TCS Daily

Dope Aplenty

By Joel Miller - June 30, 2004 12:00 AM

Earlier this month, New Mexico officials seized more than 200 pounds of cocaine hidden in a juice shipment coming from Mexico at the Gallup port of entry. The load was estimated at $2.1 million. What is ironic about the bust -- though perhaps not directly connected to it -- is that it came just days after the Supreme Court decided this month to open the highways and byways of America to Mexican trucks.

Like canines necklaced with electroshock collars, Mexican trucks had been restricted by moratorium to a commercial zone that extends 20 miles into U.S. territory. Traveling beyond the invisible fence results in being zapped.

NAFTA scrapped the moratorium, but the collar didn't come off until the Supreme Court's decision. Pressured by the pooh-poohing trinity of unionists, consumerists and environmentalists, the Clinton administration buckled under and let the moratorium continue. Bush, never a big fan of the ban that dates back to 1983, pushed to scrap it, and -- hurrah! hurrah! -- the high court made the president's day by paving over the last legal pothole that made the roadways of America impassable to the horde of trucks freighted with Mexican-produced goods. The trucks may now roll free.

Alas, so may the drugs, as interdiction efforts are doomed to fail. Liberalizing access to the U.S. only makes this more obvious. Alas, this has always been true.

Right now, close to 60,000 tractor-trailer rigs enter the U.S. daily -- only some of which can be checked for drugs. Some do indeed get caught with a stow of blow or a cache of cannabis, but to assume that traffickers won't attempt to freight more trucks with more drugs because some might get intercepted is to assume that Barry Bonds won't swing at pitches because he might strike out. Whatever gets nabbed is, authorities admit, minimal, and amounts to little more than a minor tax on business.

This says nothing about the hundreds of thousands of car and pedestrian crossings that happen each month. We can't check every automobile, can't check every bag or shoe sole. Drugs will get in.

And there are always the unofficial crossings. America shares some 2,000 miles of border with Mexico, only some of which can be tightly monitored. If drugs get through the areas that are monitored, think about how much can get through the areas that are not.

"[Smugglers] keep us running like you can't believe," says Detective Sergeant David Cray, who heads an antidrug unit of the Tohono O'odham Nation Police Department. Tohono O'odham is a massive Indian reservation in Arizona, 2.8 million acres. Cray estimates that three thousand pounds of pot weekly pass through just one breach in the border fence, the Itak Gate. Thirty backpackers minimum, he says, may hike through the area on any given night, lugging up to a hundred pounds of weed each. And they're ready for action. "They have two-way radios, night-vision gear, body armor and carry automatic weapons," he says. "They've put people on the hills to act as lookouts and use portable solar panels to power their communications equipment. They have powerful four-wheel-drive vehicles and are under orders not to stop -- to shoot their way through if they have to."

Besides bullets, they also throw more product at the problem and see what makes it through -- lots more product.

When Ranch Rescue, a private group of U.S. citizens who monitor the border, intercepted nearly three hundred pounds of pot near Lochiel, Arizona, U.S. Customs was unimpressed by the figure. "Well, so what?" dismissed Kyle Barnette, an agent stationed in Arizona. It's not that difficult. "I could stand in the parking lot of my office, hit a 3-iron in any direction and hit a dope load on any given day." In 2001, U.S. Customs agents busted nearly two hundred thousand pounds of marijuana in the Grand Canyon State alone (and that, remember, doesn't count what local policed nabbed). "People in this environment realize this is no big accomplishment," Barnette said. Drugs are so plentiful, "I would suggest I could train a chimpanzee to catch 300 pounds of weed."

Even if you can stop enough stuff coming through (insert knowing laughter here), there is no way to stop the flow of human and intellectual capital -- know-how and how-to.

Rather than risk being busted at the border -- or perhaps part of an effort to diversify production and distribution -- some Mexican gangs are bringing men and equipment into the U.S. to grow drugs stateside.

Setting up booby traps and guarding fields with firearms to prevent wayfaring hikers and "patch pirates" from spoiling their profits, these people plant pot in the vast national and state forests. Of these forests, the central Sierra in California is widely known for its weed. "Thanks to the mild climate, rich soil and a lengthy, March-to-October growing season, California cultivators routinely produce 10-ft.-high specimens worth up to $4,000 each," writes Margot Roosevelt for Time. "Some of these California pot farms stretch over several hundred acres and have as many as 50,000 plants." In 2003, a backpacker even found a Sierra-grown crop of 40,000 opium poppies -- almost two acres' worth.

Then there are the real greenthumbs -- the indoor local growers who manipulate nature with CO2-enriched air, fertilizers, blinding sodium lights, and radically altered growing patterns. They produce pot of such high quality, it can sometimes fetch prices that rival cocaine's -- which is, of course, ample economic incentive for people to do more of the same.

That's what it all really comes down to. The drug warriors -- however well-meaning and noble -- are fighting a war they cannot win. They are bureaucrats trying to fight entrepreneurs who are undeterred by legal restrictions and prohibitions. The power of the bureaucrat is vested solely in his official position, in the law. But when folks flip the bird at the law, the bureaucrat is impotent.

Not that it stops the bureaucrat from trying to do his job -- giving rise to the embarrassing display of government ineptitude and failure we see every day along the U.S. border and beyond.

Joel Miller is the author of Bad Trip: How the War Against Drugs is Destroying America.


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