As any businessman knows, a foolproof way to make a business fail is to restrict cash flow and credit. For too long, we have treated narcotics trafficking more like a moral scourge instead of like a business. Our failure to use market forces to shut down drug networks has had a multitude of costs, including billions of dollars spent to little effect, which has inspired the hopeless and unfortunate call in some quarters to legalize drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Those calls for legalization are wrong. We don’t need a new generation of “legal” addicts. What we need is a tough, smart effort led by people with business sense to drive drug traffickers out of business by intercepting their cash flow.
This is the right time for such an effort. Drug traffickers already are struggling with the flow of cash back to their coffers, and the fight against terrorism has given us new tools and talents to intercept funds. It is a tactic fit to an age of austerity, because when the government seizes the cash flow of drug traffickers, it gets to keep the money, which would reduce rather than bloat our debt.
Certainly, federal and state authorities already seize property in drug cases, but this most often represents the invested profits of small-time dealers rather than cash flow going back to wholesalers and cartels. If we really want to take a big step toward solving the problem, the federal anti-drug forces first should identify the course of the flow of money back to the source of narcotics (often Mexican cartels) and then intercept it in the course of that flow. Once we start to take their money, things will get more difficult for the cartels — they will lose the ability to bribe officials, buy guns and pay the high costs of doing business under cover. In other words, financial stress will make everything harder for them, and that is good for the rest of us.
The FBI in particular has gotten very skilled at identifying and intercepting money intended to support terrorism. We need agents with that experience to apply what they have learned to taking down the drug cartels. They should be part of a Department of Justice task force that also includes strategists who understand international business — that is, who know what makes a business succeed and (more important) what makes it fail.
Best of all, when we take millions of dollars from the flow of drug proceeds, we get to keep the money. In contrast to the expensive and largely futile project of mass incarceration of relatively low-level drug dealers (or merely taking their cars and homes), the interdiction of cash flow helps solve, rather than add to, the federal deficit.
I have no sympathy for low-level drug dealers. They and their kind played a large role in destroying the vibrant city where I was born, Detroit. We don’t need to legalize cocaine, and we shouldn’t. Instead, we need to make the distribution of cocaine a business with a high rate of failure. If a low-level drug dealer loses his job, it is a victory.
In this political season, the presidential candidates refer to each other as “job destroyers.” In truth, this is one area where job destruction is a high aspiration. Either candidate would be well-served by arguing that market forces should be used to break down drug cartels so that a problem can be solved rather than simply addressed.
Mark Osler is a former federal prosecutor and a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.