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As cartels rapidly expand in U.S. cities, authorities confront futility of drug arrests

By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, September 8, 2011 17:30 EDT
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America’s war on drugs is virtually lost on all fronts: illicit drug use is increasing, drug cartels are growing stronger and enforcement is becoming less effective — and the government is well aware of all this, according to documents released this week.

In three separate releases this week — a drug threat assessment (PDF) by the Department of Justice (DOJ), a national survey of drug use patterns and a leaked U.S. Customs memo (PDF) — a bleak picture is painted of the nation’s longest war.

The DOJ assessment is perhaps the most striking: it claims that brutally violent Mexican drug cartels have now set up shop in over 1,000 U.S. cities, up from just 230 cities mentioned in a 2009 DOJ assessment. They’ve effectively set themselves up as the dominant suppliers of illegal drugs in every major U.S. population center, and focus on smuggling through southern California and south Texas.

Fueling their rise is an increased interest in marijuana and methaphetamine among Americans: according to a survey released Thursday by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), 8.9 percent of Americans were users of illegal drugs, up from 8.7 percent a year earlier and 8 percent in 2008. Marijuana use was up more than any other drug, going from 5.8 percent of the population regularly using it in 2007 to 6.9 percent in 2010.

All told, DHHS claimed there were 17.4 million current marijuana users in the U.S., accounting for 76.8 percent of the total number of illicit drug users. About 9 million people were using drugs other than marijuana, with pharmaceutics being the leading category. Young people ages 15-29 were far more likely to use illicit drugs, the survey found, with usage rates tapering off with age.

Despite these figures, the number of young people age 12-17 who suffered from a drug addiction or dependency went down from 2002 to 2010, going from 8.9 percent to 7.3 percent.

Overall, the situation only looks to get worse: in a leaked U.S. Customs and Border Protection memo provided to Public Intelligence, government agents acknowledge a redundancy mechanism employed by cartels that essentially makes arresting key leadership and seizing major shipments pointless. Every time high-ranking cartel members were captured or killed, existing trends in drug supply and demand went unchanged.

“The removal of key personnel does not have a discernable impact on drug flows as determined by seizure rates,” the memo concludes. “[Drug trade organization (DTO)] operations appear to have built in redundancy and personnel that perform specific duties to limit the damage incurred by the removal of any one person. By sheer volume alone, drug operations would require more than one individual to coordinate and control the process. While the continued arrest or death of key DTO leadership may have long-term implications as to the control and viability of a specific DTO, there is no indication it will impact overall drug flows into the United States.”

The federal government spent over $15 billion on enforcement measures in 2010, according to the Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Some estimates (PDF) also showed state and local governments kicking in over $25 billion more.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) figures show that a drug arrest is made somewhere in the U.S. about every 19 seconds, with the vast majority being for for simple possession.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
 
 
 
 
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