Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Drugs, terrorism and security

Today one of the talk shows on NPR was dealing with the drug situation and the recent shooting of a Mexican police officer. I then found an entry on Hometown Security about the first arrest in connection with drug trafficking and terrorism. Both of these stories caused me to reflect on the 7 years of commanding the Ohio National Guard Task Force. The National Guard supports law enforcement agencies in drug interdiction efforts as well as supporting community-based organizations in drug demand reduction efforts. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) or more commonly known as the drug czar’s office directed this dual-approach. Drug law enforcement agencies (federal, state and local) spend a large amount of money investigating drug crimes, arresting suspects and seizing illegal narcotics (as well as guns, cash and other property associated with drug activity). Administrators and elected officials need to be able to justify the expenditure of time and resources by these agencies so often the amounts of drugs seized, the number of arrests or the dollar value of assets are quoted. Unfortunately, the numbers only tell part of the story. Each time a drug dealer or organization is arrested, there are several more ready to take over. For every ton of illegal drugs seized, many more are being smuggled in or are being manufactured.

In the mid-90s, it became apparent that interdiction efforts weren’t going to be enough. So long as people kept buying drugs, there would always be people willing to smuggle or manufacture those drugs for sale. ONDCP began to suggest drug demand strategies theorizing that by reducing the demand for drugs it would curtail the drug traffickers. Every community has some type of drug demand reduction program, either through their police department or some local community based organization interested in reducing drug crime. There have been many excellent programs but even so the demand for drugs has only been to a minor degree (some may even argue not at all). The problem with drug demand strategies is a very basic one. Maintaining behavior learned during these programs once they end is almost impossible. The programs also assume that most people don’t want to use drugs. This assumption may not always be the case for the attendee or the assumption may change over time. In either event, demand reduction and interdiction efforts have yet to reduce the drug problem.

The illegal drug business generates billions of dollars in revenues for those at the very top. And make no mistake, the illegal drug trade is very much a business. During the late 90s, the Colombian drug cartels had pretty much hit saturation of the US market for cocaine and crack. The cartels decide to look at new markets and began marketing a higher grade of heroin. Previously, heroin sold on the street was of such a low concentration it had to be diluted and then injected to effect the user (the prototypical junkie). The cartels found out that potential new users didn’t have problem with abusing heroin but did not want to become “junkies”. The higher grade heroin could be snorted or smoked and thus avoided the junkie image. It was a hit and new market was created.

At the same time, other drugs started to become prevalent to include ecstasy and methamphetamine. These drugs became popular at clubs and especially raves. While methamphetamine (or meth) can be manufactured virtually anywhere by anyone, ecstasy can only be manufactured in a lab. Most of the ecstasy found in the United States is manufactured in Europe and is trafficked almost exclusively by the Russian mob. The Russian mob first made their appearance on the East Coast in the early 90s. The Russian mod was primarily made up of former Soviet Army soldiers or KGB agents. One of the effects of the Soviet Union demise were thousands of unemployed soldiers and secret police. They found new careers using their skills in illegal activities and the drug trade seemed ready made for most of them. They are well trained and absolutely ruthless.

When the Soviet empire fell not only were their soldiers left without paychecks, so were the numerous terrorist organizations that had benefited from Soviet sponsorship. Terrorists did not stop their various campaigns but they did have to find a new source of funding. Drug cartels had plenty of money and needed operatives willing to kill their enemies. Colombian drug cartels had for years played on anti-American feelings by locals who felt North America had forsaken them in favor of European or Asian trading partners. Afghanistan poppy growers are equally adept at fanning anti-American feelings to support their burgeoning heroin business. Even home grown terrorists have turned to drugs as a way of funding their efforts. Many of the militia groups that were opposed to the federal government in the late 90s turned to the manufacture and sale of methamphetamine as a means of generating revenue for the actions.

The United States has tried for the last 20 years to arrive at a solution to the drug problem. Perhaps it is time to look at things differently if we hope to increase the security of our homeland. First it appears that regardless of what we say, there are people who still want to abuse drugs. I am NOT suggesting we legalize drugs, merely recognize that we may be making a faulty assumption that people don’t was to abuse drugs. The other problem is mandatory sentences for drug convictions. People are being sent to prison in untold numbers resulting in overcrowding at a huge expense to the taxpayer for merely possessing drugs. I’m not sure that a drug addict is the same as a murderer By mandating a prison sentence for drug possession, other more dangerous criminals are being let go early. Rather than require a prison sentence for drug convictions perhaps it would be better to view addiction as a medical problem. Yes, I know our medical system may not be up to the task either but we have to try something different otherwise we will never be able to reduce the revenues for drug trafficking.

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