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What Darwin Teaches About the Drug War

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."

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.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Sanho Tree

Sanho Tree

Sanho Tree is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, a community of scholars and organizers linking peace, justice, and the environment in the U.S. and globally. www.ips-dc.org

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