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.


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Seems like ONE BIG KEY ISSUE NONE ADDRESS? What about the MONEY, have read that more funds go through drugs then auto industries.. Billions of Billions of CASH in small bills somehow have to get to Cartels. Only so much can go via some briefcase etc. The Nations with Cartels are ALL supported by various USA and other NATIONS BANKS which as “bail out” proves are all linked up..
. THE BANKS, as no one can carry this huge amount of cash about, have to then transfer huge sums of what could be easily proven as “Cartel Money’ and no doubt make big profits doing such. NO ONE, ON PLAN, NO CONCEPT and NEVER DISCUSSED is anything about “THE MONEY”. Kind of like the howls of “Rapid increases in high cost of health care”. no one discus’s whom is making big profits or WHY costs double inflation each year?
Me thinks if one followed RULE 1.0 of corruption and greed and crime. Yep all those Gov snoopers just cannot find a way to track the billions and billions, which I doubt is mentioned in Balance of Trade AKA USA Dollar S leaving USA which must be huge amounts. Fortune Mag even listed one of Drug Guys in millionaire lists, so that kind of verifies “Dollar drain is huge”. Also verifies why banks not being investigated.. ranks right up there with us tossing money at Iraq while NCY banks/DC killed stories on how much Iraq money they have, last reported at $79 Billion 6 months back..
FOLLOW THE MONEY TRAIL” the “Drug War” just might be pointed at, shall we say “The Drug Cartel and their ‘investments” and how that whole systems work.
For one more profitable for pols and gov contractors etc, to keep up endless “wage war on drugs”. It would seem, like AIG etc. Drug Cartel money is “to big to fail (to be investigated)?” Drug war Rule 2.0 Banks and such have NO morals or morality, but lots of lobbyists.
Billions of BILLIONS and the bank and offshore units NOT involved? That is of course a truth, like the one about “world is flat”? Yep, billions and billions just floating about in brief case and luggage as we know the money guys are to honest to get involved with such things?

Posted by Chuck | Report as abusive

I see the effects of drug use on friends, acquaintances and family as their use of illegal drugs ruins their lives and impacts the lives of those around them. It would be nice to stop the sale of illegal drugs but as you said the demand fuels the supply.
The root of the problem is the war on drugs only addresses the supply and tries to make people choose not to use. Somehow we need to address without taking away the right to choose: a great leader was once ask “how do you govern your people in such a way that they behave so well”. His response was; “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves”.
The only way we can win this fight against lives becoming ruined by drugs is not by restricting use or supply but by once again teaching correct principles in our society and for the American people to once again follow correct principles.

Posted by Marv | Report as abusive

Chuck I think you’re mistaken, why care about the money? We should be caring about getting people off the drugs, there’s more than one version of currency big cartel druglords have available and more than just US banks they can flow the money trail through.

The US should be like Amsterdam, everything should be legal and people who have a mental weakness for drugs should be treated as everyone who has a mental weakness, with treatment and help.

More than half of non-violent drug users turn violent after being imprisoned, we live in a country where you can get life in prison for 3 non-violent drug offenses. Rapists, child abusers and sometimes murderers don’t have it that bad, time to realign our priorities.

It is interesting to note that since the Afghanistan War has started opium and heroine influx into the US has gone up 900%.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Paying for the War on Drugs means not paying for other things. Our schools could be better, especially in poor areas. This would give many children many more opportunities. This would would reduce their incentives to use or sell drugs. Plus the bonus of better educated children. But where would the money come from? You have to be willing to give up programs that haven’t been effective. The War on Drugs has become a sacred cow of sorts to many people, but I doubt those people think much about what they’re not getting because of it.

Posted by Winchester73 | Report as abusive

I think a lot of current non-users would be delighted for a taxed form of marijuana availability.

Posted by david | Report as abusive

Sorry to post twice, but does anyone remember back when Reagan drastically cut the funding for mental institutions? If you don’t, it’s the main reason you see so many schizophrenic homeless people out there to this day. It was also during Reagan’s administration that we really started ratcheting up this War on Drugs. An interesting trade off, not very admirable though and I would say somewhat inconsistent with conservative principles. Our drug addicts have a choice, but our schizophrenics that we’ve been stepping over on the sidewalks in greater numbers since Reagan do not. The mentally infirmed should be cared for even if it means we cannot “save” the drug addicts. Saving the drug addicts hasn’t been working out very well anyway. We did a better job with the schizophrenics, before we stopped.

Posted by Winchester73 | Report as abusive

We tried prohibion of alcohol and should have learned. If we took just half the money spent over the last 30 years on the DRUG WAR, and opened up federal stores in which drugs were free to those who wanted it and offerred free drug rehab to those who wanted off the addiction, there would be no black market for the cartels, violence in the US associated with folks stealing and killing to get the drugs would disappear. Finally, those who didn’t avail themselves of rehab would overdose……sounds harsh I know but it is all real instead of the bullshit games we play with policies that don’t work even when we spend billions because of the “moral” and “religious” fanatics…..and there would be money left over for some other good such as helping the poor children conceived by druggies.

in my case, years of illicit drug abuse(primarily high grade ganga and blow, with a little taste of everything else) has been followed by over a decade of prescribed medications in a spurious attempt at redeeming a semblance of rationale and accepted norms.

there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of difference in both instances. both courses modify behaviour and make inordinant amounts of filthy lucre for the larger drug organisations. still, I find myself questioning, which is the cause and which the cure.

ultimately, the decision should be left to me, the consumer. is a bag of high grade dope purchased over the counter of a respectable pharmacist (with prescription and appropriate warnings) any worse travesty of justice ,then a randomly lethal handgun and munitions purchased over the counter of a less than respectable dealer.

drug laws need some solid reform as the current economics of profitability inherently empower black-market pirates into creating lawless fiefdoms. they probably don’t rest easy with this arrangement du jour.

legalise it, don’t panic if it’s organic.

Posted by sweeny'60s | Report as abusive

Anyone hear of the drug lord that was placed on the Forbes billionaire list? Its pretty obvious that there is no way to stop the trade, might as well use the resources we are wasting fighting “the problem” and use those resources to figure out how to use the “problem” to our advantage. Id be willing to bet that we would not be having these economic problems if there was a tax system in place. If you could smoke caffeine would it be illegal, its addictive as is yet any person can purchase it.

let the consumer decide on his or her fate.

illicit drug production and prescribed medication production both make a great deal of filthy lucre for the actors du jour. both ends of the spectrum create their own lawless organisms capable of disturbing the rich diversity of a thriving, animate populis.

if one were able to purchase a bag of organic ganja or cocaine over the counter of a repectable pharmacist, by prescription (after becoming aware of the potential side-effects), would this in actuality be a greater offence to our society, than one purchasing a lethal handgun and munitions’ across the counter of a respectable purveyer of lethal weapons, by licence(after becoming aware of the potential side effects of one who is shot; on their immediate families, emergency personnel et al)

Posted by sweeny'60s | Report as abusive

The problem would be solved overnight if we just made drugs legal. But we can’t do that – why?

1. The Alcohol Industry.
That’s right people. America’s main drug of choice, alcohol, has a huge lobby in Washington and they do not want the competition.

2. The Criminal Justice System.
Okay, you think I’m nuts? Hear me out on this. The criminal justice system made up of cops, prosecutors, judges and prison personnel, is a gigantic business in this country. If drugs were made legal many thousands of criminal justice jobs would be lost. And they also have a huge lobby and they sow the seeds of fear and misinformation in order to keep their business growing.

3. Ignorance.
Because of criminal justice and alcohol working hard to keep their party rolling they also spread the false claim that we’ll all become heroin and marijuana addicted crack heads and the country will fall apart. Well why hasn’t that happened to other countries where heroin and marijuana is legal? Because it’s not true. Drug addiction in those countries is treated like a health issue just we treat alcoholism. But the powers that stand to benefit from the “War on Drugs” don’t want you to know that.

4. Complacency
Instead of politicians standing up to the inhumanity of this situation they cower and take the campaign contributions from aforesaid parties.

Posted by M Smith | Report as abusive

No Demand = No Supply. Tougher drug laws and longer incarceration for those caught and found guilty. For the first time, I agree with Hillary Clinton (wow, I never thought I’d say that!!) “our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade.” We need some archaic laws to tame the drug lords and dealers, like the “Death Penalty” and limb amputations. I’m sick of the death, destruction, billions of tax dollars wasted trying to control illegal drugs. The US is TOO SOFT on criminals in all phases of illegal drugs.

Posted by Mr. Bill | Report as abusive

I find it highly amusing that drugs all get lumped into a single category, yet things like alcohol and tobacco are somehow treated differently.

As a person who has used marijuana and who would happily buy it from “legal”, taxed sources (which would eliminate the “illegal” drug trafficking, I find the entire DEA expenditure a complete waste of money.

The fact the no administration has the guts to stand up against the absurdity of our drug “enforcement” policies is disheartening. I’d wager that I am a significantly larger “contributor” to society than many non-drug users, yet I am seen as someone who “needs help”.

The simple fact is that drugs are not the problem. People are the problem. Stop trying to tell me what I am able to do to myself (when it impacts no one else).

We have the perfect case study here in our very own history books. Prohibition. It failed to stop drinking, cost lives and money, and fueled a crime wave similar to what we are seeing in the drug war.

I am by no means saying ending the war, would make the world safer in relation to drugs, they are still poison. But its a personal choice, and many things – including food in large quantities, acts as a poison — smoking and drinking sound familiar?

The HUGE business in regulating, enforcing, and criminalizing – as well as the money lost to corruption (its just a fact of life that people steal when large pots of money go around) – will stop a change. It will take the war breaking across the border to cause a change… which it very well could do. Lawmen do their job – and do so with the best of intentions, and will probably take the change the hardest. But the best of intentions should never take free will and choice from a person – educate them, help them – don’t imprison them. The underworld creates the scenes they see and relate to devastation… the underworld would go away, if the war ended – it takes faith, or just reading your history books.

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

Great analysis M. Smith, dead on the money.

Also I’d like to add how funny it is that the only drug you see campaigned against is marijuana, our gov’t thinks that’s the worst drug. Why? Because it’s the cheapest and easiest to obtain, there’s no profit in that. I’ve never smoked weed in my life, never will and it’s nice seeing a outspoken majority of people who side with the anti-drug war movement.

But like another poster said it’s all about the holier than thou and religious crowd along with the items M. Smith listed. Which is odd cuz if I’m wrong let me know but I don’t think the bible says anything about drug use and it being immoral.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Simple…… on a global basis…..

1) find the money
2) follow the money
3) take the money away

Elliot Ness had it right more than half a century ago.

Posted by JJ Albright | Report as abusive

The government could make so much tax revenue off making, what the Netherlands deems “soft” drugs, legal. As for the “hard” drugs make it available, however tightly regulated. All they have to do is use the ABC store idea. Seriously, I pay enough taxes to keep a pot head in jail than just to let him blaze in his house. It is policies like this in the U.S that make me loose faith in the system and the America people in general and Im American toboot!

Posted by Mule | Report as abusive

President Obama held an Virtual Internet White House Questions and Answers show on 3/26/09 and one of the questions regarded legalization or at least decriminalization of marijuana. I think the US Gov’t needs to realize is that if pot were handeled by the Gov’t as alcohol and cigarettes are (taxed) then that revenue would probably mean that we all payed lower taxes and the over flow of dollars would end the recession and stop putting the money into the hands of the cartels/terrorists. Come on folks, is it worse to smoke a little weed or is it worse to put money into those peoples pockets?? Lets get real here!

Posted by Charlie | Report as abusive

The violence associated with illegal drugs is a direct result of the greed of those selling the drugs. Greed for more turf, in other words, greed for more money. Why is there so much money trading hands? Because of these ridiculous laws prohibiting legal use, which is what makes these commodities so valuable and that value is what drives the greed that in turn fuels the violence. Take away the prohibition laws and you make the drug business a non-profitable business. That is how you attack the money and in turn stop the violence.
As for personal users and the adverse impact on themselves and those around them, that is an issue of personal responsibility, just like the decision to drink in moderation. That is something that cannot be legislated no matter how hard you try. Legalize and tax and watch income taxes get cut in half.

Posted by Adam | Report as abusive

Charlie good post but with the medicinal and pain-killing uses of marijuana the big drug lobby won’t allow legalization or decriminalization to go through without a big, billion dollar fight.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive