At last, the nation allegedly has turned the corner in the war on drugs. In May, 1998, Attorney General Janet Reno and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin announced more than 100 indictments and the seizure of about $150,000,000 from Mexican banks, representing a successful conclusion to "the largest, most comprehensive drug money laundering case in history." The drug lords surely must be on the ropes now.
However, news watchers have heard those words before. It seems that not a month goes by without a report of "New Hampshire's biggest drug bust," "the biggest drug bust in middle Georgia history," "the largest drug bust ever in the United States outside of Florida," or "the largest drug bust in history."
Law enforcement agents and journalists love those stories. They publicize the "success" of the war on drugs and offer the media great visuals and numbers. Helpful police press officers invariably provide exciting dollar figures--cocaine with a street value of $3,300,000; $20,000,000; $73,000,000; $2,000,000,000....
In a 1991 San Francisco case, billed as the biggest heroin bust ever, TV cameras panned over 59 boxes containing 1,080 pounds of heroin--enough to supply each of the country's estimated 500,000 heroin addicts for a month. Drug war officials said the street value of the heroin was between $2,700,000,000 and $4,000,000,000.
It is true that the drug warriors are interdicting more narcotics at America's borders all the time. Seizures of cocaine rose from 9,000 kilograms in 1983 to 80,000 kilograms in 1989 to 108,000 kilos in 1997. Yet, does that indicate success? More likely, it means that more drugs are crossing U.S. borders, and officials are interdicting about the same percentage as before. As Mark A.R. Kleiman, a specialist on drug policy at Harvard University, said about the California raid, "For any shipment like this that you catch, you can assume that many more get through."
When Americans read about ever-larger drug busts, or when they watch television shows about drug enforcement, they get the impression that drug enforcement agents are clever and innovative, always staying one step ahead of the sinister pushers. In reality, the drug distributors are the innovative ones, because they have a financial incentive to be.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other law enforcement agencies are bureaucracies and, like all bureaucracies, they tend to be inefficient. Police officers and drug agents get paid whether they slow drug traffic or not. In fact, they may receive more funding if the drug problem gets worse. Drug dealers, on the other hand, are entrepreneurs. If they outwit the officers, they make big money. That economic incentive spurs creativity, innovation, and efficiency. Every week brings reports of innovations in drug smuggling: people who swallow heroin and carry it into the U.S. in their stomachs; drags placed in the luggage of...