Thursday, December 27, 2007

What Darwin Teaches Us About the Drug War

DECEMBER 26, 2007

by Sanho Tree

With every passing year the drug problem seems to get worse. The U.S. government responds by pumping billions more dollars into the war on drugs. Federal spending for this “war without end” is more than twenty times what it was in 1980 and still the drug traffickers appear to be winning. Despite more than six billion dollars spent on “Plan Colombia” alone, cocaine production has actually increased in that country. Now the Bush Administration is asking for $1.4 billion more to aid the Mexican government’s drug crackdown through the “Merida Initiative.”

Although it may seem counterintuitive, the “law and order” response by our politicians only intensifies the problem. Instead, they might turn to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to glean insight as to why these “common sense” reactionary solutions often are counterproductive. As illegal drugs become easier to obtain and more potent, politicians respond in a knee-jerk manner by ramping up law enforcement. After all, drugs are bad so why not escalate the war against drugs? Politicians get to look tough in front of voters, the drug war bureaucracy is delighted with ever expanding budgets, and lots of low-level bad guys get locked up. Everyone wins – including, unfortunately, the major drug traffickers.

As politicians intensified the drug war decade after decade, an unintended consequence began to appear. These “get tough” policies have caused the drug economy to evolve under Darwinian principles (i.e., survival of the fittest). Indeed, the drug war has stimulated this economy to grow and innovate at a frightening pace.

By escalating the drug war, the kinds of people the police typically capture are the ones who are dumb enough to get caught. These criminal networks are occasionally taken down when people within the organization get careless. Thus, law enforcement tends to apprehend the most inept and least efficient traffickers. The common street expression puts it best: “the dealer who uses, loses.” Conversely, the kinds of people law enforcement tends to miss are the most cunning, innovative and efficient traffickers.

It’s as though we have had a decades-long unintended policy of artificial selection. Just as public health professionals warn against the overuse of antibiotics because it can lead to drug resistant strains of bacteria, our overuse of law enforcement has thinned out the trafficking herd so that the weak and inefficient traffickers get captured or killed and only the most proficient dealers survive and prosper. Indeed, U.S. drug war policies have selectively bred “super-traffickers.”

Charles Darwin

Politicians cannot hope to win a war on drugs when their policies ensure that only the most efficient trafficking networks survive. Not only do they survive, but they thrive because law enforcement has destroyed the competition for them by picking off the unfit traffickers and letting the most evolved ones take over the lucrative trafficking space. The destruction of the Medellin and Cali cartels, for instance, only created a vacuum for hundreds of smaller (and more efficient) operations. Now the police cannot even count the number of smaller cartels that have taken over – much less try to infiltrate and disrupt them.

Moreover, the police have constricted the supply of drugs on the street while the demand remains constant thus driving up prices and profits for the remaining dealers. Increasing drug interdiction creates an unintended price support for drug dealers which, in turn, lures more participants into the drug economy. Of all the laws that Congress can pass or repeal, the law of supply and demand is apparently not one of them.

A public health approach to dealing with illicit drugs should take precedence over “law and order” approaches. Treatment and prevention must take priority over interdiction and eradication because drugs are a demand-driven problem. Politicians, however, continue to devote most drug funding toward cutting the supply. The proposed aid package for the notoriously corrupt Mexican drug war establishment would be better spent on providing treatment for addicts in the United States. Over reliance on politically expedient “get tough” policies will only continue an endless spiral of drug trafficking evolution.

reproduced with permission


Sanho Tree is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC and directs its Drug Policy Project. The Institute for Policy Studies is the only multi-issue progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. Through books, articles, films, conferences, and activist education IPS offers resources for progressive social change locally, nationally, and globally.


Anonymous said...

The lure of massive relatively risk free profit is probably sufficient explanation for the emergence of more effective criminal supply networks.The Darwinian explanation is too reductive and places far too much weight on on the power of Law enforcement to make the argument. When dealers used to be enthusiastic amateurs they were often taken out or taken over by organised criminals operating on a more assertive basis especially using violence against competitors and police.Organised criminals were also able to use corruption of law enforcement and other officials. The effect of this approach is certainly a massive increase of availability but in the UK this has also been accompanied by reductions in costs and an increase in purity in some markets. From my perspective law enforcement practice has always lagged far behind the abilities of criminal organisations and may always do so. Yes it is true that prohibition creates the profit margins through distorted supply and demand but I don't think that Darwin tells us more than simple economics.

Anonymous said...

I disagree.

The fact the drug supply operates outside the justice system (which acts against Darwinian Survival of the Fittest dynamics) means it is fully exposed to forces of natural selection that do not operate to the same degree in "legal" society. The article is completely spot on in it's thesis and tallys with my experience. The pressure of law enforcement means that dealers who have been "taxed" (ie beaten up and robbed of their drugs by violent criminal dealers) cannot resort to the justice system for restitution. Consequently those dealers either move out of the market or escalate their levels of violence in order to survive. This process inexorably leads to more violence in the distribution network, with more and more shady characters who are prepared to use all necessary force to survive, compete and overcome competitors through similar use of brute force. Nature, red in tooth and claw!
These criminals truly operate in Survival of the Fittest mode, a Darwinian imperative. The justice system works against this imperative and so long as drugs remain illegal, the two law of Supply and Demand and Survival of the Fittest will continue to operate, a true Darwinian cycle.