DRCNet Homepage | Sign on to DRCNet

DRCNet Library | Search the Library

Schaffer Library | The Psychedelic Library

Books Menu Page

Between Politics and Reason

  Chapter 7.   Business as Usual?

    Erich Goode — State University of New York, Stony Brook

The sale and distribution of illegal drugs is a business—a huge business. Estimates range from between $40 billion and $150 billion for the yearly sales of illegal drugs at the retail level in the United States. This is an enormous range, of course, but, given the clandestine nature of drug sales, a precise, definitive, and authoritative figure is impossible to come by. Suffice it to say that tens of billions of dollars are earned by the American drug trade each year; perhaps the total is roughly $100 billion. If drug sellers were arrested in large numbers, would the drug trade and, hence, illegal drug use be eliminated as a consequence? Would busting these dealers, sellers, growers, and distributors wipe out drug abuse? Is this the way to fight the "war on drugs"? Prohibitionists and criminalizers argue that this is an extremely effective strategy. In contrast, the legalizers say this line of attack is futile—worse than futile, counterproductive.



Is stamping out drugs at their source an effective means of prohibiting, eliminating, or controlling use? Looked at superficially, the idea seems appealing. After all, what could possibly work better than pinching off the flow of a substance at the very peak of a pyramid-shaped distribution system? Cut off the head of the monster, and the monster will die—or so the saying goes. Does it apply in this case? A closer look at how drugs make their way to the consumer demonstrates the flaws in every prohibitionist plan that is based on wiping out drugs at their source. Indeed, historical experience with this program has demonstrated its fallaciousness time and time again.
    The drug trade has become an international or multinational enterprise. Drugs used on the streets of American cities now have their origin in dozens of countries around the world. Why? Consider the current international picture. The Soviet Union has collapsed, replaced by 15 separate, independent nations. Each one faces economic problems; those in central Asia are sparsely populated, remote, impoverished, and marked by relatively weak central governments. In 1992, Kazakhstan legalized the cultivation of the opium poppy. Over the past decade or two, Third World countries have experienced shrinking gross national products; political instability in the form of conflict between and among ethnic, racial, tribal, and religious groups; and the growth of terrorism. Centralization has receded in China; its economy is moving toward privatization. National currencies in most of the Third World are nonexchangeable and essentially worthless outside the borders of each specific country. The motivation for drug dealing by greedy entrepreneurs, insurgent groups seeking weapons, peasants who recognize the difference between starving to death and achieving a comfortable way of life, businesses seeking hard currency, even governments struggling to keep afloat, is often irresistible. The result: a proliferation in drug producers world wide (Bonner, 1995; Flynn, 1993). The fabled "Silk Road," which, in times past, brought wealth to Central Asia and spices, carpets, and silk to Europe, has been reincarnated in a new role: the transportation of opium. "Propelled by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, economic and political chaos, civil war, borders that cannot be controlled and the aggressive anarchy of Afghanistan ..., this rugged, often unassailable region has become the ultimate drug runner's dream come true" (Specter, 1995, p. Al).
    Stamping out drugs at their source is a fatally flawed policy for four reasons, each of which is related specifically to the illegality of the drug trade. First, an almost infinite number of entrepreneurs are willing to take a risk to earn a profit; arresting one results in another's stepping in and taking over the business. Second, logistically, growing, transporting, and selling drugs are impossible to detect and eradicate because the drug trade does not require much space and can be easily shifted around when necessary. Third, the drug business contributes to the wages even of low-level workers and the economy of regions, even entire countries; hence, it is deeply entrenched and widely supported. And fourth, the enormous profits of the drug business translate, for distributors, into enormous resources which enable them to evade detection, corrupt officials, and purchase personnel and equipment to combat law enforcement.



All four of these factors can be traced to a broader master principle; in general, eliminating the drug trade at its source cannot work because of a phenomenon that has been referred to as the "push-down/pop-up" factor (Nadelmann, 1988, p.9). Whenever drug production is wiped out in one location, growers and distributors in other areas step in to supply the shortfall. And the reason why this happens is that the sale of drugs is enormously profitable. Imagine the automobile industry's being wiped out overnight; within hours, steps will be taken to replace it, again, because it is an enormous source of profits. But what makes the drug trade different is that it is illegal, say the legalizers, and that makes it even more profitable than a legal industry. The risk of arrest in a given transaction is fairly small; and, at the top of the distribution pyramid, the chance of earning huge sums is extremely high. Eliminating one grower or distributor means greater sales for the ones who remain, and creates a business opportunity for those who are thinking about taking the plunge. In other words, criminal law yields to "a higher law," economic law—"the law of the marketplace, the law of supply and demand" (Wisotsky, 1990b, p.8).
    In 1975, the U.S. government financed a program to supply the Mexican government with the resources to spray illicit marijuana fields with Paraquat, a poisonous insecticide, which killed the plants. For a time, this program (albeit temporarily) practically eliminated Mexico as a source of marijuana imported to the United States. Rather than allow this multibillion-dollar need to languish unmet, entrepreneurs from a wide range of countries—including Colombia, Jamaica, and Belize—began growing and exporting marijuana on a massive scale. In addition, understandably, home-grown marijuana became more popular—and far more potent. Reacting to this trend, in 1989, President Bush launched "Green Merchant," a program of arresting domestic, especially indoor, marijuana growers. Growers, in turn, became more sophisticated, efficient, and secretive. The result? In the 1970s, home-grown marijuana made up less than 10 percent of the market; by 1989, this had grown to 25 percent; and by the mid- 1990s, this had grown to roughly half (Pollan, 1995). Whenever the source of illicit marijuana was wiped out ("pushdown"), it managed to "pop-up" somewhere else. And the reason is always the same: the profit motive.
    In the early 1970s, most of the heroin consumed on the streets of the United States began as opium poppies grown in Turkey; they were processed in France, Italy, or Lebanon and exported to New York. At that time, President Nixon, with the cooperation of the Turkish government, initiated a major program to wipe out illicit poppy cultivation in Turkey and sever the "French Connection." The plan worked; heroin which had its origin as Turkish poppies ceased to make its way into the veins of American junkies. But by 1975, Mexico had become a major opium grower and the main source of illicit heroin. Subsequently, in the wake of the push to eliminate Mexico as a source of illegal drugs in the mid1970s, within only five years, Southwest Asia (Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan) and Southeast Asia (Burma, Thailand, and Laos) became the country's principal suppliers. Today, 70 percent of the heroin sold on the street in the United States originated from opium poppies grown in Burma (whose proper name is Myanmar). Today, after vast, multi-billion-dollar efforts to wipe out heroin at its source, the drug is much more abundant than it was a decade ago, and much more potent; in the earlyto-mid-1980s, illicit heroin was 3 or 4 percent pure, whereas, by the 1990s, the average purity of heroin nationwide grew to between 35 and 40 percent (Treaster, 1993). Clearly, severing the Turkish-Italian-French pipeline did not cut off the supply of heroin to the United States although there was a reduction in the short run, within a matter of a few years, demand stimulated entrepreneurs in a variety of locations around the world to supply the drug. At one time, the Medellin cartel supplied most of the illicit cocaine sold in America. In the 1980s, a massive crackdown all but eliminated that city from the drug distribution picture. Within a matter of a few months, Colombia's sister city, Cali, became the center for cocaine exportation to the United States.



The fact is, illegal drugs can be grown and manufactured in very many places, in very small spaces, and it is enormously profitable to do so. American addicts consume roughly 10 to 20 tons of heroin a year, which can be made from 100 to 200 tons of raw opium. This is less than 5 percent of the world's opium production, most of which is legal; if only one twentieth of the world's legal opium production is diverted into the illegal manufacture of heroin, this would satisfy all the drug needs of all narcotic addicts in the world. The entire world's illicit heroin supply can be grown on a mere 25 to 50 square miles of poppy fields. This can be accommodated by growing plants in tens or hundreds of thousands of widely scattered fields that are virtually immune to electronic or satellite surveillance. In Burma, the principal source of America's illicit heroin supply, vast territories are not under the control of the central government at all; they are controlled by warlords in command of large, well armed and well-financed armies whose business is to protect the poppy fields and make sure the supply of opium and morphine makes its way to refineries in Laos and Thailand (Brookes, 1990). In 1996, Kung Sa, the most powerful of the Burmese opium barons, was arrested (Shenon, 1996). Will his removal put a dent in the heroin supply shipped to the United States? (U.S. State Department officials believe the deal Kung Sa worked out with authorities entails his staying in business.) Or will another group, gang, or cartel step in and take over his business? It's too early to tell; drug experts are not optimistic.
    The coca plant is the source of cocaine. Its leaves are a legal crop in Bolivia and Peru; they are chewed by a substantial number of Indians in those countries to offset fatigue and hunger. Less than 1,000 square miles of land worldwide is devoted to the cultivation of coca. According to the senior senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, citing a report by the Department of Agriculture, coca plants can be grown in practically any location in the world which receives between 40 and 240 inches of rain a year and has no frost or swamps; in South American alone, these characteristics fit 2.5 million square miles. Brazil has what is one of the vastest unpatroled jungle territories in the world; if coca production is stamped out in Peru, it can be relocated to Brazil (Gonzales, 1985; Nadelmann, 1989, pp.939-940). With the government crackdown on marijuana growing in the United States, cultivation has become increasingly sophisticated. Today, enough plants to generate profits of nearly $200,000 a year can be grown in an indoor area the size of a pool table. Within a very few years, some claim, "virtual" marijuana gardens can be cultivated which will be self-regulating; their ownership will be almost untraceable, the grower appearing only to harvest the product, replant some seeds, and, once again, disappear into anonymity (Pollan, 1995).



There is far more to eradicating drugs than the logistical problem of locating and destroying them at their source. Thinking about how the illegal drug trade works means that we have to consider its economic contribution to an entire region or nation. Considering the economic factor should not be construed as an argument that claims that eradicating the drug trade is impossible—only that it will be a much more difficult task. In addition, the economic factor means that, if successful, eradication will almost inevitably have serious and, in all likelihood, deleterious consequences. (The same may apply to the impact of legalization as well.) Considered strictly from its economic contribution, selling drugs is no different from any legal business. Indeed, up and down the hierarchy, from the grower to the importer to the lowliest worker, wages are higher in the illegal than in the legal sector. But more than this: It isn't only those at the top who profit; it is anyone who derives employment from it. All workers who earn a wage spend it in the legal sector—on food, clothing, shelter, as well as other necessities and luxuries. Hence, we have to consider the influence of the drug in "spreading the money around"—what is sometimes referred to as the economic "ripple" effect. Again, considered strictly from an economic point of view, eliminating an illegal industry is no different from eliminating any legal industry. Wiping out the drug trade worldwide would devastate the economy of a large number of countries throughout the world.
    In Colombia, the cocaine trade is as profitable as the coffee business. Try to picture Colombia's coffee business wiped out overnight; the result would be economic catastrophe for the country as a whole. In principle, this is no different for the cocaine trade. The marijuana crop in the United States is more profitable than the corn crop (Pollan, 1995). Picture the entire corn industry obliterated from the face of the earth. Again, it would impact not only the growers and sellers but everyone who is dependent on their business, and everyone who does business with them, and so on down the line—that is, the entire country. One reason why the drug trade is so deeply entrenched at the supplier level is that entire regions and even nations are dependent on it, even citizens who have no idea that they are. Drug trafficking is estimated to bring between $3.5 and $7 billion into Colombia's economy. The current crackdown on its cocaine trade has brought about a shortage of income within the Cali cartel, sales of real estate by its members, a devaluation of the peso against the dollar, a recession in the construction industry, and a decline in the Colombian stock market (Anonymous, 1995). The remarkable feature about the economy is that it does not distinguish between income earned by "moral" and "immoral" enterprises; while both income streams could have additional impacts, the money that flows through an economy is completely without a conscience.
    Half of Bolivia's foreign trade derives from the coca business (Gonzales, 1985, p.242). Bolivia is a poor country. What is going to replace this revenue in the event of the loss of the cocaine trade? The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that Jamaica earns more from exporting marijuana than from all other exports combined; if this source of income is obliterated, how can it be replaced? What industry can possibly contribute as much to these and other countries' gross national product? What economic sector are the jobs that are eliminated going to come from? The reason why drugs cannot be eradicated at their source by convincing peasants to grow potatoes and wheat is that there is an endless supply of entrepreneurs willing to take risks in order to earn huge sums of money and to employ any number of laborers to work at jobs which pay them 10 times what they would earn producing a legal crop (Gonzales, 1985, p.238). But note: The fact that the drug trade is a viable and lucrative employer is relevant to both the prohibitionist and the legalization arguments since, under legalization, drug profits would presumably plummet. If legalization threatens to become law, would drug entrepreneurs resist it as forcefully as they have resisted law enforcement? Or, if legalization is instituted, would they become the legal suppliers of formerly illegal drugs? At the present time, we can only speculate.



One Colombian drug dealer is reputed to earn $20 million a month; his private army of several thousand heavily armed men represents a force that is larger than the entire personnel of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (Gonzales, 1985). In Burma (or Myanmar), in vast territories, there are no federal authorities whatsoever; the territories are ruled by warlords who command huge armies. Their business: the production and transportation of opium poppies (Brookes, 1990). In order to capture a drug baron and put his operation out of commission, the Burmese government must expend enormous resources and, often, engage in open, bloody, and extremely costly warfare. These territories are, in effect, outlaw nations unto themselves. (Kung Sa was captured only because a portion of his private army mutinied.) Some powerful drug sellers are personally worth billions of dollars and control entire towns and even regions with an iron fist. In Colombia, even honest judges let arrested drug traffickers go free because they know that they and their entire families will be murdered if they do not; they are given a choice: "a big payoff or a bullet" (Riding, 1988)—in Spanish, plata (silver) or plombo (lead). In locales where drug selling is deeply entrenched, corruption is not even the issue; there, law enforcement has simply ceased to function. Drug dealers are often more powerful than the government; they have more money and command larger armed forces, with superior weapons. In some areas, law enforcement against illegal drug production is simply impossible without massive federal intervention; in other areas, it is possible, but extremely difficult and dangerous.
    In 1995, against overwhelming odds, the Colombian government launched a concerted campaign against illegal drug sellers located mainly in and around Cali (Brooke, 1995b). One of the fruits of their efforts: the arrest of Henry Loaiza Ceballos, a cocaine kingpin nicknamed "the Scorpion." Loaiza owns 30 luxurious ranches, 5,000 head of cattle, and several apartments and beach houses. In an attempt to win over the loyalty of the populace in the towns and regions in which he operates, he has paid for the repair of Catholic churches, purchased a fleet of buses and given free rides to those unable to pay the fare, sponsored beauty pageants and distributed free rum to the audience and motorcycles to the contestants, and handed out candy to children at Halloween. Loaiza also commands a large army of ruthless killers. In 1990, peasants in one town where he owns a ranch talked about organizing a union. In a reign of terror lasting a year, 107 suspected unionists were rounded up, tortured, and cut to pieces with chain saws; their body parts were found in a nearby river. A Catholic priest complained of the killings; several days later, his "decapitated and dismembered body" was pulled out of the river. A local fruit picker went to Cali and complained about the killings; he was arrested and never heard from again. While the ruthlessness of such enterprises does not argue for the impossibility of rooting them out, it does highlight its difficulty. Indeed, the arrest of Loaiza demonstrates that law enforcement under such circumstances is possible. Still, some observers speculated that the Scorpion will be released within a few years in a generous plea bargain with the government. Commenting on Loaiza's "blazer, blue jeans, designer tie, and engaging smile," La Prensa, one of Bogota's leading newspapers, marveled, he "doesn't look like a... killer.... Anyone would say that he is a math teacher" (Brooke, 1995a).



Policies succeed or fail not because the general principle on which they are based is wise or foolish, but because of specific, nuts-and-bolts features pertaining to their implementation. Think of intercepting drugs at the border as a military campaign; think of the nuts-and-bolts or logistical problems entailed in stopping the drug flow at this point. Roughly 10 to 20 tons of heroin and 120 to 150 tons of cocaine enter the United States each year across its borders, including from international waters. This sounds like a huge quantity until one realizes how much legal freight enters the country from abroad. A total of roughly 100 million tons of cargo comes into the United States annually. In addition, there are more individual border crossings into the country than there are residents—over 300 million. What cargo gets checked by customs officials? Which persons are searched? In 1991, for example, nearly two million containers came through the Port of Newark, of which customs officials were able to inspect only 15 to 18 a day (Flynn, 1993). Tracing the many inlets, islands, and harbors along the waters lapping the shores of this country produces nearly 90,000 miles of coastline where small, drug-laden boats could dock silently, surreptitiously, without attracting attention.
    Checking every item of cargo and every person crossing the border is a 1iteral impossibility; it represents a tactical horror story for law enforcement officials as well as a massive inconvenience for people entering the country for legitimate reasons. A lesson can be taken from "Operation Intercept" (1969), when every person and vehicle crossing the U.S.-Mexican border was subject to inspection. Traffic backed up for as much as six miles, waits ran to two or three hours, and complaints flooded American officials; the policy hurt tourism, hurt business, and seriously inconvenienced Mexican workers and American travelers returning home. Moreover, the plan resulted in no major drug seizures; the total quantity of marijuana confiscated was no more than was true before it went into effect, 150 pounds a day. After 20 days, Operation Intercept was abandoned. The policy did have two effects, however. It stimulated an increase in marijuana importation from Vietnam, as well as an increase in home-grown marijuana (Gooberman, 1974; Inciardi, 1992, pp.42-43).
    After the problem of the sheer volume of persons and cargo entering the United States, there is the problem of the remarkable inventiveness of smugglers in hiding drug cargo. Quantities of illegal drugs crossing the border have been hidden in baby diapers, fresh fruit, frozen fruit pulp, hollowed-out religious statues and other relics, clothing mannequins, electronic equipment, the hulls of ships, panels and gas tanks of cars, bags of coffee, surfboards, books, furniture, concrete fence posts, ice-packed cases of vegetables, aerosol cans, sneakers, and pillows strapped around someone's waist. Heroin and cocaine have been stuffed into condoms and swallowed by couriers; animals have been surgically cut open and, again, had heroin- or cocaine-filled condoms inserted into their bodies, were sewn shut, and were then transported across the border; drugs have been placed in airtight containers in a liquid—such as olive oil, gasoline, liquor, mouthwash, shampoo, and the water tropical fish swim in—and smuggled into the country. Cocaine has been molded into a bust of Jesus and spray-painted a light-gray color; 15 pounds of cocaine were chemically bonded into two fiberglass dog kennels; half a ton of cocaine was packed into hollow plaster shells shaped and painted to look like yams (Speart, 1995). The possible ways that drugs can be shipped across the border are almost infinite, limited only by the smuggler's imagination. These are only a few of the gimmicks we know about, since they resulted in detection and confiscation. It almost boggles the mind to try to imagine what some of the successful attempts have entailed.
    When the Coast Guard targeted large ships carrying huge drug loads, smugglers shifted to smaller loads and smaller, faster boats. When one coastline attracted the Coast Guard's attention, another coastline was chosen for off-loading drug shipments. When long-haul, large-load planes were detected and busted, smugglers turned to faster, lower-flying planes. When large loads generally attracted surveillance, detection, and arrest, smugglers shifted to sending in a large number of couriers, each with a fairly small load, on the assumption that the majority will get through. When operations which moved drugs directly from the source country to the United States became vulnerable to detection, arrangements were made with intermediaries in offshore Caribbean islands to bring drugs into the United States indirectly, in more graduated stages. And throughout the past two decades or so, the watchword has been diversification—not only of techniques but also of the national and ethnic backgrounds of importers and smugglers. No longer the exclusive domain of a small number of nationalities or ethnic groups, drug smuggling is conducted by Colombians, Cubans, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, Italians and Italian-Americans, Chinese, Nigerians, Israelis Iranians, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants—in fact, quite possibly, every imaginable racial, national, and ethnic category on Earth.
    As important as the logistical problem of surveillance and inspection is the fact that the persons crossing the border smuggling quantities of an illegal drug are almost always couriers—"mules" or "Smurfs" who are paid to deliver the goods and know next to nothing about the operation of the organization they work for. Each has been paid a few thousand dollars for taking a risk; if any one of them is arrested, it represents only a small loss to the total operation. Arresting them and confiscating their shipment amounts to little more than a tariff or "tax" levied against smugglers to continue doing business. Customs officials estimate that between 5 and 10 percent of the total volume of illegal drugs entering the United States is confiscated. And of this fraction, again, only a small fraction results from border inspections per se; most confiscations result from tips or intelligence in advance of the crossing itself. As things stand now, for drug smugglers, having a certain proportion of their goods confiscated represents little more than the cost of doing business.
    Busting at the border does have a number of effects, none, unfortunately, has anything to do with drastically reducing drug abuse. The authorities can report an increasing number of arrests and seizures and claim that they are doing their job to bring drug abuse to a halt, that the seizures are "taking drugs off the street" and the arrests are "putting dangerous drug dealers behind bars." The statistics on seizures and arrests can be used to back up these claims, since they are specific, concrete, and quantitative. After all, seizing two tons of cocaine is twice as good as seizing one; arresting a dozen smugglers is twice as good as arresting six. The effort is largely symbolic, however; at the level of seizures and arrests that currently prevails, it has nothing to do with reducing the supply of illegal drugs. A ton of cocaine seized at the border does not translate into a ton less cocaine on the street; in the short run, it may mean a bit more dilution and a bit higher price. In the medium run, it means another smuggler using a different technique to import more cocaine into the country. In the long run, it means nothing.
    In 1986 and again in 1988, two federal bills were passed which required that the U.S. military be a party to intercepting illegal drugs coming into the country. The most important of the provisions of these bills allocated resources, mainly equipment and personnel, to interdict illegal drugs at the border. Officials at the Department of Defense, long aware of the low interdiction rate and the improbability of success in this venture, commissioned a study by the Rand Corporation to evaluate the feasibility of "sealing" the country's borders off from incoming illegal drugs (Reuter, Crawford, and Cave, 1988). The report concluded that it is "extremely difficult" to reduce cocaine consumption in the United States by even as little as 5 percent, even if the government were to put into operation the most stringent and thorough interdiction program feasible. Drug smuggling, the report said, is too sophisticated, decentralized, diversified, flexible, versatile, adaptable, resourceful, and intelligent an operation to be slowed down by a few seizures and busts. There is too much to gain by getting illegal drugs into the country, and too much to lose by giving up the business as a result of a few busts and seizures. It simply can't be done, concluded the Rand report. The military agrees, but to keep up symbolic appearances (and for the purpose of relative deterrence), the operation continues. News reports, complete with photographs of politicians and high-level police brass standing next to huge piles of confiscated cash and drugs, convince the public that "something is being done" about the drug problem. The coverage is always good for a few votes at election time.
    Consider one truly sobering statistic: Only 12 percent of the retail cost of cocaine stems from producing, refining, importing, and smuggling the drug. Even if half the cocaine that comes into the country from abroad were to be seized—which is unrealistic in the extreme—cocaine prices would increase by only 5 percent. "Since prices are already so low, such increases would not affect consumption" (Falco, 1992a, p.8). Not only is it logistically impractical to rely on border seizures as a means of controlling drug abuse in the United States; from an economic standpoint, its basis is completely illusory. But recall our distinction between absolute and relative deterrence: If there were no inspections at the border, it is certain that the volume of drugs entering this country would be many times greater than what it is today. (Yes, relative deterrence does work.) But relying on border seizures to shut down or seriously reduce the size of the drug trade is almost unbelievably naive. (No, absolute deterrence does not work.)



As we've learned, the value of the American drug trade is an estimated $100 billion a year at the retail level. Clearly, here, as elsewhere in the world, a great many people depend on the sale of controlled substances for their living. In principle, the economic impact of this business is not a particle different from any other industry, such as producing and selling hamburgers, doughnuts, motorcycles, hang gliders, sporting goods—or tobacco and alcohol. A decade and a half ago, a journalist estimated that, in New York City alone, a quarter of a million people earned their primary livelihood from the sale of illegal drugs (Pileggi, 1982). These people not only earn that money but also spend it, and contribute to the livelihood of others. Can anyone seriously entertain the belief that, through the routine enforcement of the drug laws, this immensely lucrative business will be closed down? Remember: It is not only at the top of the pyramid where these benefits accrue, but at every level, from top to bottom, and horizontally as well, that is, as I said, persons outside the industry with whom drug-trade workers spend their money.
    If it weren't for the fact that there are many Americans who still believe in the myth of a "Boss of All Bosses," it might not seem necessary to refute it. A surprising number of my students still believe that the illegal drug trade is highly centralized, that there is a single, big-time, high-level dealer in the United States who directs the sale of illicit drugs nationwide. He is swarthy, in all probability, Latin or Mediterranean; he wears dark sunglasses, sits at a very large desk, and speaks into a telephone with a deep, gravelly voice. And they believe that, if he were arrested, drug sales in the country would come to a screeching halt. But—the myth continues—he is protected by corrupt police officials and politicians at the highest levels of power, possibly even up to the presidency of the United States. If only we could clean up the corruption and arrest "Mr. Big," we could wipe out drug abuse in the country overnight! This belief would be amusing if it weren't so pervasive. The fact is, drug dealing in this country is highly decentralized, and has become increasingly so in the past generation; different dealers operate in hundreds, possibly thousands, of independent enterprises. Illegal drugs are smuggled into the United States from several dozen different countries. Certainly there are one, or several, Mr. Bigs in some countries or regions, and in the United States, there are, again, one or several local Mr. Bigs—cartels and monopolies that operate at the community or neighborhood level; still, to imagine that any single powerful figure, or even a small number of players, could run the whole show in the United States demonstrates an almost unbelievable childlike naiveté.
    Does busting at the dealer level within the borders of the United States work? It is important to make a distinction between high-level and low-level drug sellers. In all likelihood, arresting the high-level dealer cannot have an impact that is appreciably different from attempts to eradicate drugs at their source. Again, the dealer's risk is small, while the rewards are great. But what about the street-level dealer, that is, the person who sells drugs directly to the customer? Would arresting the petty, small-time drug seller (who is usually a user, even an addict, as well) be effective in reducing drug abuse nationally? At first glance, it might seem an extremely ineffective way of going about fighting the drug war. Why harass and arrest the poor, miserable junkie and street-level dealer, while permitting major drug suppliers to roam the streets, free as a bird? It might seem that a policy of concentrating on smaller sellers rather than a neighborhood Mr. Big represents a policy with a misplaced or inverted emphasis, perhaps little more than a cynical police ploy to pile up a large number of meaningless arrests to little or no practical purpose. Doesn't it make more sense, this logic would hold, to arrest a small number of major dealers who supply tens of thousands of addicts, and shut down their operations, than to arrest large numbers of petty dealers with no more than a few dozen customers?
    It is true that crippling an entire drug-dealing organization through the arrest of all or most of the high-level figures in it is likely to interrupt the flow of drugs into a community, at least temporarily. However, it is rare for the police to be able to apprehend the key players in an entire drug operation. More often, one or a small number of key players are arrested, and they can almost always be replaced. Of course, each time an arrest of a drug figure is made, the police attempt to get dealers to testify against their colleagues; this effort is more likely to fail than to succeed. If truth be told, the police prefer to arrest large-scale dealers—corruption aside—largely because it carries with it publicity, professional pride, and a symbolic message to all concerned that they are doing an effective job in their war against illegal drugs. The police refer to these busts as "quality" arrests, while they call the arrest of petty street-level dealers "garbage" collars. Unfortunately, arrests of big dealers are difficult; they require a huge investment of time and resources. Moreover, these figures are often successful in avoiding conviction and imprisonment by hiring expensive, sophisticated legal counsel. In contrast, street-level busts are easier to make, and petty dealers have fewer resources with which to fight conviction and incarceration. In addition, and obviously, there are a great many more street-level dealers at the bottom of the distribution pyramid than there are Mr. Bigs at the top. Moreover, street-level dealers may make one or two dozen observable, public transactions a day, maximizing their vulnerability to arrest, whereas a high-level, high-volume dealer may make one or two well-concealed transactions a month. Hence, there are logistical reasons why there is a vastly greater likelihood that the police will arrest the petty, small-time drug seller-user than the high-level, high-volume dealer.
    But the far greater likelihood that the police will be far more likely to make petty or street-level dealer arrests than at the top of the drug distribution ladder may have a practical rationale as well as a logistical or operational dynamic. Again, disrupting an entire operation aside, ironically, high-level busts generally have very little if any impact on the distribution and availability of drugs in an area. The reason is simple: The temptation for allied or competitive dealers to step in and continue business as usual is enormous. In contrast, there is a possibility, some observers feel, that many low-level busts will have something of a more long-term impact. Why? Consider this. Today, almost all experts are agreed that eradicating the supply side of the illegal drug equation is hopeless. Given the vastness and versatility of the drug production and distribution enterprise, and the huge economic incentive, there is no possibility of wiping out drug abuse by attacking its supply. But drugs would not be used if there were no demand for them. What about attacking the demand side of the illegal drug equation? Many drug experts believe that demand is influenced by supply, and by arresting the ultimate seller, the dealer who transacts with the user and addict, demand and therefore use are most likely to be affected. Again, why is this?
    Studies of police "crackdowns" or "street sweeps" in neighborhoods and communities in which drug dealing is rampant demonstrate that their impact is inconsistent; even in areas where a reduction in selling and drug-related crime can be demonstrated, they are almost always short-lived. Mark Kleiman studied the effect of saturation arrests in two heavy-drug-dealing communities in Massachusetts. In one, the arrests were followed by a two-year reduction in the robbery and burglary rate and an increase in new enrollments to drug treatment programs, indicating that drug supplies had dried up. However, after two years, these changes were wiped out, and in some categories, the situation was worse than before. In the second community, following the crackdown, there were no reductions in the availability of drugs, and rates of violent crime actually increased (Kleiman and Smith, 1990, pp.80-81, 89). In 1984, the New York Police Department launched "Operation Pressure Point," a massive crackdown on drug-selling arrests in the city's Lower East Side. Soon after the program was launched, certain crime indicators were down, but experts eventually concluded that both crime and drug dealing had been displaced to other neighborhoods. In 1986, Operation Clean Sweep was initiated in Washington, D.C.; again, a detailed study of its impact showed, drug markets were displaced to other areas, and they reopened in the original neighborhoods when the police stopped saturation arrests (Kleiman and Smith, 1990, pp.80-81).
    On the other hand, such police efforts may make other contributions. Says criminologist Jerome Skolnick, commenting on police crackdowns of street dealers in Oakland, while such efforts have not driven dealers off the street, they have reduced the "wide-open marketplace atmosphere" in the worst areas; says a police respondent interviewed by Skolnick, "you don't have the swarms of people all night long. They're still dealing, but not twenty-four hours a day. At least we've thinned it out so people can get in and out of their own driveways" (quoted in Currie, 1993, pp.206-207). Thus, such neighborhood sweeps may reclaim the streets for the community's law-abiding citizens. In addition, they may convince residents that something is being done about the drug problem, that the police are not corrupt agents of drug dealers (Wilson, 1990b, p.533).
    As we'd expect, something of the same "push down/pop up" effect we looked at on the international stage applies to the distribution of drugs within the country's borders. The removal of one drug dealer through arrest will result in some temporary disruption in the distribution of drugs, which, in turn, results in another dealer's stepping in as a replacement. When the police crack down in one neighborhood or community, business will move elsewhere; when the intensive enforcement campaign is eased, typically, business resumes in the first locale. Moreover, busting dealers makes it more profitable for those who are willing to take the risk of arrest. How could things be otherwise? One suitcase full of cocaine or heroin can earn a dealer hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single transaction. Can anyone possibly imagine that, as a result of possible arrest, no one can be found who is willing to take the risk? The profits will always attract enough daring, enterprising traffickers to ensure an uninterrupted flow of illegal drugs (Pileggi, 1982). There is enough talent to go around to keep the ranks of drug dealing well supplied with personnel who will guarantee that drugs continue to flow from their source to their target. The risk is simply too low, and the profits too great, to expect that there will be a dramatic interruption in the flow of heroin and cocaine as a result of drug busts (Kaplan, 1983, pp.85-86).
    There are some striking differences between busting at the top and busting at the bottom of the distribution chain, however. Unless busting at the top disrupts an entire organization, it is likely to have little effect, since other entrepreneurs will inevitably step in and take over the arrested dealer's business. On the other hand, some impact can be felt at the community level as a result of police "street sweeping." For one thing, petty dealers are a great deal more visible and more vulnerable to arrest than high-level dealers are. And even a temporary disruption of business is a good thing; it makes dealing less visible and residents more mobile and less intimidated; and it may convince skeptical but law-abiding citizens that the police are honest and trying to deal with the drug problem. Even these small gains are not necessarily obtained by scattering arrests all over a city, however; they can be made only by saturation arrests in one area or a small number of areas. It's something like cleaning up the litter a little bit in parks all over a city versus cleaning up a few parks thoroughly; saturation street sweeps will have some impact on the targeted neighborhoods, while a few busts in neighborhoods all over the city will accomplish next to nothing (Kleiman and Smith, 1990, p.89). In sum, although the "push down/pop up" factor does work to some extent for low-level busts, there is some evidence that focused saturation arrests of petty dealers will have a modest impact on the affected neighborhoods.

Chapter 8.   Will Drug Use/Abuse Rise under Legalization?

DRCNet Homepage | Sign on to DRCNet

DRCNet Library | Search the Library

Schaffer Library | The Psychedelic Library

Books Menu Page