After the Borders are Sealed

Can Domestic Sources Substitute for Imported Drugs

by Peter Reuter

The principal illicit drugs consumed in the U.S. are produced outside its borders. While an increasing share of marijuana is provided domestically, most of that drug is still grown in Mexico, Colombia, and Jamaica. All of the cocaine and heroin for U.S consumption is supplied by other nations. The dominance of foreign production affects U.S. drug policy, which aims to prevent production overseas through eradication and crop substitution schemes, or to interdict smugglers of these drugs. This policy faces two criticisms: (1) Foreign production and smuggling cannot be controlled. The industry is too profitable for poor peasants to be kept from entering it, and the control of international commerce and traffic entering the U.S. is too difficult. (2) Even if the borders were sealed, the result would merely be a change in the nature of drugs consumed. Instead of foreign-source natural-based drugs, U.S. consumers would turn to domestically produced synthetics. This article examines this second claim, looking at three episodes in which drug imports have been seriously disrupted: the heroin drought of the mid-1970s; the elimination of methaqualone (Quaalude) imports in the early 1980s; and the substantial reduction in Colombian-source marijuana during the same period. In each case the author describes the evidence pointing to sharply reduced availability and then examines data concerning consumption of substitute (illicit) drugs and changes in rates of initiation into use of the drug now in restricted supply. The central conclusion is that total drug consumption would decline if the natural products were no longer available, but that the harms associated with drug use might increase because of the greater dangers caused by synthetics. The primary basis for the conclusion is that pharmacological notions of substitutability turn out not to be descriptive of actual behavior; there is instead (weak) evidence of enduring preferences for imported drugs. Three principal data systems were employed: the DAWN (Drug Abuse Warning Network), the High School Senior Survey (HSSS), and the Narcotics Intelligence Estimate.

Originally published in: Drug Policy in the Americas, 1992, pp. 163-177.

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