800,000,000 marijuana joints

By Joel Miller

Cops in both the U.S. and Mexico scored three major drug busts last week.

Behind wooden panels in a semi-tractor trailer, on Wednesday authorities discovered 134 bundles of pot weighing more than a ton and a half. Nabbing the truck at a Nogales, Ariz., inspection station, Border Patrol estimated the value of the 3,100-pound load at $2.5 million.

Across the border and further west in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, local authorities found about 2,000 pounds of marijuana in a Ford van Thursday morning. Presumed en route to San Diego, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency estimated the haul’s value at between $500,000 and $750,000 if it had arrived — possibly thrice that had the load made it to East Coast buyers. The two drivers might have been very rich men if they could keep from running red lights.

And back in Arizona, Border Patrol grabbed nearly a thousand pounds of weed in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge right near the border. The load — estimated street value of $727,000 — was found in an abandoned truck. Unlike the suspects in the first two cases, in this instance the smugglers escaped arrest.

Sad to say, it’s just as well. The arrests of the others were basically meaningless. So were the seizures.

For all the high-fives and hullabaloo that accompany the capture of large amounts of contraband, there is very little actual value in the practice. What, after all, would we ultimately hope to see with successful interdiction? No drugs, right?

Even if we interdicted it all, there’d still be plenty of pot for scofflaws to smoke stateside. Government Pulse Check survey data puts homegrown weed ahead of Mexican-grown in terms of availability (amazingly, of course, considering the supposed deterrent effect heavy enforcement creates). Still, the reality is we cannot snag it all, and vast sums of cannabis come from Mexico. In 2003, Customs confiscated more than 880,000 pounds of Mexican marijuana.

Fathom that for a few seconds: 880,000 pounds is 400,000 kilos — that’s enough pot for 800,000,000 half-gram joints. And that’s not what gets smoked; that’s what gets seized. Interdiction estimates usually hover around 10 percent of the total supply, so tag on another zero to see how much is getting smoked — just from Mexican-grown weed. Anyone know how to count to 8 billion?

With numbers like that, doing the math is a more a mindjob than doing the drug.

If those numbers sound absurd, consider that, despite the best efforts of the drug warriors, marijuana “is the most readily available and widely used illicit drug in the United States,” according to the Justice Department’s National Drug Threat Assessment 2003.

Further, says the assessment, “96.9 percent of state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide describe the availability of marijuana as high or medium — just 1.8 percent describe it as low … Every DEA Field Division and HIDTA [High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area] throughout the country reports that marijuana is available in its area.” And editorializing about the relative threats Canadian and Mexican pot crops pose to America, the Ottawa Citizen recently highlighted a “survey of American teenagers,” 89 percent of whom “say it is ‘very easy’ or ‘fairly easy’ to get pot.”

Drugs are far from hard to get. And will remain so both because people want to use them, and suppliers are so richly rewarded for risking legal jeopardy.

We may find dope morally reprehensible, but by relying on interdiction and other drug-war tactics to stem the flow of pot and other mindbenders, we act in profound stupidity. Interdiction has clearly failed, and we’re not stopping the local growers. As a policy, prohibition functions like a marshmallow speed bump in slowing the locomotive of drug entrepreneurialism and trade.

Dollars have always spoken louder and more eloquently than laws. Arguing against the folly of alcohol Prohibition, Harry Anderson said in the famous 1931 Wickersham Commission Report, “These principles of economic law are fundamental. They cannot be resisted or ignored. Against their ultimate operation the mandates of laws and constitutions and the powers of government appear to be no more effective than the broom of King Canute against the tides of the sea.” For those not up on their medieval history, instead take note of how well Soviet Communism flourished against market forces. “These laws cannot be destroyed by government,” Anderson continued, “but often in the course of human history governments have been destroyed by them.”

That is, in a nutshell, the argument of my book “Bad Trip,” which explains how in this way (and many others) the drug war is simply unworkable.

If only we caught on, we could spend our tax dollars on something less foolish and futile — like, say, tax breaks and catching terrorists.