug experimentation, the general campaign against drug abuse will not be aided by the suppression of any one particular drug. (Black market methadone has become a common substitute for heroin during times of "panic"; and while the production of amphetamines has come under closer government scrutiny, the methaqualones - commercially marketed in the United States under the names Quaalude, Sopor, Optimil, Parest and Somnafac - have become "the blue-chip stock of both the underground and above ground drug industries since late 1970.")37

When such suppression strategies are aimed at marihuana, which is widely considered to be far less dangerous to the individual and to the social order than other illicit drugs, the strategy seems to be especially ill-advised. (Concerning physical danger to the individual, it is instructive to compare marihuana to licitly obtained drugs as well. Mikuriya found that the ratio of "lethal" to "effective doses" the "safety factor" - was about 10 for secobarbitol and alcohol, as compared to about 40,000 for THC, marihuana's active ingredient .)38

The findings of this study reveal that, during the summer of 1969, the government-enforced marihuana shortage was a key factor underlying the widespread use of illicit drugs other than marihuana. Essentially, this suggests that one mode of "progression," or one way in which the "softer-to-harder" formulation becomes a reality for the individual drug user, is grounded in the limited availability of the ,'softer" drug.

On the other hand, observations during this period have attuned us to several other patterns that are in direct contradiction to the conventional "softer-to-harder" hypothesis, while also underlining the inappropriateness of the marihuana suppression strategy:

a. patterns of those who use marihuana in order to stop using heroin;

b. patterns of those who begin drug experimentation with a drug considered "harder" than marihuana, and then turn to marihuana as their primary drug; and

c. patterns of those who use a "harder" drug during a period in which marihuana is personally or generally unavailable, and then return to marihuana use when it again becomes easy to obtain.

These findings suggest that in a great many cases, the use of marihuana serves to suppress heavy involvement with the more dangerous substances. In light of this information, there is little reason to expect that the future suppression of marihuana will be at all helpful in terms of the massive effort being waged on many levels to combat the drug abuse problem generally. In fact, according to many professionals working in drug rehabilitation and drug education programs, this costly search-and-destroy strategy may very well prove to be counterproductive in the long run.

The availability of other illicit drugs and the prevalence of multiple drug use patterns are two overt, easily observable factors that serve to undermine marihuana suppression efforts such as Operation Intercept. However, an equally important factor, which is either ignored or misunderstood by the policy makers, concerns the common-sense notion that people will try to continue an activity .that they enjoy.

While the concepts "psychological dependence" and "habituation" have been severely misused in the past, the findings of this study indicate that, if defined objectively, the proportion of users to whom these concepts may legitimately be applied has been consistently underestimated. Using Kaplan's definition of psychological dependence and habituation, which is essentially in accord with that offered by the World Health Organization,39 we may conclude that either of these concepts "merely reflects the common-sense observation that people who like a drug will continue to use it if they can so long as they continue to like its effects."40 Similarly, observing that he was psychologically dependent on Coca Cola throughout medical school, and that many of his acquaintances are psychologically dependent on their wives, Weil defines the concept as simply "a negative way of describing the behavior of someone who does something repeatedly because he likes it."41 Many persons with a serious interest in the drug abuse problem have sarcastically applied the concept to a host of licit pleasures, such as "wine, smoked sturgeon, poetry, comfortable chairs,"42 and to the Sunday edition of The New York Times. 43

All of the regular marihuana users who were interviewed were found to be willing to spend additional time and energy (and often additional money as well) in order to continue an activity that they had defined as pleasurable. Whether or not we wish to describe this orientation as "psychological dependence," it is a fact of marihuana use that people who use it regularly have come to enjoy it and will attempt to continue using it.

Most of those who reacted to the shortage in an anticipated manner were no less enthusiastic about the drug and did not necessarily use it less frequently than the other users. None expressed the feeling that they required, or wished, any help in breaking "the habit." In fact, they generally experienced a heightened sense of conflict with conventional leadership as a direct result of this government campaign. They differed from the other users not so much in terms of regard or appreciation of the drug as they did in terms of other involvements and identities.

Marihuana use, and drug use in general, played a much more essential role in the lives of those who reacted in an unanticipated manner. However, these users appeared to be as dependent on a chosen lifestyle, which combined "getting high" with a nonconformist self image and social involvement in the drug scene, as they were dependent on marihuana in and of itself. Thus, the marihuana suppression strategy was seen as a real and symbolic attack on an entire lifestyle, an attack that was answered in terms of the many attitudinal and behavioral reactions discussed previously. When seen within the context of this orientation (shared by most younger users) and the aforementioned situational factors, we are again forced to consider the idea that the suppression of marihuana will have little if any positive effect on the drug abuse problem generally.

Past developments and present realities indicate that if the ongoing search-and-destroy marihuana suppression strategy proves to be significantly more successful than it has been in the past, thus curtailing the supply of imported marihuana on a long-term basis, some of the following adjustments may be expected:

a. The importation of hashish from the Near East, the Middle East, and North Africa will increase.

b. The producers of Mexican marihuana will become involved in the large-scale production of hashish, which, due to its concentrated form, is far more difficult to detect.

c. Use of heroin, cocaine, and the dangerous drugs, especially by the young, will increase.

d. New synthetic hallucinogens, chemically similar to THC, will be produced and illicitly distributed in the United States.

e. Initiation into drug use, with a drug other than marihuana, will become more prevalent.

f. Increased and professional production of domestic marihuana will occur.

g. Potency of domestic marihuana will be scientifically improved.

h. Poor quality domestic marihuana, grown in uncontrolled environments, will be combined with synthetic chemicals.

i. The manufacture, usage and potency (percentage of THC content) of extract of cannabis (known as "hash oil" or "pot oil") will increase.

j. Abuse of pharmaceuticals, such as drugs that contain belladonna, amyl nitrite, and codeine-containing cough medicines, which have been misused to a limited extent in the past but which are readily available, will increase.

k. Innumerable fruits, flowers, and weeds (i.e., Hawaiian woodrose seeds, morning glory seeds, periwinkle leaves, mandrake, jimsonweed, banana skins) which contain or are believed to contain mind-altering properties, will be "discovered" and popularized.

1. Organized crime will become more involved in the distribution of imported and domestic marihuana should prices increase significantly.

m. Alcohol abuse, especially by the young, will increase.

n. Official corruption on all levels of enforcement will be greater.

In time, any one of these developments would lead to a host of new medical, social and legal problems.

During the past few years, many important works have detailed the enormous social costs inherent in the present approach to the marihuana issue. However, the proposals of several prestigious committees suggest that a more workable, more rational approach is possible. In this regard, the recommendations of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse are most important. If uniformly adopted, we can expect many of these social costs to be minimized.

On the other hand, liberalized programs and policies, such as those suggested by the National Commission, fail to deal effectively with those social risks that are a direct result of the ever-expanding search-and-destroy strategy. It now appears that any program that attempts to combine rationalized and liberalized law enforcement, educational, and legislative policies with traditional supply suppression techniques is bound to increase this particular group of risks.

In August of 1972 (two weeks before the stepped-up search-and-destroy budget request was submitted to Congress), the General Accounting Office released a six-volume report entitled "Drug Abuse Control Activities Affecting Military Personnel in the Department of Defense." The New York Times cited the following statement from the report:

Moreover, the intensification of enforcement activities may have contributed significantly to the replacement of marijuana, which is bulky, easily detectable by smell, and not physically addictive, by more dangerous addictive drugs such as heroin, and thereby may have contributed to a new, more serious problem. 45

In his book, Crime in America, the former Attorney General of the United States, Ramsey Clark, stated:

If seizures dry up sources for relatively harmless substances like marijuana, while heroin remains available, the result is quite probably new young addicts who otherwise would not have used addictive opiate derivatives. Priorities in enforcement, with the great emphasis on the most deadly drugs, are imperative. 46



1 -John da Swede, "Dope News and Other Fantasies," East Village Other, Vol. 4, No. 48, October 29, 1969, p. 9.

2 - "Great Dope Purge of 1969," Rolling Stone, October 18, 1969, p. 16.

3 - "To Seal a Border," Time, September 26, 1969, p. 70. Reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; Copyright Time, Inc.

4 - "National Affairs," Newsweek, October 6, 1969, p. 82.

5 - James M. Naughton, "President Moves to Caution Youth About Narcotics," The New York Times, March 12, 19 70, p. 1.

6 - Ibid.

7 - "Customs Drive on Drugs Set," New York Post, May 19, 1970, p. 25.

8 - Ibid.

9 - White House estimates, cited by Peter B. Goldberg and James V. DeLong, "Federal Expenditures on Drug Abuse Control," in Dealing with Drug Abuse, with a Foreword by McGeorge Bundy, compiled by Ford Foundation (New York: Praeger, 1972), Table 5-3: Fiscal 1972 Supplemental Budget, by Function, p. 304.

10 - Dana Adams Schmidt, "President Seeks $155,000,000 More to Combat Drugs," The New York Times, June 18, 197 1, p. 1; "Excerpts From President's Message on Drug Abuse Control," The New York Times, June 18, 1971, p. 22.

11 - Information supplied by the Bureau of Customs, cited by Goldberg and DeLong, "Federal Expenditures," p. 309.

12 - ibid.

13 - Ibid., Table 5-6: Results of Customs Activity, p. 309.

14 - ibid.

15 - ibid.

16 - Goldberg and DeLong, "Federal Expenditures," p. 31 1.

17 - National Journal, July 3, 1971, p. 1422, cited by Goldberg and DeLong, "Federal Expenditures," p. 307.

18 - "BNDD Fact Sheets," App. Hrgs. 1971, Justice, Pt. 1, pp. 848, 868, cited by Goldberg and DeLong "Federal Expenditures," p. 307.

19 - Ibid.

20 - Goldberg and DeLong, "Federal Expenditures," pp. 304, 306.

21 - Ibid., p. 306.

22 - Andrew H. Malcolm, "Terror in the Night - In the U.S.," The New York Times, July 1, 1973, Sec. 4, p. 6.

23 - "Drug Unit Chief Resigns, Assailing Ex-Nixon Aides," The New York Times, June 30, 1973, p. 32.

24 - "Search and Destroy - The War on Drugs," Time, September 4, 1972, p. 23. Reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; Copyright Time, Inc.

25 - ibid.

26 - ibid.

27 - Goldberg and DeLong, "Federal Expenditures," p. 31 1.

28 - Andrew T. Weil, "The Natural Mind," Psychology Today (October 1972), p. 95. From Andrew T. Weil, The Natural Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972).

29 -Howard S. Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (New

York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), p. 157. Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.

30 - J.L. Simmons, ed., Marijuana Myths and Realities cited by Allen Geller and Maxwell Boas, The Drug Beat (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), p. 63.

31 - Leonard Buber, "45% of High School Pupils Here Said To Take Drugs," The New York Times, October 13, 1972, p. 22.

32 - ibid.

33 - "$500 Million is Asked," The New York Times, June 30, 1973, p. 32.

34 - ibid.

35 - According to Louria: "There is also evidence that the average age at which individuals begin to use heroin is decreasing." Donald B. Louria, "Drug Abuse: A Current Assessment," American Family Physician IGP, Vol. 1, No. 6 (June 1970), p. 75.

36 - "$500 Million Is Asked," p. 32

37 - "Quaaludes and Sopors" (Phoenix, Ariz.: Do It Now Foundation), P. 2.

38 - Tod H. Mikuriya, New Physician (November 1969), p. 902, cited by Solomon H. Snyder, Uses of Marijuana (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 16-17. There is reason to believe that even though President Nixon had consistently supported the "hard line" law enforcement approach for political reasons, he had come to reject the exaggerated beliefs concerning the dangers of marihuana use. Referring to a comment offered by Art Linkletter, the President made the following statement: "I think Art has made a very sophisticated political judgement there. We were just checking some recent polls on this. A very substantial majority of the people disagree with the assumption that marihuana is not dangerous because they don't know what it is and they think it is dangerous." Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Vol. 5, No. 43 (October 27, 1969), p. 1472.

39 - See Eddy et a]., "Drug Dependence: Its Significance and Characteristics," Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Vol. 32 (1966), pp. 721-723.

40 - John Kaplan, Marijuana - The New Prohibition, 1970, p. 160. 41 Weil, "The Natural Mind," p. 88.

42 - Eliot Friedson, "Ending Campus Incidents," Letters to the Editor, Transaction, Vol. 5, No. 8 (July-August 1968), p. 75.

43 - Jerry Mandel, The Stepping-Stone Theory (manuscript), cited by Kaplan, Marijuana, p. 161.

44 - The following is a recommendation of the National Commission: "Increased border surveillance, a tightening of border procedures, and a realistic eradication program to diminish the supply of drugs coming into the country, coupled with a more effective program for diminishing the domestic production and distribution of marihuana, are required." The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, Marihuana, with a Foreword by Raymond P. Shafer, Chairman (New York: The New American Library, 1972), p. 215.45 - "Drive on Drug Use in Military Scored," The New York Times, August 15, 1972, p. 39. @ 1972 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.

46 - Ramsey Clark, Crime in America (New York: Pocket Books, 197 1), p. 74.