Any student of economics knows the law of supply and demand, and nowhere does it play out more dramatically than in the illegal drug trade along America’s porous borders. Use of banned drugs tends to track with the affluence of a country, and the United States is, far and away, the world’s No. 1 market.
Elaborate global distribution networks have tentacles that reach into even the smallest towns. Drugs that began as poppy, coca and marijuana cash crops in far-flung nations like Afghanistan, Bolivia, Burma, Colombia, Laos and Peru routinely find their way to the Mount Vernons, Fredericktowns and Centerburgs of America. But all of those countries pale in comparison to Mexico, where seven major cartels wage war with the government, and each other, over the lucrative American market for illicit drugs.
According to the World Health Organization, the rate of illegal drug use in America is three times higher than in the European Union. New Zealand, which is No. 2 in the world for consumption of cocaine, uses at just one-fourth the rate of the U.S. The Justice Department’s 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment indicates that 1 in 11 Americans aged 12 or older are regular (at least once a month) drug users. If Knox County parallels the country in that regard, that means there are more than 5,500 drug users in the county. And according to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, Mexican cartels are at the heart of their drug supply.
Costs associated with the drug trade are staggering. Losses in American productivity are pegged at $120 billion a year. More than $60 billion is crime-related, and two million emergency room visits cost nearly $12 billion. Authorities spend $5.5 billion a year combating the scores of domestic gangs that work for or with the foreign cartels and bring drugs to the covert retail market.
The federal government has tried to combat the problem for more than 40 years. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs. In 1984, First Lady Nancy Reagan launched her famed “Just Say No” campaign. Every administration since Eisenhower has had its own approach to the problem, and more than $15 billion a year is currently being pumped into anti-drug programs. But all things considered, one is reminded of a Dutch boy with his finger in a dike. Arguably, the best that can be said about the War on Drugs is that without it things might be even worse.
In Knox County, the tip of the illegal-drug iceberg is seen in 34 grand jury indictments handed down so far in 2012. Most involve the manufacture or trafficking of drugs, which is reflective of efforts to take drugs off the street rather than focus on individual users. Local law enforcement officials point to heroin and methamphetamine as our biggest problems, and aside from specific drug offenses, users are often involved in other crimes such as burglary, robbery, fraud and domestic violence.