Think again. Sticks and carrots.

Jonathan Caulkins, Jonathan Kulick and Mark Kleiman have written Think Again: The Afghan Drug Trade – a good piece in Foreign Policy about “Why cracking down on Afghanistan’s opium business won’t help stop the Taliban — or the United States’ own drug problems.”

The article shows these guys at their best – when they are debunking some of the lazy arguments put forth by those trying to justify the excesses of the drug war. It works even better than usual because they’re not trying to throw in some kind of false equivalency to attack reformers.

Here’s a delightful example, where they point out a truth that few want to note: traffickers and law enforcement have the same goal.

As Thomas C. Schelling pointed out in the 1960s, law enforcement and organized criminal enterprises are on the same side when it comes to the price of illicit commodities: They both want them to be higher.

Yes, entirely eliminating Afghan drug production would eliminate Afghan drug revenues. It would also be impossible. And though reducing production is possible, reducing it will also drive up Afghan export prices more than proportionally, increasing overall drug revenues.

Monopolists facing inelastic demand don’t worry about production reductions — they love them. Less production means higher revenues; this is why OPEC meets to discuss how to constrain oil production, not expand it. Counternarcotics strategy solves this coordination problem for the drug traffickers, reducing exports and increasing industry revenues

Where they bog down, of course, is, after pointing out the failures of the prohibition mind-set, they have very little that they can really offer as a long-term solution, since a regime involving legalization is not allowed as a serious option for discussion in their world.

If solutions must be quick or decisive, then counternarcotics in Afghanistan is no solution. But that does not mean that nothing can or should be done. Small steps are better than no steps, and even in a land in such desperate circumstances, giving up makes for bad public relations.

There are practical options. The United States could fund drug treatment in Afghanistan, a country with a horrendous heroin problem, to reduce demand and earn support from the Afghan public. It could encourage consumer countries (including Iran and Russia) to step up drug treatment; that will shrink the revenues of Afghan traffickers. Focusing alternative-development efforts on more stable parts of the country, as a reward for taking steps toward normalcy, could further erode the threat of the Taliban gaining influence there. And removing Afghan officials corrupted by the drug trade from seats of power — if it were possible — would bolster confidence in the government.

It would be foolish to expect too much from these approaches. But the limitations of feasible drug-control activities in Afghanistan do not justify continuing to pursue policies that do more harm than good. Because the natural tendency of counternarcotics efforts is to help America’s enemies, the country should pursue them as little as possible. This is a case where less really is more.

They’re right. Less prohibition is more. But the wimpy choice between more prohibition and slightly less prohibition is not the only one.

Which leads to another part of the article that I found interesting and which I think merits further discussion:

Naturally, traffickers who are arrested or killed are worse off, but those who remain are in much better shape — they capture a larger slice of a bigger pie.

In an ideal world, law enforcement would selectively target the nastiest of the nasty dealers, putting them at a competitive disadvantage and shifting market share toward traffickers who are merely bad in a common-criminal sense. The DEA and military understand this and try to selectively disrupt the traffickers who are linked most closely to the insurgency.

The DEA and military may or may not understand this concept, but they sure don’t implement it well.

There is a sure-fire way to dramatically reduce the violence merely through enforcement policy implementation without actually legalizing drugs, although prohibitionists don’t like it.

It’s the carrot and the stick.

All you have to do is officially (or through the grapevine) make it clear that enforcement efforts will be focused only on those traffickers who use violence (the stick). You also have to have the carrot: make it clear that trafficking organizations that don’t use violence will be left alone, including not prosecuting (or limited prosecution for) those who get caught up in accidental nets.

The long term result is that the violent traffickers will be taken down, and the non-violent ones will flourish. There will be more of them, so they’ll lose some market share, but that’s made up for by reduced costs related to violence.

In the ultimate version of it, it’s actually a form of legalization, just unregulated legalization. It does, however fulfill one aspect of regulated legalization — eliminating one or more harmful side-effects of prohibition.

In Mexico, they’re starting to talk more and more about a mild variation of the carrot and the stick: Should Mexico Call for a Cease-Fire with Drug Cartels? (Time Magazine).

The journalist and poet Javier Sicilia led a march to commemorate the death of his son and his son’s friends, who all appear to be innocent victims caught up in the violence. In the media spotlight, Sicilia said what has been on the mind of many weeping parents. The war on drugs is not working, he said, and the government has to make a truce with the cartels. “Drug trafficking goes on. The United States doesn’t care and is not helping us at all,” Sicilia told reporters. “The mafias are here. We should make a pact.”

The statement sparked a sizzling public debate, which many Mexicans have been conducting in private for years: Should the government reach out to criminal gangs to calm the bloodshed? […]

Sicilia explained that by “pact” he meant that gangsters should be urged to avoid hurting the public and respect the prisoners they take. […]

There is also a debate as to whether the government should allow cartels to dominate specific trafficking routes, thus avoiding the bloody turf wars. This notion is so commonly discussed, it has its own terminology: “repartir plazas,” roughly meaning “to award turfs.” [the carrot]

There are local variations on the carrot and the stick as well. A town can make it clear that adults will not be bothered regarding pot sales or possession (the carrot), but that they’ll come down hard and focus on any seller that targets high school students or younger (the stick). This was the policy in the town where I attended college and it worked perfectly. The college students were left alone unofficially, and there were never any problems. However, one time, one of them decided to sell to High School kids and the entire police force descended on the campus and nailed him, leaving everyone else alone. The message was clear and was then followed to the letter.

Drug enforcement agencies today don’t have a clue as to the power of the carrot and the stick. They think they do, but their approach could best be described as the stick and the really big stick, along with the surprise stick that hits you alongside the head when you least expect it.

Without the carrot, the technique doesn’t work to reduce bad behavior. At all.

Legalization is the only option that really works for the long term. It is the proper way to deal with the violent and destructive drug war.

Prohibition, however, won’t end overnight.

There could be an administration, or a town, or a Latin American country, that realizes the truth — that the drug war is destroying the lives of their people. And yet they know that they don’t have the power by themselves to end the global drug war.

They may find that the carrot and the stick, while imperfect, is vastly superior to what we have today.

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25 Responses to Think again. Sticks and carrots.

  1. danniel says:

    Thanks nice read.

  2. allan420 says:

    Ya know… this is disappointing. As Pete points out there is not one single mention of legalization. The Senlis Council and their proposal for legalization along the lines of Turkey’s shift to poppies for medicine must make too much sense.

    Is legalization that scary an idea? C’mon Mark…

  3. strayan says:

    Kleiman needs to take a refresher course in public health. Here in Sydney, Australia they teach you (at university) that cessation clinics are ineffective public health interventions. Hey Kleiman, why do you think big tobacco sponsors formal smoking cessation interventions? THEY’RE BLOODY USELESS!

    Here’s some reading for you:

  4. strayan says:

    The ‘treatment is the solution’ argument is incredibly weak.

    Legalise, tax and regulate.

  5. strayan says:

    I just stumbled across this:

    Can’t tell if genuine.

  6. Emma says:

    This idea of “keep it illegal, don’t imprison anyone, but don’t let anyone do it openly in a professional, regulated environment” reminds me of Ross Douthat’s (NYT “conservative” young Catholic columnist) fantasy plan for criminalizing abortion.

    Mother Jones, interview w/ Douthat (2010):

    I asked what he’d do about abortion if he made the laws. (Douthat’s writings tend to extol a culture of life without suggesting what that might look like, so I was curious.) He began with the boilerplate position: “It would probably be a blanket ban on abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother.” He went on, however, to say such a ban would require “radical experimentation with the welfare state” and likely “a lot of new welfare agencies of one kind or another,” plus orphanages and an expanded “network of crisis pregnancy centers.” Nobody involved would go to jail, he said, as “it is possible to believe that abortion is murder and also believe it is a completely unique form of murder. Abortion would be, you know, if you have first-degree murder, second and third degree…it’s like seventh-degree murder or something.”

  7. DdC says:

    Cover-Ups, Prevarications, Subversions & Sabotage

    Kathmandu and the Black Prince

    The Heroin Challenge

    Afghanistan linx

    Why the US Army Isn’t Mass Spraying Afghanistan’s Opium Crop
    The reason is that if they do that, the warlords and tribes will rise up en masse. This is how both farmers and those who take a share from the farmers make their living – there are no other cash crop worth bothering with in Afghanistan. So while opium funds a lot of the Taliban, the poblem is it also funds a lot of the US’s allies – the ground troops that actually fought most of the battles of the Afghanistan invasion. And it keeps a lot of farmers alive and with some pocket money.

    December 20, 2007
    Bhattacharji: Tackling Afghanistan’s Opium Trade with Legalization
    India is one of only a dozen countries allowed to grow opium poppies to export for the manufacture of legal drugs such as morphine. Romesh Bhattacharji, former narcotics commissioner for India, says he thinks India’s system of legalized opium growing can work in Afghanistan.

    Essential Oils – Alternatives To Afghanistan’s Opium Poppy

    Afghan Opium Production Timeline

    1982-1991: Afghan Opium Production Skyrockets

    July 2000: Taliban Bans Poppy Growing, but Benefits from Resulting Price Rise

    May 17, 2001: US Gives Taliban Millions for Poppy Ban

    Bush’s Faustian Deal With the Taliban

    September 3, 2006
    Opium Harvest at Record Level in Afghanistan
    Wednesday 27 June 2007
    Record opium crop in southern Afghanistan

    Is an Oil Pipeline Behind the War in Afghanistan?
    Oct 15, 2001 Unocal Corporation – Wikipedia
    On August 10, 2005, Unocal merged with Chevron Corporation
    Unocal was one of the key players in the CentGas consortium, an attempt to build the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline to run from the Caspian area, through Afghanistan and probably Pakistan, to the Indian Ocean.

    A Timeline of Oil and Violence – Afghanistan
    Jan. 1998 – Unocal agreement signed between Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and the Taliban (12) to arrange funding of the gas pipeline project,

    Unocal Advisor Named Representative to Afghanistan Jan 29, 2002

    Unocal and Bridas Woo the Taliban for Oil Pipeline Project

    Bush, Enron, UNOCAL and the Taliban Oct 15, 2001

    In 1998, Dick Cheney, now US vice-president but then chief executive of a major oil services company, remarked: “I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.” But the oil and gas there is worthless until it is moved. The only route which makes both political and economic sense is through Afghanistan. [Guardian]

  8. darkcycle says:

    Lets say you have a problem with a dozen potential solutions, but only one that will work. You then have a debate rigged so that the one tenable answer is off the table as regards discussion…what do you think you are likely to get as a result? Well, it seems to me that after looking at and parsing it, you would wind up with a hybrid solution. One where most everything that will not work is discarded, and bits and pieces of other solutions are combined to make for a ‘least-wrong’ patchwork solution. It also seems to me that the more workable this ‘patchwork solution’ is in the end, the more it is likely to resemble (strongly) the original disallowed (but workable) solution.
    So where does that leave Kleiman et. al.? They’re better than the majority of prohibitionists, they’re not stuck at the switch…but they are still excluding that one workable solution. Now they have a patchwork solution (which will only work as long as everybody plays by the rules, Police and Gangsters alike)that might work. They still haven’t looked at that outside of the debate framework within which they have constrained themselves. When they do, do you think they’ll notice they’ve really just created an alternate legalization and regulation scheme? Only without all of the BENIFITS legalization can provide, like Taxes?
    P.S. I don’t read Kleiman’s blog, he’s so smart, half the time he outsmarts himself.

  9. BluOx says:

    Sticks and carrots? Why do they keep ignoring the 1000 pound pumpkin in the room? Could the reason be the job opportunities that prohibition provides? Good thing that pumpkin is still growing. Feed it.

  10. kaptinemo says:

    Related: It would seem that the predictions of drug law reform coming down to the ‘bottom line’ as to how much drug prohibition we van afford are becoming true.

    from YouTube: People On The Left & The Right Say We’re Spending Too Much On The Prison Industrial Complex

    Always, always, always it’s the damned money, not what drug prohibition has done to individuals, and thus, to society. But at least polar ideological opposites are taking roughly the same tack.

    Hammering on Juggernaut’s treads from both flanks might get us somewhere…

  11. Servetus says:

    Opening channels to relatively non-violent drug distribution in-and-from Mexico to the U.S. would cause smuggling to revert to what it was before Calderon’s militant drug enforcement plan created a massive, raging territorial drug imperative among competing cartel leaders. It would also acknowledge that a drug flow can be diverted, but not stopped.

    In the off-the-record drug politics of the 70s, a similar carrot/stick method was used in some American cities to encourage marijuana distribution in lieu of harder drugs. A distributor could pay $40,000 to the right people in city hall and obtain a reasonable assurance they would be left alone as long as they sold pot and nothing else. The plan was working until the CIA stepped in to promote heroin production in Southeast Asia, and later crack distribution in South Central L.A. It might work again for Afghanistan if the CIA were to step out of the picture.

    Many creative solutions to black market problems are possible when dogma takes a holiday. Right now, a vacation for drug dogma is long overdue.

  12. kaptinemo says:

    OT: Alcohol ‘a major cause of cancer’

    From the article:

    “In 2008, for men, 44, 25 and 33 per cent of upper digestive track, liver and colon cancers respectively were caused by alcohol in six of the countries examined, the study found.

    The countries were Britain, Italy, Spain, Greece, Germany and Denmark.

    While cannabis causes zero cancers.

    In the Prop19 fight, the alcohol industry fought us by coming right out and propagandizing against 19 and used their trade organization money to do it. All to continue poisoning their patrons and ensuring that no one has a legal alternative to that poison. And now there’s indications that alcohol causes cancers.

    So…drink up, DrugWarriors! Celebrate your destruction of another non-violent citizen’s life at your local ‘watering hole’ at ‘happy hour’. Please!.

    And make sure that your fellow ‘paladins’ join you; the more the merrier.

  13. Excellent post, Pete. 🙂

  14. Duncan20903 says:

    I’ve often wondered why in the world no one is producing opium in the US. I understand why there’s no coca as it takes too long, too much space, and has to occur at a certain elevation which strictly limit the potential growing location. But christ on a crutch, if they can grow it in Afghanistan it should grow just about anywhere. Every time I see video of Afghanistan I swear that their primary product for export must be rocks. The peasants harvest them and carry them to market and get paid like 20 cents a ton.

    • darkcycle says:

      Duncan, there are PLENTY…you just don’t hear about them because they’re small, and seasonal, plus there’s really no market..junkies want smack, and you can take your opium and screw yourself, it just doesn’t provide enough kick. In Seattle, I was astounded to learn that there was (and as far as I know, still is)a police program to address the gardening of poppies with local Asian families. The poppies aren’t illegal, only harvesting them, so it was all about warning these old ladies and men not to harvest those pretty flowers. Still, police would pull up one or two gardens at harvest time just to reinforce that message. Doesn’t stop them in the least.

      • Duncan20903 says:

        So what, do you think there’s no one in the US smart enough to figure out how to use poppies to make heroin?

        BTW in 1981 I was aware of an opium grower and a micro black market. Those people certainly enjoyed smoking that opium. You are correct that there was nary a junkie involved. There is also very little recreational use going on in the opioid market but that’s because the market has been perverted by prohibition. I never have cared for opioids. I had surgery in 2007 and got one of those morphine pumps installed and a pro re nata prescription. I will never understand the lure of opioids. Man that pump had me totally raged to the point of being irrational. My personal association for opioids is that it’s a very angry drug. At release the nurse remarked that almost no one used their pump as little as I did. Yeah buddy, Duncan the merrie wahna addick hooked up to pharmaceutical morphine and told to help myself to all that I like, and like the vast majority of rats in Rat Park left it alone because it sucks.

        To be fair the cannabrex might have had a little something to do with the rather light usage of the supposedly most addictive drug known to mankind. Perhaps I only looked like a denizen of Rat Park at first glance.

        What, doesn’t everyone take medibles with them to the hospital because it’s a superior post surgery palliative than what the doctors give you? Israel excepted of course.

      • darkcycle says:

        Nobody who can do it on a big enough scale, my guess. If there was a market (flooded already), and a means of competing against the major producers (Afghanistan’s corrupt government, CIA, Mafia, et, al.) I have no doubt a cottage industry would spring up. But the world’s Heroine supply is at an all time high. Where’s the incentive? Hardly analogous to the Paraquat scare of the seventies, which dried up the chief market supplier virtually overnight.

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  16. Black Market says:

    It still amazes me that people aren’t willing to tax this industry. By legalizing it, you remove the need for violence and can create a regulated industry that provides better public health. It’s a win-win.

    The only reason why the drug cartels kill each other is for the money. Look how much they make:

    Global Drug Trafficking Finance Data.

    All so that the global police force can maintain their inflated budget.

    • Cliff says:

      And we come right back to you Mr. Black Market. If it wasn’t for your untaxed, untracked, laundered money, the global economy would have crashed a long time ago. I think you answered your own question when you asked why your products aren’t legalized. It’s simple, those who benefit from your products are not the dealers. The banks, legal industry, prison / police, military, pharmaceuticals, etc, all depend on a steady flow of your products into America, just not for retail sale. The wrong people would benefit if that were to happen.

      • Black Market says:

        Great point. The dirty money that is keeping thousands of lawyers, banks, foreign exchange brokers, etc.. and not to mention government workers is staggering.

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