Congress isn’t giving President Donald Trump the money he wants for a wall at the US-Mexico border. So Trump on Friday announced that he’ll take matters into his own hands, using an emergency declaration and executive action to get his money anyway.
The plan is to use the $1.375 billion Congress allocated for barriers at the border, along with $600 million from the Treasury Department’s drug forfeiture fund, $2.5 billion from the Defense Department’s drug interdiction program, and, with an emergency declaration, $3.5 billion from the military construction budget.
The Treasury funds are essentially the proceeds from seizures during anti-drug actions; this money is typically slated for other law enforcement and anti-drug programs, but it’s also, in this case, a convenient source of revenue for Trump. The Defense Department funding, on the other hand, is intended for operations to stop drug trafficking around the world; think the typical — and largely ineffective, as I’ll explain below — international war on drug efforts in the US, Mexico, Colombia, and elsewhere.
By framing the wall as an anti-drug and law enforcement program, Trump can argue that the money in both these cases is going to its stated mission. “One of the things I said I have to do and I want to do is border security,” Trump said in his announcement Friday, “because we have tremendous amounts of drugs flowing into our country, much of it coming from the southern border.”
There are legal questions about whether Trump can use this specific money or declare an emergency to build the wall. But even if it’s legal, the fact remains that the wall is the wrong way to combat drug addiction and overdoses.
Most drugs that come into the US come through legal ports of entry — not the illegal border crossings that a wall would aim to stop. And to the extent that some drugs do come through illegal crossings, the people trafficking these substances have long proved adept at overcoming barriers, even using submarines and drones.
Meanwhile, there are areas in drug policy that really could use the money — particularly drug addiction treatment. As the country is ravaged by an opioid epidemic linked to tens of thousands of deaths each year, experts have called for tens of billions of dollars in spending to make treatment far more accessible. Trump has declared an emergency for the opioid crisis, but he has not allocated any money as a result.
If he really wants to do something about drugs in the US, he doesn’t need a new emergency declaration. He should look to the emergency he declared before.
The wall won’t stop drugs from Mexico
Border security experts have long argued that a wall won’t do much to stop the flow of drugs into the US.
“A wall alone cannot stop the flow of drugs into the United States,” Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, previously told me. “If we’re talking about a broader increase in border security, there could be some — probably minor — implications for the overall numbers of drugs being trafficked. But history shows us that border enforcement has been much more effective at changing the when and where of drugs being brought into the United States rather than the overall amount of drugs being brought into the United States.”
For one, most illegal drugs come through legal ports of entry. Trump denied this in his announcement on Friday, but his own Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) disagrees.
As the DEA concluded in 2017, “The most common method employed by these [drug trafficking organizations] involves transporting illicit drugs through U.S. ports of entry (POEs) in passenger vehicles with concealed compartments or commingled with legitimate goods on tractor trailers.”
Traditionally, it’s worked like a scene out of a TV show like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul: A truck transporting legal goods (like ice cream) goes through the US border, sneaking illicit drugs through security inspections by simply hiding them — among other products, in a secret compartment, or some other tricky spot.
In recent years, a growing amount of illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s increasingly substituting heroin in the black market, has also started to come into the US through the mail, often from China.
Trump argued on Friday that most illegal drugs “can’t go through ports of entry,” and that “you can’t take big loads” because they would be stopped by law enforcement. But this fundamentally misunderstands how drug trafficking works: It is possible to ship “big loads” of drugs through ports of entry because drugs, especially potent substances like heroin and fentanyl, are small and easy to compact — making it easy to hide them among other goods and in hidden compartments.
Still, a minority of drugs do, based on the DEA’s reports, come through illegal crossings. But there’s no reason to think that a simple barrier will do much to stop these drugs.
Drug trafficking organizations are now extremely sophisticated. They deploy tools like drones, submarines, and narco-torpedoes to get around border security. They dig miles-long tunnels under walls and fences, and fire bazookas over them. Modern technology has simply outpaced walls, at least when it comes to drug trafficking.
The simple problem is drugs are tremendously profitable. That makes it so, no matter how many barriers (physical or otherwise) the US puts up, someone will always try to find a way around the barriers and ship the drugs anyway. There’s just too much money to make in this space for criminal organizations to not try to take part.
This has led to what experts call the “balloon effect”: As one part of a balloon is pushed down, the air is simply shifted to other parts of the balloon. In reality, this means that when the US has cracked down on drug trafficking in one area, drug trafficking has simply shifted elsewhere — from Peru and Bolivia to Colombia, from the Netherland Antilles to West Africa, and from the Caribbean to Mexico.
A 2014 review of the research by Peter Reuter at the University of Maryland and Harold Pollack at the University of Chicago backed this up, finding no good evidence that tougher measures against the distribution of drugs actually reduce access to these substances. To that end, even the original intent of the Defense Department’s drug interdiction program — which Trump is taking money from for the wall — isn’t very effective either.
The result is that tougher border security is limited in how much it can do to stop drugs.
Want to spend money on anti-drug programs? Fund treatment.
It’s these limitations that have led many drug policy experts to focus on another area: If we can’t do much about the supply of drugs, maybe we can do something about the demand. By putting more money into addiction treatment, the thinking goes, fewer people will want to use drugs in the first place — leading to fewer cases of addiction and overdose deaths.
But even as the opioid epidemic is linked to record levels of overdose death year after year, America’s addiction treatment infrastructure remains woefully inadequate.
Federal data suggests that only one in 10 people with any substance use disorder and one in five people with an opioid use disorder seek specialty treatment. And even when an addiction treatment clinic is available, fewer than half of facilities offer opioid addiction medications like buprenorphine and methadone, which are considered the gold standard for opioid addiction treatment and reduce the mortality rate among patients by half or more. In other words, treatment is inaccessible enough that most people who need it don’t get it, and even when treatment is available, it doesn’t meet the best standards of care.
The combination of tens of thousands of overdose deaths and a seriously lacking addiction treatment system is why experts say tens of billions of dollars need to go to the problem — adding up to an investment comparable to what the US put toward HIV/AIDS in the 1990s. (In recent years, drug overdoses were linked to more deaths than HIV/AIDS at its peak.)
“To actually stem the tide of overdose deaths, we need funding and innovation that is on par with our response to HIV/AIDS,” Sarah Wakeman, an addiction medicine doctor and medical director at the Massachusetts General Hospital Substance Use Disorder Initiative, previously told me. That, she explained, will require “a massive infusion of funding and a fundamental restructuring of how we treat addiction in this country.”
Yet so far, Trump and Congress have not taken much action. In 2016, under President Barack Obama, Congress approved $500 million a year for the opioid crisis with the Cures Act. Last year, it agreed to an additional $3.3 billion a year. And it’s passed other measures that authorize smaller grant programs, lift restrictions on certain kinds of addiction treatment, and make other legal and regulatory tweaks to open access to treatment. Experts acknowledge these are all positive steps — but they’re simply not enough.
The funds that Trump is directing to his wall may not be eligible for addiction treatment (or the wall, for that matter). And they wouldn’t be enough to tackle the full scale of the opioid crisis.
But if Trump is really determined to do something about America’s drug problem, treatment is what he should be thinking about — not a wall.
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