Reducing illegal drugs in the US requires the tools of trade, not ‘war’

AP Photo/Julie Watson

We hear a lot about fentanyl crossing the southern border with Mexico, mostly from Republicans who claim this is the result of “open borders.”    

Often these remarks make mention of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers also crossing the border, implying that drug trafficking organizations recruit them to smuggle this dangerous drug into the United States. While it is true that the majority of fentanyl bound for the United States comes from Mexico, the organizations that traffic in it do not risk their product on desperate people facing steep odds and a dangerous crossing.  

Instead, fentanyl comes to the United States via ostensibly legal crossings at designated ports of entry. It arrives by car, truck, and train, on transport missions methodically arranged to arouse the least possible suspicion. Occasionally U.S. border officials seize packages of fentanyl, and lots of seizures provide indirect evidence of a lot of supply that makes the crossing undetected.   

Republican Governor Kim Reynolds suggested in her response to the president’s State of the Union address that such seizures imply a failure to “secure” the border. But what “a lot of drugs” really indicates is a failure of drug policy itself.    

Given the sophistication of smugglers and the volume of trade, enhanced security at ports of entry will never detect most drug shipments. They will never even come close. Fixing our hopes for supply reduction on a strategy geared towards interdiction at the border reminds me of an analogous proposition, common among drug policy reformers, that safe consumption sites will, if widely adopted, reverse overdose deaths. In both cases, these are late-stage interventions — one targeting supply, the other targeting demand — that will never be as effective as interruptions further upstream.      

If you are talking about the border, then you are arriving too late in the process to affect a meaningful reduction in the supply of illegal drugs.    

Unfortunately, current proposals to contract supply stall in exactly this way, captive to drug prohibition and an enforcement mentality. This is all the more remarkable given that the American people, from a variety of political perspectives and using a variety of metrics, regard the drug war as a dismal failure.    

But that is starting to change. In December, a piece in The New York Times editorial section endorsed my recommendation that policymakers use the tools of international trade to reduce the flow of dangerous illegal drugs into the United States. In early February, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) introduced an amendment to the COMPETES Act requiring the secretary of State to report on its efforts to win concessions from countries known to export large amounts of fentanyl or its analogues, the drugs most responsible for the unprecedented surge in overdose deaths. Interestingly, Spanberger and Trone included the secretary of the Treasury as among those the secretary of State must consult prior to issuing his report to Congress. (The COMPETES Act passed the House last month with the Spanberger/Trone language.)    

This is not an unusual suggestion. Until the 1960s, the United States ran its counternarcotics policy from the Treasury Department. The transfer of the Bureau of Narcotics (the predecessor agency to the Drug Enforcement Administration) from Treasury to the Department of Justice signaled the policy shift from trade to enforcement — and from regulation to a “war on drugs.”    

Given the growing unpopularity of the drug war, it is not surprising that we are hearing more about the use of trade sanctions, not enforcement, to motivate source countries to implement meaningful change. That being said, it is important to note that trade sanctions should be tied to a reduction in the amount or potency of fentanyl (best measured in a higher street price) rather than intermediary — and quite possibly counterproductive — steps like the prohibition of a particular drug formulation. A focus on the bottom line of drug price puts the strength of U.S. negotiating power behind the results that matter most to ordinary Americans.   

Following the example of environmentalists working to incorporate emission reductions into trade discussions, U.S. trade negotiators should vest the “winners” of global trade in any given source country to care more about the cost of their success — in effect, deputizing an influential set of ambassadors to pursue supply reduction in their own country, using the power already at their disposal, and drawing strength and legitimacy from the freedom of following their own judgment.  

Among other benefits, the adoption of an outcome-oriented approach to trade discussions entails a long-overdue recognition that illegal drugs mostly enter this country via legal ports, facilitated by trade agreements designed to lower barriers of entry. It is no coincidence that two major trading partners of the United States, China and Mexico, are also major producers of fentanyl. Since World War II, illegal drugs have arrived in the United States in greater amounts as people and products arrived in greater numbers. In reality, it has always been logical to include illegal drugs in trade discussions. Now it is simply urgent. As U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai recently acknowledged, it is time to take a more encompassing view of who qualifies as a stakeholder in trade talks and what counts as a cost.   

Accordingly, legislation should be introduced to implement the recommendation of the 2001 report of the National Academy of Sciences, “Informing America’s Policy on Illegal Drugs,” to acquire and maintain a comprehensive database of the street prices for illegal drugs. As the committee that issued the recommendation points out, without this baseline, no evidence-based evaluation can be made regarding the effectiveness of any supply-oriented counternarcotics policy. Following this, legislation should be introduced to require the Secretary of Treasury to report to Congress regarding her agency’s efforts to increase the street price of the most dangerous illegal drugs.    

There is no time for any more performative politics on the opioid crisis. Last year alone, over 100,000 people in the country died from drug overdoses. As a nation, we need to tackle the problem at the source: For demand, that means revitalizing communities and providing primary care screening for substance use disorders and access to medical treatment. To address supply, the U.S. government needs to abandon a militant drug war and wield the tools of trade.   

Drug trafficking organizations have much more to fear from a calculator in the hands of a trade negotiator than they do a meaningless photo op at the border. 

Kathleen J. Frydl is an award-winning political historian specializing in conservative state-building and author of “The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973” (2013), “The GI Bill” (2009), and “Liberalism and the Modern Reinvention of the Corporate Person” (forthcoming, 2023). Twitter: @Kfrydl

Tags Abigail Spanberger Criminal justice reform David Trone Drug control law Drug Enforcement Administration Drug policy Drugs Fentanyl Katherine Tai Prohibition of drugs Public health War on Drugs

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