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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