Darwin In Action

It seems the DEA is telling lies again about the drug war.

Cocaine is as cheap as ever, according to a new analysis of government data by a Washington, D.C. think tank.

The findings appear to contradict claims by U.S. law enforcement officials that the drug has become more expensive. "[Over] the last two years there's been a sustained increase on the price of cocaine," said Drug Enforcement Administration operations chief Tom Harrigan in a recent interview with ABC News. Harrigan credited efforts by the United States, Mexico and local U.S. governments.

But the retail price for cocaine in 2007, the most recent year studied, was less than half what it was in 1984, when Jay McInerney's novel of a coke-addled Manhattanite, "Bright Lights, Big City," was first published, according to the report by the policy group Washington Office on Latin America, which cited a newly-released analysis by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Well what would you expect of a policy that weeds out inefficient competitors faster than market forces? It is an intense Darwinian struggle where only the fittest survive.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, the "law and order" response by our politicians only intensifies the problem. Instead, they might turn to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to glean insight as to why these "common sense" reactionary solutions often are counterproductive.

As illegal drugs become easier to obtain and more potent, politicians respond in a knee-jerk manner by ramping up law enforcement. After all, drugs are bad so why not escalate the war against drugs? Politicians get to look tough in front of voters, the drug war bureaucracy is delighted with ever expanding budgets, and lots of low-level bad guys get locked up. Everyone wins - including, unfortunately, the major drug traffickers.

As politicians intensified the drug war decade after decade, an unintended consequence began to appear. These "get tough" policies have caused the drug economy to evolve under Darwinian principles (i.e., survival of the fittest). Indeed, the drug war has stimulated this economy to grow and innovate at a frightening pace.

By escalating the drug war, the kinds of people the police typically capture are the ones who are dumb enough to get caught. These criminal networks are occasionally taken down when people within the organization get careless. Thus, law enforcement tends to apprehend the most inept and least efficient traffickers. The common street expression puts it best: "the dealer who uses, loses." Conversely, the kinds of people law enforcement tends to miss are the most cunning, innovative and efficient traffickers.

It's as though we have had a decades-long unintended policy of artificial selection. Just as public health professionals warn against the overuse of antibiotics because it can lead to drug resistant strains of bacteria, our overuse of law enforcement has thinned out the trafficking herd so that the weak and inefficient traffickers get captured or killed and only the most proficient dealers survive and prosper. Indeed, U.S. drug war policies have selectively bred "super-traffickers."

So has the Drug War selected for smarter government agents? If you judge by results they appear stupider than ever. And if they are by some miracle getting smarter, selection pressure is causing smugglers and distributors to get smarter faster. Which is why drug prices are going down.

H/T Drug Policy Forum of Texas

Cross Posted at Power and Control with the title: Government Subsidized Lies.

posted by Simon on 04.22.09 at 03:06 AM


Being essentially activists, drug war advocates see anything that happens as confirming their belief in ever more draconian laws, and ever more enforcement. If drug use goes up, that means "we've let down our guard," we're neglecting the war and need more enforcement and more laws. If drug use goes down, that means "we are winning the war" and must not let down our guard, and hence we need more enforcement and more laws. The same would apply to the price of drugs. (If the price goes down, we need more enforcement and more laws, and if the price goes up, we need more enforcement and more laws.)

Thus, it really makes no difference what happens. All facts, figures, and arguments are futile.

Might as well argue with (or expect truth to matter to) an animal rights activist.

Eric Scheie   ·  April 22, 2009 11:23 AM

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