The most widely used tool to keep drugs produced in other countries from entering the U.S. and other consumer countries is drug interdiction.

From 2010-2014, heroin seizures totaling 5 tons grew by 81%, while the heroin seized at the U.S.-Mexico border grew 120%, representing 44% of the total interdicted. Over the 9-year period ending in 2014, the increase in heroin seized on the U.S. southern border is even more alarming, skyrocketing 6.3x.

Comparatively, —and consistent with the major decline in consumption—cocaine seizures during the same period fell by 83%. The number of marijuana-related arrests from 2010-2014 declined by 41%, although a different indicator and perhaps reflective of growing marijuana legalization. In general, large drug seizures are made through interdictions either at the U.S.-Mexico border, at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard, and in transit countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras themselves. The total spent by the U.S. on interdiction efforts grew from $1.7 billion in FY2003 to $4 billion in FY2012 but has stayed relatively flat ever since. The budget for all supply side reduction measures grew from $9.8 billion to $15.3 billion during the same period.

Although many experts believe that interdiction ultimately has a minor impact on the amount of drugs entering the U.S., they do make it more expensive to traffic a drug like cocaine. Increasing the cost to traffic drugs is seen as a positive policy tool because it acts like a tax, thereby reducing consumption, but also perversely creating incentives to traffic drugs. Studies show that a 10% increase in the price of cocaine reduces consumption by 5-10%. Beyond a certain point, however, tougher interdiction has a marginal effect on price. Traffickers, in addition to the financial loss they can incur, also run the risk of incarceration, physical harm and even death.

Given the potential to curb consumption through higher prices, and the significant amount of resources dedicated to interdiction, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness the policy itself. While few such studies have been done, one performed by Daniel Mejia (2010) to assess the effectiveness of interdiction and crop eradication under Plan Colombia revealed less than promising results. For every additional dollar invested in interdiction, it was estimated that the amount of cocaine reaching the U.S. declined by 0.29%. According to the same study, the results for money allocated to crop eradication were even worse.

Increased interdiction efforts also tend to shift trafficking routes. During the 1980s, most of the cocaine entering the U.S. came through the Caribbean. As the DEA and international law enforcement focused their efforts there, routes began to shift from Colombia to Mexico via the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts during the 90s. Both the subsequent crackdown on the Medellin and Cali cartels in the 80s and 90s and the greater need by the cartels to use the Mexican border to smuggle drugs to into the U.S., led to a gradual shift in the strength of the Colombian cartels towards the Mexican drug organizations, which are now some of the world’s most powerful.

Felipe Calderon’s administration waged its war against the Mexican cartels from 2007-2012, altering trafficking patterns yet again. This time routes were re-directed overland through Central America (mainly through Honduras and Guatemala), although there are recent signs of emerging smuggling back through the Caribbean.

The results of such studies should give some pause to policy makers when allocating resources, even for strategies like interdiction. While interdiction contains drug consumption by increasing price, future interdiction efforts should focus more on the drug organizations that exacerbate the costs of drug trafficking the most, mainly through corruption and violence, especially when it is egregious and borne by innocent bystanders. Accepting that the ills created by drugs can really only be contained is not admitting defeat. It simply acknowledges that such costs should be minimized while recognizing that drugs can never be eradicated entirely from society.

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Posted by Anaïs Faure