Recent large drug seizures and arrests don’t show that so-called drug supply reduction works. The system is broken but we don’t dare to ask the right questions.
The new year started with great successes for drug enforcement agencies in Europe. The media reported in early January about the largest Ecstasy seizure of the decade in Spain. 827,000 Ecstasy pills, 76kg of amphetamine, and 39.5kg of methamphetamine were confiscated by the Spanish police.
A few days ago, Tse Chin Lop, the head of the largest global criminal organisation dealing in methamphetamine, ‘the Company’, was arrested in Amsterdam. He was dubbed Asia’s El Chapo, with an estimated 17 billion USD annual income.
In both cases, these successes were the result of long years of secret police operations involving the agencies of multiple countries and probably thousands of law enforcement officials.
Fewer drugs will enter the illicit market and the operation of criminal organisations is disrupted, so we have a reason to celebrate. But do we really? I doubt it.
Let’s have a closer look!
Growing illicit drug markets
First of all, the growing number and quantity of drug seizures does not only indicate that the police are doing their job; it is also an indicator of the growing size of illicit drug markets. According to the World Drug Report published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2020, methamphetamine seizures have increased from 11 tonnes in 2008 to 228 tonnes in 2018.
We can therefore estimate that approximately 20 times more methamphetamine is being produced/trafficked in the world now than 20 years ago.
Wastewater analysis suggests that use of methamphetamine – generally low and historically concentrated in Czechia and Slovakia – now appears to be present in other European countries.
According to the 2019 drug market report of Europol and EMCDDA, after a decade-long shortage in MDMA, the European Ecstasy market is flourishing again, and the number of seizures is back to pre-shortage levels. The shortage was the result of police operations that led to a shift in drug markets and the emergence of new psychoactive stimulants. But it seems the effects were transitory, and Queen Ecstasy has reconquered her throne.
Growing purity and cheaper prices
Despite growing numbers of drug seizures, these drugs are more available than ever. The retail prices are stable or have decreased whilst purity increased, especially in the case of Ecstasy. An average pill cost 100 Euros and contained 100mg of MDMA twenty years ago. Now it costs 92 Euros and contains 213mg of MDMA.
What is more, due to globalisation and technological innovations, illicit drug markets are more diverse and advanced than ever. Drugs purchased online can be transported across Europe and delivered to consumers by post and parcel services, with minimal risk of arrest.
Going after the Big Fish?
The arrest of Tse Chin Lop has been celebrated as a big victory in the fight against drug traffickers. But as UNODC’s Jeremy Douglas pointed out in an interview to Reuters, “the organisation remains, the demand for synthetic drugs has been built, and someone will step in to replace Tse.” We have seen in Latin America that the arrest of cartel bosses does not lead to the disruption of drug trafficking but to the diversification and evolution of criminal organisations. As Sanho Tree points out in his intriguing essay, law enforcement fuels the Darwinian selection of drug criminals.
Also, if you think that people like Tse Chin Lop are on the top of the food chain, think again. Read the investigative report published by BuzzFeed last year on how the most prestigious banks have been benefiting from the laundering of dirty drug money, while governments and law enforcement authorities close their eyes to this.
The real Big Fish who benefit from the illicit drug trade are simply too big to catch.
As the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer put it, there are “concerns” that a heavy-handed response could have “unintended consequences.”
The reality of the drug war is that Big Fish enjoy their freedom and luxury lifestyle while poor people go to jail or are tortured and executed.
The myth of supply reduction
Despite investing billions of Euros in so-called supply reduction interventions, drug supply has only grown in size. Enforcement can only scratch the surface. There is no debate about this.
Yet still, the conclusion European institutions draw from this fact is disappointing: if supply reduction does not work, we need more supply reduction.
Or as the Europol/EMCDDA report puts it, “this underlines the need to ensure the adequate resourcing and prioritisation of supply reduction activities, including not only law enforcement interventions and investigations, but also importantly activities to enhance international cooperation, at both the national and EU level.”
This could be observed in the new European Drugs Agenda, published by the European Commission in the summer, that prioritised supply reduction over demand/harm reduction (it has been revised since then).
This approach is based on the premise that supply reduction is not working because we do not invest in it enough. There are not enough policemen, helicopters, joint operations, money, and working hours, not enough drug searching dogs, and prison cells.
If we give more money to law enforcement and create harsher laws and regulations that empower these agencies, they say, we will see a shrinking illicit drug market.
But if we could learn anything from the previous decades of law enforcement is that this premise is false. Supply reduction is a myth – and not because we don’t invest in it enough but because the drug market is driven by lucrative profits and high demand for drugs. What eradication campaigns, interdiction efforts, and incarceration of dealers can achieve at best is a temporary disruption in distribution chains and shifts in the drug markets. And the latter almost always makes drug use riskier, and more harmful.
This is not to say that law enforcement has no role in managing drug markets, but we need to abandon the pervasive myth of supply reduction – the idea that we can stop or significantly reduce drug supply with repressive measures.
This is the point where most if not all of my readers will expect me to come up with a solution like “we need to legalise all drugs.” Perhaps surprisingly for some people, I will not do that. I don’t want to give absolute answers or solutions – what I want to achieve here is to urge everyone to ask the right questions.
Are we fighting the good fight? Do we really understand what we are fighting against? Do we have clear indicators of what success means in this fight? Are we really considering all available options in our efforts to find solutions?
One thing decision-makers must do is to thoroughly investigate the impact of so-called supply reduction measures. When police operations make large seizures or major arrests, celebration is not enough. It is time to set up a research team to assess the impact of these interventions: look at how they affect the drug market and the operation of criminal organisations.
Current supply reduction is like throwing rocks into a lake and seeing them disappear after stirring the surface over and over again – without knowing what happens to them after they sink.
What is even more important is to listen those researchers, activists, and professionals – including people who use drugs themselves – who have plenty of knowledge and understanding about why and how people consume drugs, and how are they affected by the repressive measures of supply reduction. It is time to see the suffering of people who struggle with drug dependence in a different light: in the context of poverty, social exclusion, and lack of access to health care and quality recreation.
If we ask the right questions – we will come to the right solutions.