Drug wars and the balloon effect

By Bernd Debusmann
March 26, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate
– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Why have billions of dollars and thousands of anti-narcotics agents around the world failed to throttle the global traffic in cocaine, heroin and marijuana? Blame wrong-headed policies, largely driven by the United States, and what experts call the balloon effect.

Squeezing a balloon in one place makes it expand in another. Destroy drug crops in one region and cultivation moves to another. Cut a supply route in one place and another one springs up. Take the example of Colombia and Mexico, at present a focus of U.S. attention because of large-scale violence that threatens to spill across the border.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, almost all the cocaine consumed in the United States was grown in Colombia and shipped to South Florida along a variety of sea and air routes. Colombian traffickers fighting for market share turned Miami into a city where shootouts, contract killings and kidnappings became part of daily life.

That began to change when enraged citizens appealed to the federal government for help to crack down on the “cocaine cowboys.” Then President Ronald Reagan established a special force to cut the cocaine pipelines and end the violence. “The Mexicans must rue the day the South Florida Task Force was set up,” said Peter Reuter, a scholar at the University of Maryland. “That was the beginning of the problems it faces today.”

Within weeks of its formation in 1982, the task force scored several spectacular successes. A string of seizures of large quantities of cocaine and marijuana prompted Colombian trafficking organisations to shift their smuggling routes to Mexico, where they partnered with criminal networks.

By 1988, the balloon effect had become obvious: The Mexican Defence Ministry reported it had discovered 4.8 tonnes of cocaine in a cave in Chihuahua near the U.S. border. It was then the world’s biggest seizure of the drug. Its Colombian origin was not in doubt — Mexico produced no cocaine of its own.

Now, two decades later, the U.S. State Department estimates that as much as 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States comes through Mexico, which is also a major source of heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana. The State Department’s estimates speak volumes about the failure of policies that emphasised crop eradication, interdiction and punishment for drug users.


As a Latin American commission led by three former presidents (of Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil) put it recently: “Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results. We are farther away than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs.”

If it were possible to seal the border, there would be no reason for Mexico’s drug mafias to wage war against each other. They are fighting for access to the main gateways into the U.S. In one border city alone, Ciudad Juarez, more than 1,000 people have been killed in the first two months of the year.

There has been growing criticism of the war on drugs, and not only from advocates of legalization who argue that drugs should be sold and regulated in the same way as alcohol and tobacco is now regulated.

On a visit to Mexico this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade.” Though it was a statement of the obvious — the drug trade is driven by the laws of supply and demand — officials of previous administrations have not been nearly as blunt.

Discussing the drug problem as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama he said he believed in “shifting the paradigm, shifting the model so that we can focus more on a public health approach.”

The public health approach, know as “harm reduction” in a global dispute over drug strategies, means treating drug addicts not as criminals who participate in an illegal market but as patients who deserve care in the public health system. Most of Europe favors harm reduction over filling the prisons with drug abusers, the standard procedure in the United States.

On any give day, about half a million people are behind bars in the United States for drug offences. Obama’s choice of drug czar, Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowski, signals a new direction, at least in the drug war at home. Seattle has been on the forefront of drug reform developments, including a needle exchange program for addicts. And for Seattle police, marijuana arrests have been the lowest law enforcement priority.

The drug czar heads the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a 130-member group which sets anti-drug policy. “The success of our efforts to reduce the flow of drugs is largely dependent on our ability to reduce demand for them,” Kerlikowske said after his nomination.

Reducing demand for illicit drugs in the United States, the world’s largest market, is an ambitious goal. Earlier attempts have failed, including Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. A program still active called DARE — Drug Abuse Resistance Education — aimed at high school students is drawing mixed reviews.

But optimists point to the success of campaigns to discourage smoking by making it socially unacceptable. It took a long time. But it worked.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Since most of the Mexican killings along the border, are centered in both, Juarez, and Tiajuana, it seems rather obvious that many of the drugs being smuggled into our United States, pass through these areas.

The El Paso border area, across from Juarez, was recently reinforced with a considerable amount of fence, which undoubtedly put additional pressure on the cartels, making it much more difficult to smuggle drugs in this area, by limiting the number of remaining drug routes available.

El Paso Border Patrol Sector Apprehensions—Length 268 miles

01-29-09 In the El Paso sector, crews finished 79 miles of the planned 81 miles of “vehicle fencing,” usually concrete or metal barriers that were mostly installed in the flat New Mexico desert west of El Paso, Cordero said. The 15- to 18-foot tall metal “pedestrian fencing” needs about 11 miles to reach the planned 56 miles in the El Paso region.

At least part of the answer to continued smuggling attempts has to be more fence.

Less than 400 miles of pedestrian fence have been built, in lieu of the legislated, and promised, 800 milles of double-layered fence.

Keep Building The Fence!! It Works!!

Posted by Buzzm1 | Report as abusive

Alcohol killed my father and a good friend from high school. Cigarettes killed my mother, my aunt and my uncle.

Nobody I know has been killed by drugs. Time to end the prohibition. Most of us will not use drugs. Those who do, much like alcoholics, need medical help.

John Berry, your call to cut off the fingers and toes of drug users, that is truly evil. Seek psychological help and pray to God for forgiveness for your vile and violent thoughts. God bless you.

Posted by Chazzzz | Report as abusive

buzz, they tried a wall in Germany and it didn’t work. Build a wall and the suppliers will find another way.

The business is just too profitable. Bitter laugh, the drug industry is probably the last profitable industry in our crashing banana republic.

You ever been to a pumpkin chunkin contest? Build a wall and they’ll just toss the drugs over the boarder with trebuchets.

Posted by Chazzzz | Report as abusive


Legalizing these drugs won’t make them cheap if you tax them, which is what I’m advocating for. When I was in high school and even middle school I could’ve smoked weed everyday and done a line of cocaine if I wanted to, all for free cuz my classmates had it.

I’m 23 and if you older parents aren’t aware that’s the situation your kids are in. I didn’t go to an inner city school, just a normal size somewhat rural school.

Even though I don’t trust this government, I’d rather they control the prices than drug dealers and I’d rather have them determine the availability to minors.

Heroine is a terrible drug, none of us anti-drug war people are denying that. But it’s going to be available whether we waste money or not on drug war spending so we may as well save the money or at least spend it on putting these people in clinics where they can become healthy members of society rather than throwing them all in jail cells and waiting for them to get out and do the same thing all over again.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

News reports show that an amazingly high proportion of teenagers say they could easily obtain drugs, even some of the most dangerous. But in general they don’t, because they’re not that stupid.

The only possible justification for prohibition is to prevent innocent non-users from taking up addictive drugs. A certain number do anyway, despite prohibition. The number probably wouldn’t rise much after legalization and might fall, since a large number of pushers now have an economic interest in enticing new users.

And the economic cost of free, no-questions treatment is trivial compared with the strategy of prosecution.

Posted by Rob Spooner | Report as abusive

As a recovering alcoholic (30 years straight) I would suggest all countries treat drug addiction as a health problem… when an addict ‘needs’ their fix .. they will get it… legalize it; tax it; put it in the medical professions hand so the addict can get counseling along with the drugs they need… take the profit out of the ‘trade’ and the ‘war on drugs’ will cease to exist… and we may go a long way towards eliminating our national debt.

Posted by lee L. | Report as abusive

I think Jefferson noted rather dramatically that the price of freedom is vigilance. I take that to mean that whatever we wan tto be free from will require us to be on-guard against it so long as it exist. As a society we have chosen to be free-from-drugs, whatever that means, whether we can afford to be isn’t just the price of vigialnce but the opportunity cost, or in this case the contingent liability represented by some form of legalized consumption of now illicit drugs. The best historical example I can point out is the Opium Wars between Britain and the Qing Dynasty in China (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_War if you want more detail.) For Britain read Drug Cartels and Qing Dynasty read USA…when you consider the consequences there’s a lot more at stake than the money to maintain vigilance.

Posted by Stanley | Report as abusive

Seems to be 3 Major Drug Cartels fighting it out in Mexico..The Columbian Cartel , the Mexican Cartel & the Mexican \”POLICE\” Cartel. All want total control…and the U.S.A. gives money to the Mexican Police Cartel…what are they thinking???

Posted by GGREENWOOD4 | Report as abusive

the dark days of prohibition must come to an absolute end. prohibition didn’t work in the early 20th century, it’s not working today, and it *never* will work in the future. the very notion of prohibition is draconian, oppressive and intrinsically flawed; the ridiculous polices that have resulted from it have only created more social problems by marginalizing & persecuting casual users, punishing & prosecuting addicts & abusers and has lead to increased poverty & crime rates across the board, plus increased health care costs due to disease transmission… on and on and on.

moreover, prohibition has undermined the formal economy – while the underground economy is flourishing, simply because our government(s) have essentially hand-delivered the illicit drug trade on a silver platter to organized crime bosses and the brutal & lawless drug cartels – simply *because* of our government’s senseless prohibitionist policies and its futile war on drugs… which, if you think about it, is really a war on everyday people, and it’s viciously cruel, brutal & uncivilized and ultimately, destructive to social order.

we must shift our focus from the insanely expensive policies of prohibition & punishment to a health-oriented, harm reduction approach to drug use. we need a system that provides treatment, counselling & support services for *addicts* who *abuse* drugs (most people who use recreational drugs, particularly marijuana, are NOT addicts & abusers, and most ‘casual drug users’ actually lead perfectly healthy & productive lives). if you think about it for a moment, *many* of us put ‘drugs’ into our body every day, in one form or another (caffeine, alcohol, nicotene, codeine, morphine, sedatives, relaxants, anxiolytics, anti-depressants, et al… an innumerable array of psychoactive substances). society at large uses drugs, just as we have for thousands of years, and will continue to do until the end of time… that’s just life. drug use, whether prescription or recreational, is simply another facet of the human experience. while many will never use drugs, and good for them btw, it just makes no sense whatsoever to demonize and punish those who do – of their own free will – choose to use psychoactive substances.

obviously, children must be protected from early exposure to drugs, of any kind really, prescription or recreation, and that’s were government regulation comes in. but despite what fear-mongering prohibitionists like to parrot, children are NOT being targetted by ‘drug pushers’. the illicit drug trade is a multi-billion dollar BUSINESS, and its customers are ADULTS with gobs of money, not kids on playgrounds and schoolyards. of course, those with an anti-drug agenda know full well that when the public is kept afraid (of drugs or whatever), they’ll believe anything. if we truly want to get a grip on substance abuse (and not just drugs, then legalization, regulation and taxation of ALL drugs is the way forward, and the only way to get ourselves out of this asinine drug-war debacle.

a medically-based, harm reduction model would cost a mere fraction of what is currently being spent (in the hundreds of billions each year) on *failed* policies of drug prohibition & eradication – and it would actually WORK to reduce drug dependancy and associated health problems. but perhaps even more important, our prisons wouldn’t be overflowing with people who don’t belong there (which is another huge burden on the tax payer and an injustice to society overall), and crime rates would drop dramatically if drugs were simply legalized, regulated and taxed… just like we’ve learned to do with other psychoactive substances (alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, and so on).

it should also be said… we can no longer allow OUR government to persecute & oppress its own people, to strip us of our inalienable rights and the sole dominion over our OWN lives, including whatever substances that we may (or may not) *choose* to put into our bodies, of our own free will.

just END the stupid war on drugs already
and look ahead to solutions that will actually *benefit* society

There are more people clogging up our hospitals and health systems as a direct result of alcohol and tobacco use (or misuse?)than illegal drugs, yet we haven’t recently banned the use of these legal drugs. There’s simply too much government revenue at stake.
With regard to illegal drugs, prohibition has never worked and never will.
As a society we need to change our approach. Decriminalization for personal use (or misuse), as opposed to legalization, may be the next way forward. Ask any junkie if they are happy being a junkie and I’m sure there will be a resounding NO! Drug misuse is a health issue and should be treated as such. If ‘registered drug users’ were given access (supervised) to the drugs they crave at low or no cost you would prevent a lot of the crime they do to get the money for their drugs. Also, the stigma attached with having such a health problem may help them build up the courage and determination to work on overcoming their habit.
Finally, if you take the money out of the equation it simply won’t be viable for the producers and dealers of illegal drugs to carry on.

Posted by M Chambers | Report as abusive

The only succesful DEA/CIA drug task force I ever heard of from a cartel member, was the one that taught them how to process crack cocaine, from the coke they imported into ghettos all over America during the Nicaragua ‘Crisis’. Vietnam was about heroin trade gains, not godless communism. Afghanistan as the worlds biggest heroin producer, has always been in conflict for this reason. Russia pulled out because it couldnt sustain a fighting force in the face of this. Obama goes into Afghanistan, US heroin use will triple. Why? Because the government supplies the drugs not the cartels. Get rid of the government, you get rid of the drugs problem.

Posted by GWB123 | Report as abusive


I’m sorry, I got a little mixed up with who posted what…it was actually Chollie I was quoting, in my earlier post to you…

Yeah I agree with you…I however believe if they would legalize these illegal drugs…it would defeat the purpose to put high prices on it…because most who are addicted are probably broke… anyways..especially those ones that are addicted to the more harsher drugs…but of course America could dig their way out of this economic crisis by ending the costly war on drugs.

I do think there is a lot of potential income for american farmers and land owners if they could be allowed to grow and sale…marijuana, or hemp for the market …there would be plenty of opportunity for new greener businesses for sure…especially where hemp is concerned.

Posted by Mary | Report as abusive

It is obvious that society wants to be free from the pain and suffering, cost, and hypocrisy of prohibition. If not for the propaganda, misinformation and the fake moral outrage the prohibitionists sling, this nation would have been free of this burden when alcohol prohibition was repealed. Instead they found ways to circumvent the Constitution in order to spread their plight.

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

“Admittedly, marijuana is a joke. The worst effect of smoking pot is never accomplishing anything. But what would possibly be the use of “legal” cocaine? Heroine? Are you kidding me? These drugs are extremely harmful to the point of deadly.” – Posted by chollie

Do you know what Heroin is? It was trademarked by no one else but Bayer at about the same time as their another famous drug aspirin. From 1898 through to 1910, under the name Heroin, diacetylmorphine was marketed as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough suppressant. If not for some idiots discovering it as the simple way to get high and often OD, it would still be available OTC just like aspirin. It is still in use in some countries, most notably England, as a prescription painkiller. And legitimate painkillers like Vicodin and Oxycodone also are opium derivatives just as Heroin is. Opioids have lots of uses beside pain management – it’s cough suppressant (ever thought that Robitussin – that common OTC drug – contains a small quantity of Codeine, another relative of Heroin). They’re the best sleeping aid I ever tried. When you have intestinal issues, they help when Imodium can’t. And many other uses I can’t describe accurately – I’m not a doctor, just an unfortunate regular user (prescribed Ocycodone for back pain management). I tried all of them – OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Tramadol, whatnot. And I only laugh hearing ads about Advil, Tylenol, Aleeve claiming them to be “every pain medicine”. The whole pack of Tylenol would not give as much relief as one 5mg Oxycodone pill, especially at night time when pain wouldn’t let you get asleep. And you don’t risk your liver like when you take Tylenol or other NSAIDs in large quantities.
The key is – use it, but don’t abuse it. Oh, and don’t drive under influence – it makes you too slow to react. That’s the only negative side effect I experienced in many years of use. Well, there’s always a choice – stay home or don’t take it until you’re done driving.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

if all the congress or people who think they are in charge were having their sons killed and their daughters turned into prostitutes, i bet they would come up with a solution.good luck, X drug addict

Every time you buy a fifth of whiskey you buy a lethal dose of alcohol. I know because a friend of mine died before the paramedics could arrive after he was dared to chug a fifth of Jack D. I have seen US servicemen die from drinking to much water trying to cleans there system of pot. Everything is “potentially” dangerous. If we outlawed everything that was “potentially” dangerous everything would be outlawed. Cars kill more people every year than heroin and cocaine combined. Most ODs occur when a user gets hold of a batch that is more pure than the last. This is one of the problems with dealing with the black market. There are no standards! These arguments are based upon Prohibitionist propaganda. It is dangerous; it is evil: it will kill all our children…Bull! Folks, the most dangerous and most debilitating drug out there is alcohol and what makes heroin and cocaine so dangerous is the War on Drugs because the worst thing that will most likely happen to a user is the government will destroy their life and throw them in prison.

Posted by B. Free | Report as abusive

It astounds me on a daily basis that, during the days of alcohol prohibition, the link between that and crime was obvious, it was in the streets.

The very same happens with the drug war, but on a global level, buy creating illict substances you create a black market, increasing crime and funding criminal organizations, you are literally making a source of money for them. they love it and ts exactly what they need.

drug use in and of itself is older than written language, and some theorize that some drugs may have taken a role in the progress of mankind itself.
you may as well try to eriadicate the english language, it would be easier.

it is wise to remember than while drug use stretches back some 100,000 years, our idea of “drug war” only goes back about 50.
harm reduction is the only sane alternative, your opinion and morality make no difference whatsoever, and forcing them through violence is a crime against humanity itself.

Posted by jeremy | Report as abusive

The following article addresses many of the points raised above. This article and related articles can be found at http://groups.google.com/group/GordonDru gAbusePrevention/

The Harm Caused to Individuals and Society by the Use of Marijuana by Paula D. Gordon, Ph.D.
May 26, 2009 Copyright 2009 by Paula D. Gordon. All rights reserved.

The view that marijuana is harmless or even “relatively harmless” is a view that is widely shared. That a view is widely shared does not mean that it is a sound view or that it has any basis in knowledge or fact.

Of course, the fact that marijuana is a plant that is widely available in nature has nothing to do with the potential harm that it can do if it is smoked or ingested. To assume otherwise is to engage in vague or magical thinking. It is common knowledge that there are plants and substances of all kinds that are harmful if ingested. For instance, hemlock is deadly as are some mushrooms. Smoking anything has some harmful consequences.

However widely shared a view it may be, the view that marihuana is harmless or even “relatively harmless,” it is a view that reflects a lack of knowledge concerning the immediate and the short term and long term effects of marijuana. It is also a view that reflects a lack of knowledge of the less widely recognized effects of marijuana use of contact highs and flashbacks (spontaneous recurrence of a drug high without using the substance at the time of the recurrence.) Similarly, the view reflects a lack of awareness of the civil liberties implications of being subject to contact highs and other effects as a result of being in the proximity of those who are using marijuana. Certainly, a rational public policy needs to be based on such a knowledge base.

One way I try to determine what the knowledge base might be of a person who seems unaware of the harmful effects of marijuana is to pose these questions:

• Do you know of research that shows that the use of marijuana can negatively affect motivation, long and short term memory, concentration, judgment, reasoning, and common sense?

• Do you know of the research of Harris Isbell and others who found that there can be idiosyncratic psychotomimetic (psychosis-like) effects from the administration of delta 9 THC in human subjects? (Delta 9 THC is the active principle of marijuana.)

• Do you know of the research findings that marijuana smoke can be inhaled by bystanders who then can experience marijuana highs and idiosyncratic effects?

• Do you know of the research in humans and animals showing the deleterious changes in lung tissue as a result of exposure to marijuana smoke?

• Do you know that contact high and flashback effects can occur as a result of the use of marijuana and do you think that the occurrence of such effects can have any negative consequences?

• Do you see any deleterious impacts to the civil liberties of others, including children, the elderly, mentally impaired, and other sensitive individuals, when they are unwillingly or unwittingly subjected to marijuana smoke or contact highs?

For further references and discussion of the effects mentioned here, see the articles and reports at http://groups.google.com/group/GordonDru gAbusePrevention/ or contact me at pgordon@erols.com .

With regard to the policies that are needed when it comes to psychoactive, mind altering substances, I believe that there should be an increasing emphasis on effective diversion programs (including drug court programs) and early intervention with judicial backup but no record if successful re-education and treatment are completed. Such approaches need to go on hand in hand with a massive prevention-education effort aimed at helping dissuade users from using a substance that has such negative effects on the mental, psychological, and physical health of users and on the health and functioning of those in their proximity, as well as on the overall well being of society.

After the conclusions of the deliberations in Independence Hall, Benjamin Franklin was asked later by a woman what kind of a government the new nation had. He is said to have replied: “A republic Madame, if we can keep it.” A new question: If we sanction or tacitly encourage the recreational and/or chronic use of psychoactive, mind-altering drugs, including marijuana, and if we do not actively discourage their use, can we still keep our republic? I think not, since keeping our republic depends on an educated and informed psychologically and mentally healthy and stable citizenry who value the common good and who are capable of bring sound reasoning, good judgment, the exercise of common sense, and understanding to bear on recognizing and addressing exceedingly complex and challenging problems and threats that are currently looming before us.

Answers to the six earlier questions can clearly reflect a very different set of values and assumptions concerning what kind of nation we want America to be, and what kind of nation and what kind of world we want to pass on to the future generations. The answers can also reveal very different knowledge bases concerning the effects of psychoactive, mind-altering drugs and very different perspectives on what constitutes mental and psychological health and what the value of mental and psychological health is. From my vantage point, playing Russian Roulette with anyone’s mental and psychological health is simply not a smart thing to do. Turning any part or all of the United States into an Amsterdam or letting it evolve into an Amsterdam would seriously undermine our capacity to realize the promise of America and, from my perspective, it would throw to the winds the great gifts that the Founding Fathers bequeathed to us and entrusted to our keeping, the same gifts that following generations have fought and are fighting to keep.


A good overview of the situation with marijuana.

Logic and reason are concepts Americans have not warmed up to in over 50 years. Clearly common sense is not very common. As long as public policy is debated from the stand point of dogma and other preconceived notions, working solutions to mitigate the ills that drug use visits upon society will elude us.

Thomas Jefferson stated the sole legitimate function of government is to intercede where the the actions of one party or individual interferes with another party or parties exercise of their inalienable rights. Nothing more.

Posted by leonardospace | Report as abusive