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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The federal government has no right telling the people what they can put into their bodies.

Posted by jason | Report as abusive

Interesting article.

What about the offshore accounts, Swiss and Cayman? If the drug czars invest-launder their money in and thru the mexican oil complex, via shell companies and offshore accounts, why not seize it. Tax, levy or tariff, what ever you want to call it. Apply international pressure on the digital pipeline. A new global tax.

Offshore money creates quite a pandors box, eh?

The sun never sets on the Swiss-BCS net.

Posted by Global Tax | Report as abusive

The drub problem was and is always simple.

Go after the user, and the user’s parents if the user is a minor. Do a drug test, [ no court case, no judge..just two quick tests and the test is the court] person fails the test, cut off a finger..automatic and swift punishment and send the offender to the doc and then home. Quite simple, they will never run out of toes and fingers, I doubt seriously they are doing much drugs after that. In the case of the minor..take the mothers finger off first and then the fathers, rotating them till the kid or kids stop.

Word gets out, not that many toes and fingers would be lost after that.

If nobody is buying drugs there is no more drug problem.

Posted by Jon Barry | Report as abusive

Definitions of laws make things either legal or illegal. I reckon the solution is to remove the legal barrier to drug supply, and then tax the living daylights out of it to garner revenues for fixing problems on the consumption end.
Free-market principles are demonstrably worthwhile. We don’t see gun-toting fishmongers or criminal gangs peddling milk powder now, do we?

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive

As the time have been changing from time to time from our day-to-day life. We cannot be controled or cannot be change suddenly by inforcing other wills. Even though we know that it’s illegal. As restless as the wind people are becoming more worsed. But like another poster said “No Demand = No Supply”….. Even though we can’t do that – why? People are the problem. We should try more harder to abolish from our society…… “better late than never”. And also I wanted to put in mind that “what will it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”. As the BIBLE says.

Posted by zingsho | Report as abusive

WOW. DID WE JUST ASK A DARE OFFICER HOW TO SOLVE THE DRUG WAR. I’m beginning to question whether or not ANYONE in a position of strength in these bureacracies has completed or even READ research on their subject. These people aren’t trained to think about the problem, they’re trained to do what the government tells them; snuff out “criminals”. They do it well, but they’re doing it to no end with OUR tax money.

Why would he, or any other dea agent, actually want to stop the drug war, THEY make money off of it. This fool associates himself with DARE saying we need more money towards those programs. We have proven these Let our scientists decide how drugs should be handled based on facts gathered from legitimate non-government influenced research.
We have caused irreversible damage by creating a black market on our shores. How many thosands of miles of shore does the U.S. have….it take what 13 trucks of coke to supply the US for a year? We can never stop that, embrace it and make our own market. Cartels laugh at us while we burn their crops because they know their money grows out of the ground. Their money falls into our hands and we light it on fire….great job guys.

EDUCATE YOURSELF. http://www.drugwarfacts.org <— research completed by real professionals and scientists….not greedy bureacrats.

This drug war is argueably the number one problem with america.

Here’s an example of how bogus our legislation is:
I live in south dakota, which is one of the last states to have “possesion by ingestion” laws. This means that if I test positive on a drug test, the government can charge me automatically with possesion and ingestion. POSSESION for thc IN my body. Whats even worse, when you get charged with possesion the container can be weighed and added to the charge as if it were the substance. I”m a 175 pound person…i can get charged with possesion of 175lbs of marijuana even though they never found any on my person…BRILLIANT

Posted by Alex Olsen | Report as abusive

Imagine what the huge pharmaceutical companies could do if they were legally allowed to develop and sell recreational drugs.

We’d have safe, harmless, enjoyable drugs with no side effects and no addictive properties. There’d be alcohol substitutes, pot substitutes, harmless substitutes for heroin, meth, cocaine, and everything else.

With one change of the law, we’d have no more drunk drivers killing innocents, no more dopey potheads making expensive mistakes at work, no more drug addicts living in the gutters and feeding off our tax money, no more corrupt government officials, and no more ruthless drug dealers.

Ending alcohol prohibition worked. Now let’s end prohibition on other drugs, too.

Posted by Sigh | Report as abusive

We should start by legalizing marijuana and see what happens. The taxes collected on income and gross sales tax would solve many problems. Will we ever learn from “Prohibition”? BTW, I’m 65, don’t smoke it (anymore), but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist…..

Posted by Jo Carey | Report as abusive

What if the Feds had gone down to Miami and set up a special “drug port” where the quality of narcotics are tested and approved for import, and collected a 50% tax on a rational street value of the drug. Disallow concoctions and trade only in pure drugs in the light of day. Imagine the huge sums of wealth that would have gone to our governments for social services, instead of to the SHADOW ECONOMY that threatens to topple the real one with its weight. Wake up, a rational approach to legalization is the best way…do not put the government and the people at odds with these laws and there will be far more support for the government as a result.

Posted by B | Report as abusive

I wonder whether Job Berry has never broken any law such as going through a red light or parking in a disabled parking space. People who fail to solve issues by evaluating “cause and effect” often use biased judgment to identify problem root causes. I believe a person without a finger might decide to use others to do his dirty work. Will your stand on cutting fingers change if the one-fingered criminal was to use your son or daughter?

Legalize the non-lethal drugs and put legislation in place to fine those who use it in certain places or give it to minors. Spend money on education and awareness. If you were to ban alcohol in North America, you would get the same problem as you have today with drugs.

Posted by JB | Report as abusive

In response to the person about the bible,The first commandment is ; You shall have no other Gods but me. Drugs are modern day Idols people use to worship themselves and to excape reality. I do believe that if the Gov. regulated drugs like cigs or alcahol it would end most of the violence that goes with it and making drugs a ugly thing like ciggarette smoking has been protraid only the people aready using would continue.

Posted by edaddy98 | Report as abusive

Alcohol prohibition in the 1920′s created so many problems with gangs and violence, so they ended prohibition. Let’s legalize drugs and regulate them like we do with alcohol and tobacco. That will put an end to the violent gangs, and save taxpayers billions of dollars locking up non-violent drug users. Some people are willing to end our freedom and raise our taxes to fight this unwinnable war on drugs. I would rather put up with a few drug abusing losers than live in a police state.

Posted by Eric | Report as abusive

Any country with heavy illegal drug use is a backward third world country. Case in point look what has happened to America with it’s ever increasing stupidity factor AKA dumbing down of America. Solution: a devil’s island off the coast to hold hard drug dealers and smugglers (forever) with no bars or cages. The island is the prison. Soft drug dealers be fined up their kazoo so indirectly they are contributing to society. Soft drug users be fined and cut off from any safety net (food stamps etc). Soft drug prices need to be reasonable otherwise Mexican drug cartels will under cut the prices.

Posted by WW. Terry | Report as abusive

Just keep everything the same…status quo…no real change in any policy, and we can assume that everything will stay exactly the same…
If alcohol or prescriptions were illegal, there would still be a market for that, and the violence that prohibition illicit…
The Drug Cartels don’t want any change in drug policy…
Perhaps some of the people getting paid off to look the other way, would rather keep the status quo, also..
And the jail business would suffer also, as people would need to be laid off, if non-violent drug offenders were released…
In this area, I don’t see any change we can believe in!
R.G. Madison, WI

Posted by Robert | Report as abusive

To the poster from South Dakota, your whole part of the country is filled with Neanderthal, petty thinking (a la Dick Cheney…and yes I know he’s not from your state).
However, Cheney’s mindset is prevalent there, and that is what makes your region a backwater.

So it is not a surprise the upper western states will have their heads up their a…. for as long as possible. I suggest moving or engaging the system and changing it.

I boycott your entire region based on it’s “Cheney-like” attitudes. Won’t buy anything from your parts,visit it …. or have anything to do with its inhabitants.

Let’s hope Dick Cheney dies soon and your region joins the 21st century.

Posted by Sonny | Report as abusive

gobal tax
Are you just stuped or are you from the middle east? cutting ppls finger off for a failed drug test omg get real will ya???? AM all for a eye for a eye but you take the cake. The ONLY reasonable answer to this is tax it and make it legel that way we can controll it and regalage it like beer and cigs. Gov. ports of emtry sounds like a good idea to me at lest for starters. what we’v been doing for years aint working so maybe we should try soemthing new.

Posted by warmarine | Report as abusive

Great column! The “war” on drugs is lost. We are broke. We are paying for police and prison guards to babysit people who did nothing but get busted with drugs. Alcohol is a far more dangerous drug than pot.

Drug laws are a license for the gov’t to steal and take away civil rights. Police and gov’t agencies have a huge incentive for drug busts…they get to KEEP the cars, money etc. from those convicted of drug offenses!

So let me get this straight. I can run someone over with my car and kill them, but I get to keep the car. If I’m caught selling drugs, then the state has the “right” to confiscate my car, my house, my money.

It is way past time this farce was dealt with in an adult manner. People will use drugs. Some will even
become president. Some unluckier ones will have felony
drug convictions and lose their student loans and never
get a job.

Posted by Drug "War" is Lost Cause | Report as abusive

Advocates of legalizing illicit drugs think all the problems will go away if we just “legalize and tax them.” Proponents of such a strategy are either users driven by self-interest, or woefully ignorant of the realities of drug abuse. As a prosecutor, I see daily what addiction to drugs does to people. I spoke to a heroin addict recently, who told me he’d broken into roughly 1,000 houses. His life? Steal- pawn – buy drugs – get high – repeat. We don’t see people breaking into houses to get cigarettes or alcohol. We rarely see people overdosing and dying from alcohol. Legalizing drugs such as heroin, cocaine and other hard street drugs would skyrocket crime – - I’d venture 80-90% of the property crime in my county is driven by drug abuse. Legalizing it means easier supply – but more addicts, who won’t be able to hold a job, and will need money for their fix. Do you know why they call heroin addicts “junkies”? Because they’ll steal anything – including junk – to sell to get money for their high.

My philosophy? Users get treatment for first time possession. They commit a crime other than possession? They do time, drugs are not an “excuse” for crime in my book. Dealers go to prison. Forfeit money and assets of the dealers to take the profit out of dealing. I’ve put dealers who gave drugs to young people (15, 21) in prison. The young people? The didn’t get prosecuted. Why? Oh, yeah, they are deceased from overdose.

Posted by Drug Warrior | Report as abusive

When my children grow up, I will not hold a grudge against a bartender for serving them a beer. But I will hold that grudge against anyone who would give our loved ones heroin. Thankfully, there is a legal response to deal with those who would give strong drugs to those we care about. If strong drugs are legalized, our efforts to keep loved ones clean of addiction will become illegal.

Posted by Dennis | Report as abusive

I guess everyone is entitled to an opinion – no matter how wrongheaded it is. Comparing the criminalization of illicit drugs to prohibition is just plain ridiculous. Ditto the comment about cops, prosecutors, and judges trying to “grow” their business. Trust me, I’d have plenty to do as a prosecutor otherwise.

Alcohol and drugs are not the same. Alcohol can be abused, to be sure; but it can be consumed safely. Many illicit drugs, in large measure, cannot.

Leave that aside for a moment. The WAR on drugs is NOT just against the cartels and major distributors. The true WAR on drugs is those abusers who commit crime to get those few dollars to buy heroin or coke. Even if the possession of either was not a felony, ancillary crime would stay high? Why? Generally, an addict has no other means to get money OTHER than to steal from you or me to support his or her habit.

Make it “legal” to possess and use will just result in more addicts, and more property crime to support their habits. Legal doesn’t mean “free.” Junkies still need those few dollars to feed their habit.

Drugs are not “harmless.” I’ve prosecuted dealers in several OD death cases – including two women who provided powerful Rx drugs to a 15 y.o. who died from an O.D. Fifteen. Dead. Overdosed.

So, yeah… let’s legalize drugs and tax them… and then I’ll deal with the carnage, while you move on to Global Warming, or something else you know little about.

Posted by Drug Warrior | Report as abusive