Several members of the Bush administration have pushed the line that if you buy illegal drugs, you're funding terrorism. Is that true?
The answer is yes - partly - but it's their fault. The laws against drugs are what create the market in which drugs are so incredibly profitable. There's no other reason a coca bush should be worth more than a privet shrub. Without prohibition, terrorists could no more profit from drugs than from growing bananas. They'd have to turn to other sorts of funding.
Well, FARC in Colombia has made a fair bit by kidnapping people, and before the Soviet Union fell, terrorist organizations were funding themselves through subsidies from Communist governments. But today nothing is so lucrative as drugs; kill prohibition and you hit their bottom line.
How much do these groups depend on drug money?
Well they're all in pretty deep. FARC in Columbia, ELN, and AUC - three factions that are at war either with themselves or the central government - rely on profits from either taxing the drug trade in the areas that they patrol, or from protection money, or from growing the drugs themselves. According to a confidential 2003 Columbia government report, it is impossible to tell the difference between the AUC groups and the traffickers. The same report claimed that AUC drew up to 80 percent of its money from trafficking.
Before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban oversaw the production of 70 percent of the world's opium poppies. Osama bin Laden administered their profits, laundering them through the Russian mob. He pulled in about 10 or 15 percent of the total, which gave him an estimated annual income of $1 billion, and that kind of money can buy a lot of flight lessons.
This has been going on for a while. In 1984, the U.S. Justice Department estimated that Yasser Arafat's PLO procured about 40 percent of its light weaponry by trading hash and heroin.
You come down hard on the police for drugs-inspired corruption. What has modern prohibition done to law enforcement?
Modern prohibition provides an incredible incentive for cops to go bad, in little ways and in big ways.
The big are embodied in cops like Joseph Miedzianowski. People around the case referred to him as the most corrupt cop in the history of Chicago, which is quite an achievement considering the kind of corruption that comes out of Chicago. He was busted in 1998 after a long and fruitful career of dope pedaling, extortion, lying to obtain search warrants, torturing suspects, stealing money, stealing jewels, stealing guns, even ratting out the identity of an undercover cop to a gang member.
Amazing amounts of corruption have come from the profits and the power that police are able to pull from their involvement in the drug trade.
What if cops aren't so overtly corrupt? Are there other ways that drug prohibition effect them?
There are subtle things. It's difficult to make drug arrests because people keep their drug use secret and quiet. One thing that comes up time and again are cops who basically lie about the facts regarding a search so that they can make the search legal on paper even if it wasn't legal in fact.
Then there are cops who plant drugs on suspects because they want to make busts, sometimes for reasons that go beyond drug enforcement. Sometimes they are involved in the drug trade and they are busting a rival, or helping a partner deal with a competitor. There is an awful lot of opportunity for corruption, and police are in the difficult position of not only being very close to lawbreaking but often the only ones who know about it. So they're able to justify all kinds of ill behavior.
What were some of the more surprising cases that you uncovered for the chapter on smuggling?
Smuggling reflects the most profound thing about human nature, and that is that human beings will do anything if the payoff is big enough.
And when I say anything, I mean anything: dig under the southern border with incredible tunnels, some of which have been open for years. I mention one in "Bad Trip" that was discovered just south of San Diego. Authorities estimated that it had been open for 10 or 20 years shuttling drugs through. This thing had lights, ventilation ducts, the whole thing. They found a quarter ton of pot in the tunnel when they got there, which means that the people who were operating it were probably alerted to the fact that there was a raid and all got out fine.
That points to problems with enforcement but it also shows the incredible amount of ingenuity and craft that people will put into their smuggling. It includes things like building submarines, training pigeons how to carry packets of drugs across borders. It includes smuggling substances inside of things, disguising them as other things, including taking opium and soaking blankets with it and smuggling the blankets, taking cocaine and mixing it with plastic and fiberglass resin and creating things out of it like dog kennels and bathtubs, and then extracting the cocaine once it's across the border. There's no way to test for it without testing every single item: you can't smell it, can't see it. The only way cops can get it is if they're actually taking chips out of these products and testing them.
What does the drug trade tell us about how markets work?
It tells us that markets work really well. Faustino Ballve, the economist, calls black markets the true market, because they're the only markets actually dealing with reality instead of pawing vigorously against it. When people have incentives, people are able to deliver, and there's really no way around that. It's a fact of human nature, and there's no beating human nature.
Are government efforts making a dent in the supply of drugs?
Not really. We've had drug prohibition in this country since 1914, and yet every administration since Nixon has had to jack up its enforcement budgets, and we're seeing very little in the way of results.
In the '90s, what happened to the price of drugs?
Consistently, they dropped. With cocaine, the downward slump was not huge, but with heroin it was pretty strong. Prices in general for drugs seem to be on the decline.
This occurred at the same time as crime rates fell. Does that mean more drugs equal less crime?
Dropping prices can definitely mean increased supply. It could mean other things too, but it's an interesting fact that the only type of crime that began rising in the late '90s while every other type of crime was going down, was gang crime - street crime. That's the crime most closely associated with the drug trade. It was responsible for half of the murders in Los Angeles.
So I don't know that more drugs equals less crime in any causal way, but you could certainly make the argument that drug prohibition is increasing crime, and if you were to lighten up the thumbscrews on enforcement, you'd see crime drop.
"Bad Trip" has been marketed to a mostly conservative audience. How have right-wingers received it?
The response has been mixed. Some traditional conservatives see the overreach of government as a very ominous problem. They're ticked off about a number of overreaches of the state - recently from Republicans - - and they fold this into their general disdain about the growth of government.
Others simply argue that drugs are bad and drugs need to be gotten rid of. For some reason, they can argue that the government is a poor solution for things like retirement and welfare but it's the perfect solution for dealing with drugs, even though history and practical experience say otherwise.
Why has drug legalization been such a dead letter politically?
Nobody wants to go on record as being for drugs. There's just something about, you know, "I am running for office and I support the legalization of PCP" that does not register well with voters. Voters with little historical, economic, or political insight into the drug problem are not likely to cast ballots for someone who wants to change the status quo.
How would a Kerry administration drug policy differ from Bush's, if at all?
Well, last year, Kerry said that he would stop the federal drug raids on medical marijuana patients. That would be nice. It's about time state attorneys general got some stones anyway and threw down the gauntlet to the feds on that. Some federal cooperation in stopping the harassment would be helpful.
But I don't think it would be a major switch. If there's anything that's been consistent among administrations - with the anomaly, maybe, of Carter - it's that drug prohibition is popular and well received. Kerry has already indicated support for administrative positions for people who are hardcore drug warriors. And it's really not in his best interest politically to go on the line and be against prohibition. The best we'd probably see is more of the same.
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