In This War, Technology Is Key

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The war on terrorism grabs most of the headlines these days, but the war on drugs is still very much underway. With legal and illegal entry into the country falling under heavier scrutiny, the work of preventing terrorism and keeping illegal drugs out of the country often overlap, and often put to use some of the same tools.

As with the war on terror, fighting drug use is a highly segmented endeavor. Its missions include everything from after-school programs to keep kids busy to elaborate sting operations targeting the substances and those who make and move them. Various government agencies still fight the war in traditional ways by patrolling national borders in search of smugglers and searching out drug producing operations. But nowadays those on the front lines of the drug war are getting some pretty cool toys.

In the pitched battle surrounding illegal drugs, each side has its advantages. Law enforcement can take advantage of private sector expertise, expensive machines, and, of course, the law. Those who cultivate, manufacture, and smuggle illegal drugs can leverage vast sums of cash, generated by constant demand.

THE FIGHT CONTINUES. So who's winning? It's a tough call. According to the United Nations, the North American cannabis—that is, marijuana—market is the world's largest, worth anywhere from $10 billion to $60 billion, mostly fed by domestic production.

On the other hand, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found in 2004 that about 20% high school seniors had used marijuana in the preceding month. This was down from nearly 34% in 1980, but up from 14% in 1990. The long-term decline probably owes something to high-schoolers knowing more about the potential harmful effects of the drug. And sophisticated border surveillance techniques employed by the Homeland Security Dept.'s Customs and Border Protection Division may have affected the decline.

Of course, people trying to profit from the sale of drugs can be tech-savvy as well; often they have to be if they're going to get away with it. Law enforcement agencies have found hyper-sophisticated hydroponic pot greenhouses as well as crude labs used to synthesize crystal meth out of an ingredient found in over-the-counter medicine. The toxic process requires some understanding of chemistry and an ability to improvise uses for chemicals and materials found around the house. When found, these labs must be dismantled by people wearing hazardous material suits.

In the slide show, we take a look at some of the technologies that the two sides of this war are using to outfox each other.

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