No wall can stop opioid smuggling

In a Washington Times op-ed, Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona recently called for “a real defensible border to stop the flow of illegal drugs,” to prevent thousands of Americans from dying of opioid overdoses. “If we want to save lives,” he wrote, “we need a defensible border and we need it yesterday.”

Were it so simple.

Historically, marijuana has constituted more than 99% by weight of drugs smuggled into the US in the field away from official crossing points, according to US Customs and Border Patrol data.  The pictures we see of the smugglers carrying backpacks full of drugs – it’s almost entirely pot.

Notwithstanding, marijuana smuggling across the southwest border is collapsing, with seizures down 86% since 2009.  US and Canadian marijuana legalization is killing the Mexican business.  By the early to mid-2020s, marijuana smuggling across the desert will largely be consigned to the history books, whether we enforce the border or not.

What remains are ‘hard drugs’, notably cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and fentanyl.  Seven-eighths of all hard drugs, however, are smuggled through official crossing points, not across the open border.  Thus, a wall would do nothing to prevent the vast majority of hard drugs entering the country.  Indeed, such smuggling is booming, with interdictions up 40% since President Trump took office.

But the story is even worse than this.  The key cause of the overdose epidemic is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50-100 times more potent than heroin.  Drug dealers use fentanyl to spike other drugs like heroin, cocaine, and even methamphetamines.  As little as two milligrams – the equivalent of a few grains of salt – can kill the average person.   A user might believe they are receiving a normal dose of, say, heroin but inject a fentanyl-laced dose many times more powerful.  A user of cocaine or methamphetamines may not even realize the drugs have been adulterated and die without any expectation of having taken a serious risk.

The economic incentive to use fentanyl is enormous.  A soda can equivalent of fentanyl, costing one thousand dollars, could translate into counterfeit opioid pills with a street value in excess of $1 million.  That much fentanyl could easily be hidden in the bowels of a drug carrier, or readily concealed anywhere in the seven million trucks crossing from Mexico into the US this year.  Even if every person entering the southern US were given a cavity search and every crossing vehicle disassembled to its component parts, a cheap drone could still fly $20 million of fentanyl over the wall into the US every day.  There is no way to stop fentanyl at the border.  It is too compact, too potent and too valuable.  

As a result, the calls for enhanced border enforcement are in reality pleas for the status quo.  Such exhortations may make us feel better, but merely underwrite the terrible toll that opioid overdoses are taking on the country.  If we take the crack cocaine or HIV epidemics as a template, the opioid crisis could claim as many as 500,000 victims by the time it ultimately burns out a decade from now. 

The country does, however, have two other policy options: legalize hard drugs or suppress demand.

Many drug policy experts and liberal politicians are advocating for legalizing hard drugs, at least for medicinal use.  For example, New York mayor Bill de Blasio is championing supervised injection sites to allow users to check drugs for adulteration and provide a safe space to shoot up.  Based on the experience of the Netherlands, such a policy would sustain perhaps one million addicts nationally, but could reduce the death toll by more than 90%. 

Alternatively, the US could attempt to copy the approaches of Japan and Singapore.  These put addicts into forced recovery, including ‘cold turkey’ withdrawal and months in work programs.  Both of these initiatives succeeded in materially eliminating heroin and opium addiction in their respective countries, but they are not for the faint-hearted.  Nor would the program come cheap, although the cost could be largely offset by savings elsewhere in drug interdiction, incarceration and treatment.  If one wants to take a hardline conservative approach, aggressive demand suppression is the way to go.

There are no easy options in combating opioid deaths.  The public is poorly served, however, by an unthinking repetition of the build-the-wall mantra.  The fixation on the wall to stop drugs translates, as a practical matter, into an acquiescence in the death of hundreds of thousands of additional overdose victims.  It is unequivocally the wrong policy.