Ending Prohibition Would Be More Effective Than a Border Wall

By Ben Grenrock on March 19, 2019

On February 14th, President Trump called a state of national emergency in order to divert several billions of dollars of federal funds from where they’d previously been allocated to pay for the building of a wall across the United States’ southern border. In the days following this announcement, his declaration has been criticized as an unconstitutional abuse of power, a drastic misstep that may shake the president’s support within his own party, and he was mocked by everyone from Saturday Night Live to U.S. senators on Twitter. Sixteen states and the ACLU are now suing Trump over his national emergency declaration.

Compounding the absurdity of the president’s decision, quantitative studies have shown that a wall wouldn’t even be an effective method for fixing many of the problems the president cites as a reason for his claimed “emergency.” In his speech declaring the emergency, Trump claimed that walling off the border is imperative “because we have tremendous amounts of drugs flowing into the country…. With a wall, it would be very easy,” he said, to stop the “invasion” of drugs from Mexico.

According to a study published this past December, a wall would do little to combat drug smuggling. The CATO Institute—an often right-leaning think-tank founded by the Charles Koch Foundation—conducted the study, and it analyzed patterns of data collected by the Department of Homeland Security over the span of decades to show that the fastest, most-effective and cheapest way to quash the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. is by lifting their prohibition. As an example, the study cited the drastic decrease in cannabis smuggling in the years since just six out of the 50 states voted for legalization. The study also claims that the vast majority of hard drugs that enter the U.S. don’t cross the border through the routes the proposed wall would block.  

In order to make sense of the study’s findings, it is important to understand the difference between drugs entering the U.S. through “ports of entry” versus “between ports of entry.” Ports of entry are controlled entrances/exits in and out of the country. With or without a wall, these checkpoints and the measures taken to secure them will remain the same. The areas between ports of entry—vast expanses of land at the southern edge of the country—are where Trump’s wall would be constructed. The wall is intended to stop people and drugs flowing into the U.S. between ports of entry.

Drawing inferences from the percentage of drugs seized by Border Patrol agents between those ports of entry and comparing them with the percentage of drugs seized by the agencies that operate at those ports, the CATO study points out that hard drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl typically seem to make their way into the U.S. through ports of entry, rather than between them.

From April to August of 2018, Office of Field Operations agents at ports of entry seized “8 times more pounds of cocaine, 17 times more of fentanyl, 23 times more of methamphetamine, and 36 times more of heroin than each Border Patrol agent seized at the physical border—that is, at non-checkpoint locations between ports of entry.” During this period of time, only seven percent of the total combined seizures of hard drugs—at ports of entry and between them—occurred between ports of entry. The study concludes that, “In light of these facts, a surge of agents, technology, and infrastructure between ports of entry does not make sense as a strategy to control the flow of hard drugs into the United States.”

Because it’s much harder to hide, cannabis tends to be the drug of choice for smuggling into the U.S. between ports of entry. However, since the process of legalizing cannabis at a state level began in 2012, cannabis smuggling has dropped exponentially. In 2018, the quantity of cannabis each Border Patrol agent seized on average fell by a whopping 78 percent from the average seizures in 2013. Every figure, from the total pounds of cannabis seized to its estimated street value, has dropped precipitously as prohibition on the plant has gradually receded.

When we compare what legalization has done to cannabis smuggling with past efforts to secure the border in ways similar to the ones Trump is proposing, the relative effectiveness of legalization becomes even clearer. The study explains that, “From 2003 to 2009, Border Patrol doubled its agents, constructed more than 600 miles of fencing, and introduced new surveillance technologies. Despite this, the annual rate of marijuana seizures between ports of entry by Border Patrol remained unchanged at about its average of 115 pounds per agent through FY 2013.”

Of course, all of these figures are based on the drugs that Border Patrol agents or OFO agents working at ports of entry actually discover. In other words, there are surely drugs flowing into the country between ports of entry, as well as through them, that aren’t included in these numbers.

As the average port-of-entry officer seized drugs valued at three times the amount of those seized by their counterparts policing the border between ports, building a wall to seal off the liminal spaces between ports of entry doesn’t appear to be the best way to stop drugs from entering the U.S. By contrast, the 70-percent decrease in the value of all drugs seized on a per-agent-basis since cannabis legalization began seems to point to a better solution and further calls into question the veracity of the president’s justifications for building his expensive and invasive border wall.

Art and image courtesy of Ron English

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