An Inside Look at the Drug War Vs. Civilization

By Sanho Tree 02/05/14

In which one of the world’s foremost drug war experts stacks up the madness of it with “holy sh*t” details. Part 1 of a two part series. Part 2, coming tomorrow, explores the emerging “thank God already” sanity.


Sanho Tree is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and director of its Drug Policy Project, which works to end the domestic and international “War on Drugs” and replace it with policies that promote public health and safety. The project focuses on both the dysfunction of domestic politics and the collateral damage caused by the U.S. exporting its failed drug war to Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico, Afghanistan and other countries. The project develops new mechanisms to establish humane and sustainable alternatives to the drug war, such as tax and regulate models of cannabis control. Sanho has been featured in over a dozen documentary films and has appeared in hundreds of print and broadcast interviews. This two-part series is an edited version of a talk Tree gave which was recorded by Alternative Radio in Colorado.

We unfortunately live in a society that likes to talk in simple dichotomies—good or bad, yes or no, black or white. It carries over very often into the way we talk about drug policy. Historically, when I would debate drug warriors, because I would be critical of prohibition and the war on drugs, they would say, “Oh, so you want to sell heroin in candy machines to children.” No. I actually want more control over these substances. The myth of prohibition is that prohibition doesn’t mean you control drugs. It means you give up the right to control drugs.

We need to talk about the spectrum of possibilities. Every society that has ever existed on planet Earth has found a different way to organize its economics, its politics, its culture—from totalitarian fascism on one end to anarchism on the other, and everything in between. That also applies to drugs. There is a great span of options between total prohibition and total free-market anarchy. So I want to flesh that out.

For me, ending drug prohibition is the key. Once you do that, then everything else is a question of regulation—what do you choose to regulate or not regulate. Like cannabis. You are quite familiar in Colorado with legalizing and regulating cannabis. We know how to do that. We know how to do that with alcohol and with more problematic substances, like cocaine and heroin. We have lots of data on how to do harm reduction and how to do good prevention, though it’s not really practiced.  

But there are also other drugs that we may not want to legalize. Methamphetamines, for instance. There aren’t many happy endings for long-term meth users, or crocodile, which is the latest craze, this Russian drug. It doesn’t mean, however, that if there is high demand, you necessarily have to prohibit it and make it illegal and have draconian penalties, because then you set up the dynamics of a black market once again. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you would legalize it either. You don’t want to sell it in state stores.

And even if you do have legalization of opiates, there are a number of countries in the world that are experimenting and practicing now with opiate substitution therapy, heroin maintenance programs. For addicts who can’t give up heroin on their own, haven’t adapted to methadone and for whom all other treatment modalities have failed, they have found that these programs can be useful. It doesn’t mean you can walk into a pharmacy and say, “Doc, hey, you know, I heard a lot of great things about this heroin. I want to try that.” It doesn’t work that way. There are lots of different ways to regulate and have more control over these substances. That’s what I mean by legalization or ending the drug war.

One of the reasons it’s been tough to change things is that the drug czar’s office, the DEA , speak with such certainty that only they have the right numbers, the right formula, and they can’t be questioned. And there haven’t been many members of Congress, historically, willing to question them. Now this has been thrown wide open. When you look at the fact that marijuana [approval in Colorado] got more votes than Obama or Romney, it sends a clear message to a lot of politicians. This is no longer a third-rail political issue, as it has been historically.

Unfortunately, the most toxic third-rail issues are the ones that have counter-intuitive solutions, where the obvious answer is very often the wrong answer. Drug policy is one of those problems. That’s why it’s been so difficult for politicians to frame and communicate to the electorate in a way that they will remember at election time when they go into the voting booths. A lot of politicians are afraid of dealing with smear ads. They’re almost always distorted, but they’re effective, unfortunately. It’s much easier to say that your opponent is soft on drugs and is going to addict your children than it is to explain why prohibition has failed, why it can’t work, and why we need to have a model that will actually give us more control over these substances rather than less through the black market.

I usually travel with a prop. It’s the Mexican finger trap, or the Chinese finger cuffs. That’s an illustration of counter-intuitive thinking. If you give it to a child, the first reaction to get out of this trap is to pull harder and harder. And the harder you pull, the stucker you get. That’s the problem with the war on drugs: The more prohibition, the more valuable you make the drugs. The more valuable the drugs are, the more people get attracted to this economy. And you will never make these substances disappear by making them astronomically more valuable, which is what we’ve been doing for decades now. 

When we talk about heroin, cocaine, marijuana, these are minimally processed agricultural commodities. Remember that if you remember nothing else. Remember that these drugs are incredibly cheap and easy to make. They’re not exotic. There’s no reason they should be worth what they’re worth on the street today in terms of the black market. It’s our policies that make these substances so incredibly valuable.


is that as long as there’s high demand, as long as the consumers in the street are willing to pay that final street price, you can throw all kinds of law enforcement at this problem and it will only make it worse. Let’s say hypothetically that you can buy a kilo of pure cocaine in the streets of Medellin, Colombia, for about $1500. It will fluctuate from time to time a little bit, but it’s $1500, roughly. By the time you smuggle that kilo into the U.S., into our major metropolitan centers, and by the time the dealers cut that kilo into little gram bags and dilutes it with whatever garbage they’re going to cut the stuff with to stretch the profits, you can get about $150,000 for that exact same kilogram. So what the users are paying for are transportation costs - or, more specifically, the risks associated with transportation.

For decade after decade we’ve had this war on drugs where a politician would say, “Oh, drugs are terrible. We have to have a war on this. And they’re everywhere, so let’s ramp up the drug war.” What happens when you do that? First, the risk to the smugglers at every step in the smuggling chain increases. Every time you cross an international border or a heavily patrolled area, you magically ramp up the price. You create an unintended price support for drug traffickers. Particularly when you cross the U.S. border, that being one of the most heavily policed. And the higher the potential prison sentence they may have to serve, the more law enforcement we throw at them, the greater the risk to each trafficker, the greater risk premium they can charge the next person down the smuggling chain. 

They would say, “Hey, things are getting really hairy this month. That kilo I sold you last month, it’s going to cost you 20% more this time. The Coast Guard is all over the place, the police have my photo. If you can find someone else who will sell it to you for the old price, go ahead, but this is the price going now.” As you cross each border, as it changes hands, this price builds up and builds up and builds up.  It’s the middlemen who make most of the money in this economy.

We’ve been giving such price support to our mortal enemies. One of the reasons the drug war has failed so miserably is that our politicians keep throwing more water to put out this fire. It seems to be common sense, right? You see a fire, you throw water onto it, right? Have you ever had a grease fire in your kitchen or an electrical fire? If you haven’t, don’t throw water on it. Just to give you a heads up right now. It will explode. That’s the problem with drug prohibition—that the conventional response, the knee-jerk response, tends to make the problem worse. It explodes. That’s what we’ve done spectacularly with the war on drugs. Again, minimally processed agricultural commodities. They should not be worth what they’re worth on the streets today. Pennies per dose.

Drug cartel is a misnomer, by the way. I use the term but a cartel implies that people are working together to fix prices and control the market, when in fact you have lots of rival drug-trafficking organizations fighting each other to death. They’re not cooperating, they’re competing. If you want to know what a cartel looks like, look at the health insurance industry in the U.S. That’s a cartel. 

So, in many respects we’ve reached the limits of what the drug war can do. No one is talking about winning the war on drugs anymore. They’re only talking about, “Well, if we stop what we’re doing, then things will get so much worse.” 

The reason things are so much worse is in many ways a direct result of prohibition. Prohibition backfires in so many ways.

Number one, in addition to creating a price support for drugs, we also end up evolving this drug economy at a lightning pace. The drug economy tends to evolve under Darwinian principles, so that the people we capture, as our politicians throw more and more resources at this problem, are the people who are dumb enough to get caught. No offense if anyone has ever been busted for anything, but the slang on the street is that “the dealer who uses loses.” 

You’ll get careless, you’ll get sloppy, you’ll get apprehended. That’s how it works in the drug economy, by and large. People get too boastful, they stay on the phone too long, they violate their own operational security, they get involved in turf wars, they call attention to themselves. They’re the ones who either get killed by rivals or get arrested. 

The smartest traffickers are the people we miss - the most innovative traffickers, the ones who keep their heads down and stick to the business of making lots of money smuggling drugs. So we have had this filtering effect. We’ve been fitting up the herd. It’s almost like we’ve had an unintended policy of artificial selection. We’ve been selecting for super-traffickers. You can’t possibly win a war on drugs when you ensure that only the most adaptable, the most efficient operations survive.

Not only do they survive, they thrive - because, again, we’ve done two things indirectly to help them. Number one, we’ve eliminated the competition for them. We’ve picked off the clumsy, inefficient traffickers and opened up this very lucrative economic space for them. And, number two, we’ve artificially tried to constrict the supply of drugs in the street while the demand remains constant, thereby driving up their prices and profits.

Some cynical commentators, myself included, might say that there is a symbiotic relationship between drug traffickers and drug warriors, because each without the other cannot make a reasonable living. Without the war on drugs, traffickers are moving minimally processed agricultural commodities that aren’t worth diddly, or very little relative to their current price. And without drug traffickers, there are no drug warriors - and this at the federal level is $26 billion a year and a lot of jobs at stake, and they don’t want to lose that. The last people who want the war on drugs to end are not just the drug traffickers but the drug warriors as well. 

It’s no coincidence, by the way, that when California voted on Prop. 19, the legalization initiative for marijuana in 2010, it got 46%, which was remarkable for an off-year election. But the Emerald Triangle, the three counties—Humboldt, Mendocino, Trinity—voted against Prop. 19. This is the marijuana-growing capital of the U.S. Some of them are second-generation growers. It’s a way of life. And they voted to keep prohibition. They want a little bit of prohibition, not too much. Maybe the person down the road gets busted, but not them. That’s a price support. Otherwise, the prices plummet. Think of Uruguay—a dollar a gram, 28 grams in an ounce. That’s incredibly cheap.

There will always be a market for different levels of quality and potency, and different varietals. It doesn’t mean that the prices will collapse completely. I don’t want to discourage too many people who are trying to evolve this economy here in Colorado. But the prices will come down when the risk of federal law enforcement is completely done away with nationwide. Then you might be able to see some more significant price drops.

The threat of federal intervention has kept prices up significantly. In California, where there have been lots of raids by the feds, partly because medical marijuana was passed by initiative and the language was not well worded, there’s lots of opportunities for the feds to intervene. Palm Springs, California, which sits in the middle of Riverside County, a huge county, 7,000 square miles. Is the only municipality within that county that allows medical marijuana dispensaries. Even though it’s “legal” in California, they’re still charging about $400 an ounce. These are black-market prices, these are East Coast prices. That’s the power of the threat of law enforcement—the risk premium they are able to get away with. 


We are also reaching limits in so many other ways. Technologically, not only do we have this Darwinian revolution of the traffickers, but their methodologies, their techniques of smuggling, are evolving at a lightning pace. It’s frightening and it's quite dangerous. In the old days they would smuggle in the trunk of a car or hidden compartments in vehicles. We got better at searching those at the border from Mexico. Then came NAFTA. We had tractor-trailers. Now we have X-ray scanners that can scan entire flatbed trucks. But they adapted. They adapted in incredibly diverse ways. 

Now that we have the wall that we built, “the great wall,” they’ve adapted to the wall very quickly. First we noticed they were bringing up tractor-trailers with ramps on them so they could literally drive over the wall. Then they realized that they can go old-school. They had Roman technology, catapults. They would literally catapult stuff over the wall. They’ve gotten more sophisticated in recent years. They’ve got pneumatic cannons now. Think of a giant T-shirt cannon, basically, mounted on the back of a pickup truck that just shoots these things over the wall to their accomplice on the other side. 

Then they realized, oh, the wall has 4-inch gaps in much of the wall to let migrating wildlife and whatever through, but not people. It didn’t take long for the smugglers to adapt their packages to 3 3/4 inches to literally slip through the wall. They’ve also gone under the wall, so there are hundreds of narco-tunnels—well, at least 100 have been discovered so far. In 2012 they found one in Tijuana that was nearly completed. These are very sophisticated tunnels now. They have rails, drainage, ventilation systems, electricity. It was almost operational when they busted it. And they found 40 tons of marijuana on the Mexican side waiting to go through that tunnel. Those tunnels work in both directions, so they can bring money back to Mexico: cash obtained through money laundering as well as guns, ammunition.

There are adaptations in the sky. They used to use small airplanes to smuggle. Then we got better with radar and interception. So at one point they were using old airliners, DC3s, even 727s. And they could crash them on the other side. They didn’t need to land them. That’s how much money there was. They could still make a huge profit. Now they’ve switched to ultralites, so those little hang-glider type planes. It’s enough for a passenger and they have a drop cage. They can carry a couple hundred pounds. So they literally fly over the wall but under the radar. And they just pull a lever and it drops the package to their accomplices.

On the seas, they used to use fishing boats and smuggle it in frozen shrimp or whatever. We developed countermeasures. They responded with go-fast boats, cigarette boats. And then we beefed up the Coast Guard and gave them faster boats. Then they switched to semi-submersible submarines. These are fiberglass things that are custom-made in the mangroves of Colombia. They can carry 4 to 8 tons at a time. They stay 90% underwater. They have a conning tower, which is the way they get their air and stuff. During the day they will throw a blue tarp over it and blend in with the ocean, and at night they will continue to sail north. As one DEA agent put it, “You try finding something the size of a log floating in the Pacific Ocean.” Good luck.

So we developed more technologies to try to find the conning towers, to find these subs. The Colombians now have resorted to fully submersible, proper submarines. They have engineers who will build these things. Again, they’re all custom-made. And they’re innovating. They’re using carbon fiber and other materials that the U.S. Navy can’t use, because Navy submarines have to dive deep and have all these specifications. These things only need to go 50 feet deep at most. You can move 8 to 10 tons at a time in these subs. It’s not a glamorous life, by any means. High Times actually did a story, interviewing some of these sailors who operate these vessels. It’s a hellish existence. Basically, the take-away words were “diesel” and “poop.” There’s no sanitation on board, and it’s full of fumes, but they’re very effective at what they do. And very, very difficult to stop.

Over and over again we’re running into these limits. It’s a dangerous downward spiral, because what we’ve done through the drug war and drug prohibition, is essentially set up an XPRIZE. If you can innovate and find ways to penetrate our homeland security, you stand to make a fortune. There are other people in this world who are not interested in smuggling drugs. They’re interested in smuggling more dangerous things, WMDs and whatnot. I’m not saying there’s a connection between drug traffickers and international terrorists. It’s not in their interest right now to help terrorists get into the U.S., because any drug organization that does this will feel the full weight of all law enforcement focused on them specifically. But maybe some lieutenant could be bribed in that organization to smuggle some people or dangerous substances in these tunnels or by these methods. 

From a homeland security perspective, this has made us very much less safe, because terrorists on their own could not have innovated all these different techniques for penetrating our border security. Time and again we end up making ourselves less safe from these policies.


Historically and still roughly through today, about two-thirds of the drug war budget goes to supply side - military, law enforcement, prisons, prosecutor - and less than a third goes to treatment and prevention and demand reduction. I think that should be, at minimum, flipped. Study after study shows that dollar for dollar it is far more effective to fund prevention and treatment than it is to go through law enforcement or interdiction or supply eradication, as we’ve done in Colombia. These are the most counterproductive ways of spending money.

But this is Washington we’re talking about. If you want to look tough, if you want to kick ass, you want to lock people up, show how tough you are, whether it’s wars or the war on drugs or whatever, there’s a blank check for you.  If you want to talk about treatment and prevention, that’s health and human services, that’s soft stuff, that’s social spending. You’re a tax-and-spend liberal. That’s the first thing they jettison. And we do this time and again to social programs. Then these same fiscal conservatives turn around and say, “Aha. You see, it doesn’t work. You can’t throw money at the problem. These policies can’t succeed.” Unless, of course, it’s Star Wars or something like that. Then they continue to throw money at it and it will never work. So it’s the Washington mentality.

That’s true of so many social issues, whether it’s mental health care or the homeless or whatever. God, it would be so much better if we funded them. And it would help with drug abuse and addiction as well. Because ultimately there is no substitute for building a healthy society, and that’s what we fail to do. Instead of building a social safety net, we have spent the past 30 years dismantling ours, such as it was. 

When I was born, Lyndon Johnson began his War on Poverty, the Great Society programs. Because we were a wealthy country, we could tackle some of these issues - it was high time that we did that. It was a guns-or-butter issue back then. War on Poverty or war in Vietnam? War in Vietnam wins, sucks up all the money. The War on Poverty never really gets off the starting block. That’s the last time we really took a serious whack at these social issues.

We have generations born into conditions of poverty, despair, alienation. There are so many communities I’ve been in where people don’t believe that tomorrow is going to be a better day. Go to inner-city Baltimore, many Rust Belt cities, go to Detroit, go to lots of different places, and you will see lots of people who think that their best days are behind them. And it’s true for a lot of them. It’s hard to argue otherwise, given the objective reality they’re living in. But our response to them as a society has been to say, "No, you need to be sober and have no job and no hope and no future and no opportunity." That is not going to work. 

We’re at that crossroads again. Guns or butter? Are we going to hire more police and prosecutors and build more prisons to deal with drug abuse and addiction? Which is about as effective as digging more graves to solve the international AIDS crisis. It really solves nothing. Or are we finally going to start investing in our domestic economy and social programs and give people a reason to look forward to tomorrow? Ultimately, not to sound cheesy, I think that’s the best prevention strategy—to give people a reason to look forward to tomorrow. That could be as easy as a job for a lot of people.

If you go to the Netherlands, historically they have had fairly liberal drug laws. The coffee shops are famous. But if you take a drug policy tour, they will show you the education system, public housing, the health care system - all these things that it takes to build a healthy individual. Then they will show you the coffee shops and the drug-control system. 

That’s the right order. Sequencing is everything, prioritization is everything.


The audio for this talk is available at 

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Sanho Tree.jpg

Sanho Tree is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and director of its Drug Policy Project, which works to end the domestic and international “War on Drugs” and replace it with policies that promote public health and safety. The project focuses on both the dysfunction of domestic politics and the collateral damage caused by the U.S. exporting its failed drug war to Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico, Afghanistan and other countries. The project develops new mechanisms to establish humane and sustainable alternatives to the drug war, such as tax and regulate models of cannabis control. Sanho has been featured in over a dozen documentary films and has appeared in hundreds of print and broadcast interviews. Follow Sanho on Twitter.