Drug dealing, drug control, and terrorism

The CRS publishes my report on the links between drug dealing and terrorism, and what we should do about it.

The Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress occasionally commissions papers from outside authors. My study of the links between drugs and terror, and the policy implications of those links for the design of drug control policies, has just been issued as report RL 32334: Illicit Drugs and the Terrorist Threat

I’m told that your Member of Congress or Senator can supply a hard copy. Please do not send comments to CRS, which doesn’t have time to deal with them, or to your Congressfolks, who will just buck them forward to CRS. Send me an email.

The opening and closing paragraphs of the CRS report are as follows:

The international traffic in illicit drugs contributes to terrorist risk through five distinct mechanisms: supplying cash, creating chaos, supporting corruption, providing “cover” and sustaining common infrastructures for illicit activity, and competing for law enforcement and intelligence attention. Of these, cash and chaos are likely to be the two most important.

Different drugs, different trafficking routes, and different organizations have different relationships to terrorist threats. Therefore it might be possible to improve domestic security by targeting drug law enforcement on those drugs, routes, and organizations with the strongest known or potential links to terror. However, doing so would require new analytic capacities and decision-making strategies for all the agencies involved in drug law enforcement, and there is no assurance that the policies that best implement the mission of protecting Americans from drug abuse will also perform best in protecting the country from terrorism.

Given the multiple purposes of the drug abuse control effort, American drug policy cannot be driven entirely, or even primarily, by the need to reduce the contribution of drug abuse to our vulnerability to terrorist action. There are too many other goals to be served by the drug abuse control effort.

However, the links between the two issues are sufficiently clear that the institutions of drug abuse would be wise to factor the impacts of their activities on the terrorist threat into their decision-making. Such a focus could involve employing enforcement to reduce the opportunities that drug trafficking provides to terrorist groups, and focusing the demand control efforts more intensely on hard-core user-offenders.

You may find the style somewhat less spritely than readers of this space are used to. The quick summary (which I can express more clearly here than CRS protocol would allow): there’s less than meets the eye to all the fuss about drugs and terror, but there are links between the two. Our drug policies could, and probably should, be adapted somewhat to serve the ends of the war on terror, but mostly haven’t been and likely won’t be for the usual bureaucratic reasons.

One issue I was careful not to address in the report was whether the links between drugs and terror constitute a sufficient reason for making cocaine a licit commodity on more or less the same terms as alcohol.

There is no doubt that cocaine dealing contributes to terrorism in Colombia, and that it does so only because it is illicit. Whatever contribution cocaine dealing makes to the terrorist threat domestically is similarly tied to its illicit status. Therefore, if terrorism were the only thing we cared about, we probably ought to legalize cocaine.

However, since it isn’t — since we also care about the damage long-term, heavy cocaine users do to themselves, and since the number of long-term, heavy cocaine users would likely soar under legalization on the alcohol model — the question becomes whether the gains in terrorism control, added to the gains in reduced domestic crime, law enforcement costs, and incarceration levels, are enough to counterbalance the losses on the addiction side.

My judgment is that a world with legal cocaine would probably be, on balance, somewhat worse than a world without it. But if a convincing case were made that cocaine trafficking was, or could become, a significant source of funding to terrorist groups threatening the United States, that judgment might have to be revised.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

3 thoughts on “Drug dealing, drug control, and terrorism”

  1. The Link Between Terrorism and Drug Dealing

    Mark Kleiman has just published a new report on drug dealing, drug control, and terrorism. He says one thing his report did not address is: whether the links between drugs and terror constitute a sufficient reason for making cocaine a…

  2. Kleiman and Drug War Rant

    Mark Kleiman has some comments on his recent report, entitled Illicit Drugs and the Terrorist Threat, to the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. The report and his comments are worth reading, as are Drug War Rant's thoughts. Klei…

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