By Karl Radl

When I recently read Tom Wainwright’s book ‘Narconomics: How to Run a  Drug Cartel’ it quickly became clear that the author – the ‘Britain  Editor’ for the left-wing magazine ‘The Economist’ – was engaging in  what Howard Campbell termed ‘Narco-Propaganda’. (1)

The essence of Wainwright’s argument made throughout the  semi-autobiographical book is that United States illegal drugs policy –  created and managed by what he terms ‘Drugs Warriors’ – is a failure because it has spent a huge amount of money without achieving a lot as  it has focused on the supply side of the trade in illegal drugs. He  argues by contrast that adopting a demand side approach – by which he  means legalizing and regulating currently illegal drugs like cocaine and  marijuana – would be much more effective because it would undercut the  cartels.

When discussing these organizations, he demonstrates throughout  ‘Narconomics’ that applying an economic lens to the operations of Latin  American drug cartels is an effective and powerful way to understand  them. This is all well and good, but where Wainwright goes wrong in his  unstated reliance on the idea of the ‘Rational Economic Man’ – i.e.  human beings will always behave in their best economic interests – and  the idea that legalizing cocaine and marijuana would somehow curb the  problems that US supply side drugs policy was created to stamp out.

In essence, Wainwright believes that if you stamp out the demand for  illegal drugs by legalizing them, it then lowers the price of drugs  and, therefore, makes it unprofitable for Latin American drugs cartels to  traffic them, thus also decreasing crime by concomitantly reducing the  strong financial motive for – as well as the ability of - these  organizations to engage in violent and paramilitary struggles.

The problem with this – which Wainwright doesn’t acknowledge – is  that it doesn’t address the issue of addiction to cocaine and marijuana  that are a social blight upon both North and Latin American societies.  All Wainwright’s solution does is potentially – and I stress potentially  – make it unprofitable for the Latin American drug cartels to operate, but fails to note that unless all currently illegal drugs are legalized, then these organizations will still exist, engage in violence and  traffic illegal drugs to the United States and elsewhere.

What is the solution then?

Pump more money into taking the fight to the cartels in Latin America itself?

I don’t think so.

In my view Wainwright is right to stress that a demand side rather  than a supply side approach to dealing with the effects – socioeconomic  and otherwise – of the trade in illegal narcotics in North America.  What Wainwright gets wrong is that he believes that the only solution to  widespread abuse of illegal substances like cocaine and marijuana can  only be solved by legalizing, regulation and de-stigmatization. Not only  would this not result in any tangible change in the negative effects of  the abuse of illegal drugs, but it would – as we have seen in American  states such as Alaska, California, Colorado and Nevada, as well as  internationally like in the Netherlands – significantly exacerbate the  issues while not bringing in enough money to cover the costs of  legalization.

A viable solution then has to take into account the negative effects  of the use of currently illegal substances like cocaine and marijuana,  but also combat the Latin American drug trade.

That solution was demonstrated remarkably by Philippine President  Rodrigo Duterte when he made dealing and possessing illegal substances a  crime punishable by death in the Philippines and had the police operate  extra-judicially in implementing it. In other words, rather than farting  around with mealy mouth platitudes and increasing the problems of  substance abuse among the people of the Philippines, Duterte took  immediate action to physically eliminate the supply side of the equation  by smashing the operational infrastructure of the drug-dealing and  supplying networks in his country, while also eliminating the core  social problem of the addicts themselves.

To put it in Wainwright’s preferred economic terminology, Duterte  raised the costs of doing business in the Philippines for drugs cartels  so high that they simply exited the market. If one put such a policy  into effect in the United States and Canada in modified form to conform  to European norms and forms, then one would use the DEA’s paramilitary  infrastructure to physically eliminate drug dealers and their networks,  while utilizing the FBI’s expertise in interrogation and information to  identify targets both inside and outside of the United States by  rounding up and interrogating the addicts before enforcing a one-time  forced rehab to get them clean.

In essence, by taking out the whole of demand side as well as some of  the supply side of the operations of the Latin American drug cartels  within North America one will largely eliminate the problem of the use of  illegal substances in North America and reduce what there is down to  very small ‘recreational’ operations, which require far fewer resources  to combat.

The problem that Wainwright has is that he refuses to recognize the  fact that state-sponsored violence of this kind against a deadly  socioeconomic and health menace like the trade in illegal drugs – when  targeted correctly and with the focus on the needs of the majority not  the ‘human rights’ of the minority – would be – and has proven to be –  the single most effective way to deal with what are, in his view,  black-market corporations.


(1) Howard Campbell, 2012, ‘Narco-Propaganda in the Mexican “Drug  War”: An Anthropological Perspective’, Latin American Perspectives, Vol.  41, No. 2, p. 60