Pot is bulky and pungent.
That makes it difficult to conceal in, say, a suitcase or a truck. For that reason, marijuana traffickers tend to avoid legal ports or entrances, preferring instead to traverse the expanses of deserts and canyons where Border Patrol agents are often the only signs of human life. To the extent that other drugs
cross outside normal entry points, they are most often hitchhikers along for the ride with the weed. In 2013, for example, Border Patrol agents seized 274 pounds of marijuana for every one pound of other drugs.
So for those familiar with the history of drug smuggling, there was a dog that didn’t bark in Donald Trump’s early January Oval Office address, which was intended to frighten Americans into supporting a border wall and give him leverage to end the shutdown. While Trump described the southern border as “a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs,” he only specifically mentioned “meth, heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl”—all drugs that typically come in through formal points of entry. He did not speak of what has been, for most of living memory, the most smuggled item over the Mexican-American border: marijuana.
Pot, and the impoverished undocumented immigrants who often bring it, are no longer flowing across the border at the rate they once were. This decline has virtually nothing to do with expensive security innovations at the border and everything to do with legalization in the United States. If it were any other industry, one imagines the president would be delighted: When it comes to pot, customers prefer to buy American.
A CENTURY OF FECKLESSNESS
President Trump is far from the first politician to use drug smuggling to justify greater border security. During the 1920s, the “need” to combat smuggling served as a primary justification for the creation of the Border Patrol. In 1922, the commissioner general of immigration warned that “dope, liquor, Chinese, and alien smuggling has become a lucrative business and is being carried on by international gangs in which there have been found the hardest, most daring, and cleverest criminals.” These nefarious forces, he added, were “backed by no limit of funds and possessed of the highest powered vehicles.”
In 1924, Congress responded to these concerns and the need to enforce new restrictions on legal immigration by creating the Border Patrol. During alcohol Prohibition, the agency went on to confiscate millions of quarts of liquor. Year after year, the immigration commissioner’s reports requested more agents, vehicles, and even airplanes to compete with the traffickers.
Then, in December 1933, national Prohibition was repealed. Though some states continued the pernicious policy, the illicit smuggling of booze immediately dropped by 90 percent. By 1935, liquor importation at the border, and the grave warnings over it, had disappeared entirely.
The calm, however, was short-lived.
Barely two years later, Congress enacted a nationwide ban on marijuana through the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Suddenly, the Border Patrol began touting the “drive against narcotics”— in particular, “Mexican marihuana”—as the justification for spending more money to “secure the border.” With the official launch of the “war on drugs” under President Richard Nixon, when marijuana was classified as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” the Border Patrol focused even more attention on drug smuggling. In 1972, the Immigration and Naturalization Service announced that “because of known alien involvement in illicit drug traffic, Service officers have directed increased attention to the detection of possible drug violations.”
Today, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spends billions of dollars a year on drug interdiction efforts. In addition to its 20,000 agents, the Border Patrol has constructed 650 miles of fencing and “vehicular barriers” designed to stop drug runners across the deserts. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has nearly 1,500 canine units and a coast-to-coast surveillance network that includes a fleet of Predator drones. Despite this costly effort, the DHS inspector general concluded in 2016 that the department “could not ensure its drug interdiction efforts met required national drug control outcomes nor accurately assess the impact of the approximately $4.2 billion it spends annually on drug control activities.”
Foretelling the doom of Trump’s wall, the Border Patrol discovered on average more than one drug smuggling tunnel from Mexico every month from 2007 to 2010, even as it built out hundreds of miles of security fences along the border. This was in addition to more than 300 holes per month that people were putting in the fences. When smugglers weren’t going under or through the barriers, they were literally driving over them on ramps—a fact uncovered when an unlucky smuggler’s SUV pinned itself on top of a fence. Even that hang-up didn’t stop the innovative criminals from making off with the dope.
POT SMUGGLING PLUMMETS
DRUG SMUGGLING MOVES in an underground economy, which necessarily means rigorous formal statistics are hard to come by. Importers understandably make no publicly available reports, so the true scale of the enterprise can only be estimated indirectly, when government agents bring portions of the invisible market to light. The absolute amount of drugs that smugglers bring into the country is many times greater than the amount seized, but drug seizures can serve as a proxy for changes in the flow of drugs. In the absence of other developments, a significant increase in drug seizures likely indicates an increase in the flow.
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