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Blogs from April, 2015

drug tunnel from Mexico for MarijuanaEvery now and then, American law enforcement authorities find a tunnel that connects a location in Mexico to a location in the United States. About eighty tunnels have been “detected and dismantled??? in the last ten years, including one that was discovered less than two months ago in Arizona.

The latest tunnel to make headlines failed to go the distance. Mexican soldiers discovered the tunnel entrance near the Tijuana International Airport. The workers who were building the tunnel completed only 500 feet before they were caught and detained. Although Inquisitr rather hyperbolically claims that the tunnel was “discovered under a home near San Diego,??? it had not yet crossed into the United States.

Evidence that the tunnel was intended for drug smuggling apparently comes from a tip that the Mexican soldiers received, as well as “trace amounts of meth??? and “two bricks of marijuana??? that were found in the tunnel. It is reasonable to suspect that the trace amounts of meth were the remnants of drugs used by workers to fuel their energy during the construction project. At the same time, it is fair to believe that the tunnel was being built to facilitate the delivery of marijuana or other drugs into California.


When Customs authorities found the Arizona tunnel, they seized 4,700 pounds of marijuana before sealing the tunnel. If the Tijuana tunnel was also meant for smuggling marijuana, the project is another testament to the failure of America’s war on drugs. Filling tunnels with concrete merely cause smugglers to build new tunnels. Or to fill boats with marijuana in Mexico and bring the cargo ashore along the California coast. Or to smuggle marijuana by cars or trucks that drive across the border. Creative smugglers have even used improvised cannons to hurl marijuana over fences that separate Mexico from the United States.

The war against marijuana is particularly wasteful at a time when cities and states are increasingly recognizing that marijuana should be regulated and decriminalized rather than banned. According to the DEA, in fact, tunnels might be used by Mexican drug cartels to smuggle high-quality American marijuana into Mexico. Whether that allegation is true (and any information that the DEA attributes to ongoing intelligence operations should be viewed with skepticism), the war on drugs has done nothing to reduce the availability of marijuana to those who want to use it. The war on marijuana is really a war on taxpayers who fund the DEA’s futile efforts.

Even if the aborted tunnel was intended for smuggling less benign drugs than marijuana, America’s drug warriors need to overcome their tunnel vision. The most effective solution to the problem of drug abuse lies in reducing harm through the public health system, not in reducing supply through the criminal justice system. The research reported in the British Medical Journal found that more than thirty years into the international war on drugs, supplies have increased and street prices have fallen. Pouring more money into efforts to seal the tunnels used by drug smugglers merely continues the failed policies of the past.


If the nation is ever to get a handle on its drug problem, it needs to address drug abuse as a public health issue. Using the criminal justice system to attack drug abuse diverts law enforcement resources from serious crime, fills jails and prisons with addicts, and discourages individuals from getting help because they fear arrest if their drug abuse becomes known to the authorities.

Instead of focusing on arrests and punishment, the philosophy of harm reduction seeks solutions that will minimize the harm that drug abuse causes to society. Examples include:

  • Needle exchange programs that protect against the transmission of AIDS, viral hepatitis, and other infectious diseases
  • The substitution of clinically dispensed drugs like methadone for street drugs like heroin
  • Replacing punishment with treatment for addicted users
  • Emphasizing public education and overdose prevention
  • Making clear and honest distinctions between illicit drugs that pose serious health risks and those that do not

Searching for drug trafficking tunnels that will only be replaced by new tunnels or more creative methods of drug smuggling does nothing to reduce demand for drugs. As long as that demand exists, the punishment model of the criminal justice system will never succeed in reducing supply.

The decline in the number of people who smoke tobacco followed a massive public education effort. Educational programs designed to reduce demand for harmful drugs, coupled with other harm reduction efforts, offer the best opportunity for minimizing the public health consequences of illicit drug use. Implementing effective harm reduction policies requires a clear vision, not tunnel vision.