Justice Department Report Shows ‘Drug War’ Progress Stalled

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The Justice Department’s annual report on the U.S. drug trade provides new data, but tells the same old story: the government’s drug policy is not working.

In the past five years, only two National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) reports have set out any progress in the U.S. “drug war.” The 2008 and 2009 reports maintained that cocaine availability was dropping in the U.S., causing the drug’s street price to go up. Cocaine shortages allegedly persisted in 2010, even though the Justice Department observed that the overall availability of drugs — including marijuana, heroin, methaphetamine and MDMA — was increasing.

This year’s National Drug Threat Assessment report (pdf) confirms InSight Crime’s previous observation that the NDIC’s findings — specifically those concerning cocaine price declines — do not represent significant progress. The latest data shows that the price of cocaine has settled, and even begun to drop slightly, suggesting that supply is stable.

Such data does little to support the argument that drug traffickers are feeling the pressure from U.S. efforts. According to the government’s reasoning, measuring the price of cocaine is a key way to measure the success of the U.S.-backed campaign against Mexican and Colombian drug cartels. If there is a cocaine shortage in the U.S., the theory goes, the drug’s street price would be higher, and purity levels would also be impacted.

But, as the latest NDIC data points out, this simply isn’t the case.

It’s also worth noting that the NDIC reports draws from a database maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The database is basically a catalogue of drug samples that local law enforcement bodies send to the DEA for analysis. Hence the database, known as STRIDE, is not an accurate reflection of national market trends. Another study commissioned by non-profit group the Institute for Defense Analyses, which also used STRIDE data, contradicts the NDIC’s findings and confirms the long-term trend is for falling — not rising — cocaine prices.

The price of cocaine isn’t the only shifting trend observed by the NDIC:

  • The overall availability of other drugs, besides cocaine, continues to rise. Drug use is up among young people, whose top two narcotics of choice are marijuana and prescription pills. In another significant change, Mexican “black tar” heroin is now readily available in areas where it was previously unheard of.
  • The report debunks the theory that there is significant “spillover” violence in the U.S. border states with Mexico. Overall, crime and violence in U.S. border communities decreased from 2009 to 2010, according to the FBI statistics cited by the NDIC. The alleged targeting of U.S. border officials, which has caused so much political hysteria, has also been exaggerated, according to the findings of the report. Overall, violence levels against law enforcement officers are stable, with 1,056 assaults registered in 2009, compared to 1,049 in 2010. Surges of violence in some areas (Tucson and El Paso) accompanied decreases in others (San Diego).
  • A more real threat than spillover violence is evidence of growing ties between gangs in the U.S. southwest and Mexican cartels. The three main gangs that collaborate with the Mexicans — La Eme in San Diego, which works with the the Tijuana Cartel; Barrio Azteca, which works with the Juarez Cartel; and the 38th Street gang in Los Angeles — are among the main distributors of drugs in the U.S. Southwest and beyond.
  • The influence of Colombian drug-trafficking cells in the U.S. has declined significantly and is unlikely to resurge. In a sharp contrast to 25 or 30 years ago, Mexican groups are now the primary controllers of the supply, trafficking and distribution chains in the U.S. Especially along the East Coast, the declining influence of the Colombians is allowing other groups — primarily Dominican or Cuban in origin — to step in and develop domestic trafficking networks.
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