Fighting drug trafficking : aren’t we missing the point?

• 9 November 2015

By Frédéric Ney

While Netflix’s recent brilliant show Narcos reminded us of the devastating war on drugs that has struck countries such as Colombia and Mexico for decades, golden boys from well-to-do families in Wall Street and the City quietly keep inhaling their dose of coke. This phenomenon is no stranger to Switzerland’s safe hubs. While some, among the population, remain convinced that drugs, no matter hard or soft, should be kept illegal, others wonder whether decriminalization of (some types) of drugs should see the light of day. This ongoing worldwide debate calls for some thought on how to fight drug trafficking. Particularly at stake is the question of the efficiency of the law enforcement system : are the criminal sanctions dissuasive? But actually, who is more at fault between the dealer and the consumer?

1. The struggle against supply : the current paradigm

Part of the reflection has been conducted by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his book “Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison” (1975). Using the example of prison, Foucault observes that carceral institutions have become recruitment centers for delinquents, real colleges of delinquency. The paradox of prison is that, on the one hand, it isolates dangerous people so they do less harm to society, but on the other hand, it gets in the drug circuit people who only stood at the gate of it. We initially thought prison would discourage people from acting against the law, but today this has clearly proved wrong. Cartel lords and operators put their life at risk on a daily basis. Worse, in States affected by corruption, they run their businesses right from their cell. Therefore imprisonment is not likely to scare them much.

A criminal organization consists of individuals, whose tasks widely differ, thus generating a certain hierarchy within the group. Reasons for joining such an organization can vary. Some are forced to operate such as children mules to smuggle drugs to a certain location. Others accept to participate for want of anything better, naturally seeking income. And finally, there are those who could afford to do something else but remain attracted to the high profit they earn due to their high ranking position within the organization, that is, cartel lords. Would all of these people get in the drug business if their home country offered them more opportunities in life? For many, drug trafficking ensures that they are given meaning to life, that is, a direction eventually leading towards what they lack most : income. Switzerland, in spite of its generous educative system and high level of life, remains a very competitive country where those who break out of the decorous-mannered mould are somehow abandoned. Understanding the social background of criminals will help analyze the effect of our current legal regime. The struggle against supply is never ending. From the thousands of law enforcement officers who died in Mexico fighting the cartels to the ever-present dealers on the elegant Place Saint-François in Lausanne, Switzerland, it is high time we understood that the common drug policy of Western countries is missing the point.

Further in his works, Foucault suggested measures aiming at straightening out morals. He referred to English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, which consisted of a prison where a single watchman could observe all inmates without these inmates being able to tell whether or not they were observed. According to this system, inmates must act as though they are watched at all times. This was meant to inculcate in the convicts the fear of the State’s permanent authority. Although this idea would bring up major changes in today’s paradigm, it seems that we must push the reflection even further. Indeed, a panopticon suggests that we sow the seeds of state threat among the convicts. However, we must acknowledge that this would not even be enough. Indeed, evidence must be faced that criminals only abide by one rule, that of the market. Economic reality is the only certitude we can bring in the ongoing debate on drug trafficking : supply and demand.

2. A better approach : the struggle against demand ?

Drug trafficking is a business, which exists based on the classic assumption of supply and demand. Therefore, I argue that we need to control or reduce the will for consumption instead of persisting in trying to cut supply. Decreasing demand of drugs from consumers will decrease supply from cartels, which would save much blood and ammo. One can observe that as long as there is demand for drugs, supply will remain, all of which takes place on outlawed markets such as that of booze during the 1930’s prohibition in Chicago. According to the most common conception, outlawed markets consist of deviant undertakings that violate the law. However true this statement is, the law seems to remain a simple wall of paper for wrongdoers. The economic nature of the drug business is inherent. Consequently, we must think this issue anew. We need to understand the social reality that created such market.

The most equitable, not to say honest, part of the whole drug business is the final closing deal as the consumer agrees to buy the product from the dealer in exchange of a sum of money. Drug cartels are extremely violent when it comes to protecting their labs, transportation systems, and the merchandise itself. However, they don’t force anyone to consume drugs. The consumers buy of their own free will. This is why violence can be highly reduced if we proceed to a radical change of target, thus aiming at the consumer. The yearly 50-billion-dollar U.S. budget spent on the “war on drugs” should partially be reallocated to prevention and consumer protection. This also applies to Switzerland.

One solution would be to alleviate the outlawed market by legalizing drugs, thus creating competition between a state “safe” fair-traded market and an “unsecure” black market. Convincing consumers to safely buy at state-regulated shops would not be much of a problem since everyone recognizes the uncertain origins of outlawed drugs. Then, demand on black markets would decrease in favor of a newly state-controlled demand. In this respect, several states have already passed measures that put into place regulations for marijuana, such as the Netherlands (1972), California (1996), or Colorado (2012). However, even though drugs would be safely provided, this wouldn’t solve the concerns of public health. Harmful effects and addiction would remain.

Another way would be to strike the general demand in a more aggressive way by keeping drugs prohibited. On one side, prevention on drugs should be highly improved so as to eventually bring disgust in the mouths and the veins of consumers. On another side, social threat might also prove to be a useful tool. Conducting regular drug tests in schools on all students, or in offices on all workers, with a positive result reaching to dismissal might discourage the consumption of drugs, the naming and shaming principle.

To conclude, why not consider drug trafficking as a “legal regime” rather than a “failure of law”, thus shifting the dominant paradigm of “law and order” to a seldom-considered conception of what we may call “illegality due to legality”? Such view has been brought, among others, by Georgetown Law Professor Alvaro Santos in his article “International Law and Its Discontents : Critical Reflections on the War on Drugs or the Role of Law in Creating Complexity” published in 2012.

This discussion gives an avenue for shifting from our current unsatisfactory drug policy to a new policy that follows the laws of economy and social evolution.

Frédéric Ney


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