America's unwinnable war on drugs: Bernd Debusmann

Thu Jul 3, 2008 12:45pm EDT

(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

By Bernd Debusmann

SAN YSIDRO, California (Reuters) - Looking south out of a window at the busiest border crossing in the world, the phrase looking for needles in a haystack comes to mind, along with the realization that America's war on drugs cannot be won. Unless the laws of supply and demand are miraculously suspended.

What you see from the window looks like a gigantic traffic jam slowly moving along 24 lanes stretching from Tijuana, on the Mexican side of the border, towards inspection booths where agents of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection check identity papers and decide whether to wave a vehicle through or order it into "secondary inspection" for hidden drugs or people.

There is no day without drug busts and arrests. There is, in all probability, not a day when no drug loads slip through three layers of inspections. The brutal wars Mexico's drug cartels are waging against each other in major cities south of the border are largely over access to gateways into the U.S., the world's most lucrative market for illicit drugs.

How big is that market? According to expert testimony to a Congressional committee in June, revenues from illicit drug sales in the U.S generated about $60 billion in 2000, the last year the government compiled figures for an annual report on drug spending. To get that $60 billion into context: it equals what the 22 rich industrialized countries spend on foreign aid to the world's poor.

As President George W. Bush phrased it at the beginning of his first term in office: "The main reason why drugs are shipped through Mexico to the United States is because United States citizens use drugs."

The United States leads the world in using marijuana and cocaine, according to a study by World Health Organisation researchers published this week. It was based on a survey of 54,000 people in 17 countries.

The statistics about the San Ysidro port of entry, some 20 miles south from San Diego, are mind-boggling: an average of 150,000 people enter the United States there every day, some 30,000 walking through turnstiles and into a long tunnel, the rest in 53,000 vehicles.

"That means one out of every eight people that enter the United States, whether it be by land, air or sea enter through here," says Assistant Port Director William Ward.

LOW-TECH, HIGH-TECH

Ward, whose airy office provides the grandstand view of the multi-colored river of metal rolling north, has seen San Ysidro's personnel grow from 60 officers to 850, working round the clock, assisted by high-tech radiation monitors to detect nuclear material that could be used for a dirty bomb and low-tech help in the form of dogs to sniff out drugs and people.

On a recent visit, an 8-year-old German shepherd named Dada demonstrated the dogs' ability to pick up the faintest odor traces. She dragged her handler across two lanes to a white pickup truck and pointed her nose to its spare tire. It turned out to be stuffed full of packets of marijuana, tightly wrapped in plastic and blue masking tape, some 30 kg in all. It was the first of five marijuana seizures that day, totaling 139.2 kg.

The driver, a burly man in his 30s, was led away in handcuffs, to eventually join the roughly half a million people who are behind U.S. bars for drug offences on any given day.

While cocaine tends to dominate the headlines and the drug debate in Washington, the bulk of the drugs seized at San Ysidro is marijuana, the most widely used illegal substance in the United States by a large margin. "27 percent of all the marijuana seizures nationwide occur here," according to Ward.

Marijuana use has been flat for the past few years, with an estimated 15 million Americans using the drug. In large parts of the country, it is more easily available than alcohol for Americans under 21, the legal drinking age.

Since President Richard Nixon first declared war on drugs in 1969, seven successive administrations have pursued strategies that focused not on reducing demand but on eradicating drug crops abroad -- in Latin America and Asia -- blocking shipments at the country's borders, and enforcing tough drug laws at home. The cost has been staggering.

John Walsh, a drug policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank, estimates U.S. government spending on drug control between 1970 and this year at $920 billion (adjusted for inflation). The returns have been unimpressive. Despite temporary blips, the price of illicit drugs has declined steadily over the past three decades.

One of the reasons for the uninterrupted flow is what drug experts call the balloon effect. You squeeze it in one place and it bulges out in another. You eradicate a coca or marijuana field in one area and it is replanted in another. You fortify one part of the 2,000-mile border with Mexico and smugglers switch to another route.

Or burrow underground. "They've been building more tunnels under the border," Ward said. Agents take that as a measure of their success but it does little to stop the flow. Only a drop in demand would do that. The prospect of that happening is remote.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)

(Editing by Sean Maguire)

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