To Fix the Child Refugee Crisis, End the War on Drugs

A U.S. Border Patrol agent assists undocumented minors near the U.S./Mexico border

Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

A U.S. Border Patrol agent assists undocumented minors near the U.S./Mexico border

Congress closed for the August recess this weekend without passing legislation to address the child refugee crisis on the Mexican border. Nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children, most from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, have entered the U.S. across that border in the last nine months, fleeing spiraling violence in their home countries—murder, rape, and attacks carried out by rival drug gangs, and attacks by police on suspect gang members.

The refugee crisis is now our problem, which is appropriate: The drug-linked violence that the children are fleeing is in large part our fault. Anti-drug policies in the U.S. and Europe have not succeeded in curbing drug use or in raising drug prices, but they have considerably increased crime and violence worldwide. It is time to shift the effort to focus on helping drug users at home rather than battling drugmakers and traffickers abroad.

A little-considered consequence of criminalization is displacement: When a state or country makes an activity illegal, the new criminals find new haven. Bordellos relocate to Nevada, Puritans flee to America, polluting industries settle in China. This kind of displacement suggests that others can bear the costs of an individual or community’s anti-crime measures. For example, if in the interest of preventing burglaries, home insurers require all their policyholders to use alarms or security cameras, burglars would shift their efforts to those without enhanced security measures: in this example, the uninsured, a group that is more vulnerable to begin with.

This is what has happened with drug production, which has concentrated in countries least able to control crime. Here’s a domestic example: In 2004, Oklahoma created the first state law mandating that drug stores place pseudoephedrine behind the pharmacy counter, limiting individual sales and registering the photo ID of purchasers. These regulations severely disrupted the supply of a vital ingredient in methamphetamine, and for Oklahoma, it was an effective intervention: The number of meth labs confiscated in the state dropped 71 percent in three months. But in neighboring Texas and Kansas, where pseudoephedrine remained more easily available, police officers complained of a dramatic increase in meth production. In 2008 the U.S. restricted pseudoephedrine sales nationally. So production moved abroad, first to Mexico and, when that country introduced similar laws, further south to Central America and Africa.

Trade routes can also be displaced. Around 2006, when Mexico declared war on its own drug cartels, violence ticked up in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. One result: The homicide rate in Honduras is now the highest in the world. The number of murders has more than doubled since 2006 and the rate is now 19 times that in the U.S., according to the United Nations.

Some in the U.S. may still consider the mission accomplished: at least we’ve sent the problem elsewhere. But if the point of banning domestic production was to reduce domestic consumption, the effort has been a miserable failure—with the side effect of 60,000 kids to care for. Because production can move to countries least able to control output and trade can flow through countries least able to control transport, even the most draconian attempts to reduce overseas supply to U.S. drug consumers have had a limited impact. The U.S.-backed Plan Colombia represented an immense effort to reduce cocaine production—the size of the country’s security forces expanded from 250,000 to 850,000 between 2003 and 2006. In response, farms became more productive, and production shifted to neighboring countries, more than offsetting the increase in drug seizures and coca plant destruction according to World Bank researchers. A U.S. inspector general report suggests attempts to wipe out poppy production in Afghanistan have been a similar failure.

Efforts to control international trafficking–the transport of drugs from producers to drug sellers in the U.S.—have been a little more successful than efforts to control production. The spread between cocaine export prices in Colombia and import prices in Miami reflects a 2,100 percent markup (from about $1,000/kg to $23,000/kg). That associated potential profit margin is what helps fuel gang violence in Central America. But for all the violence of the drug wars in Mexico and Honduras, the big cost of drugs in the U.S. is still accounted for by domestic wholesale and retail distribution costs. The markup from wholesale to retail is about 700 percentnot too different from the markup for imported agricultural products in general. The drug war has considerably destabilized countries in Central and South America and cost tens of thousands of lives—and yet it hasn’t even worked to make drugs in the U.S. or Europe appreciably more difficult to obtain than legal imports.

Efforts to cut off the drug supply haven’t worked; they’ve only shifted production overseas. Consumption of drugs—the demand side of the equation—isn’t as easily displaced. A drug user has to use in a country where drug control is lax. (And if they want a regular fix, they’ll have to stay there.) So if you still think drugs are a problem that can be usefully criminalized, the more displacement-proof approach would be to aggressively target the Americans who are actually buying and using cocaine (or heroin, or meth), not the Colombians producing it or the Hondurans transporting it.

But refocusing the drug war on retail consumers is only one more way to fill prisons with nonviolent offenders, with considerable social and economic costs. Better, then, to abandon it altogether. Portugal decriminalized possession and use of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin more than a decade ago. If anything, that resulted in adecline in serious drug use. Denmark is considering the same move, and a recent World Health Organization report endorsed the idea. The U.S. spent $56 billion on drug enforcement and incarceration, more than six times the $9 billion it spent on hospitalization and treatment related to drugs. We would wreck fewer lives and save considerable resources if we reversed our priorities, providing the adult Americans who are taking narcotics, and in particular the addicts, with counseling and support rather than an arrest warrant.

The approach taken in Colorado towards marijuana—one that legalizes the entire industry, from production to consumption—is the only one that can truly end the global drug war. It should apply across narcotics and across countries. If we want to help both addicts at home and children facing the choice of gang violence or family breakup abroad, it is time to make drug production, transport, and consumption legal, regulated, taxed, and rare.

Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and author of The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Great for the West.

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