Hard drugs by the ton

July 27, 1992

Stories of drug busts are common these days, but the recent seizure of six tons of cocaine headed for Baltimore was still big news. The traffickers meant to work through a Catonsville business, but got tripped up after authorities grew suspicious about its imports. The six tons, hidden in the center of a container of untouched tiles, could have supplied the entire Mid-Atlantic region's illicit drug markets.

Not even a six-ton seizure can cut off supplies in the open-air markets in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, as was apparent three years ago when 20 tons of cocaine were seized in L.A. It is time to update the popular wisdom about drug trafficking, however. For as America's drug habit has grown, so has the smugglers' boldness.

Major drug rings have abandoned the pin-prick imports of the past for industrial-strength deals. Authorities say at least a third of the illicit drugs now get into the country in ship-borne containers such as the one in which Panamanian and U.S. officers found the six tons of cocaine. Smaller shipments still cross the border inside the intestines of international air travelers -- swallowed in cut-off fingers from surgical gloves -- and hidden in secret compartments of luggage, airplane toilets and in cars and trucks, to be sure.

But it is just as sure that the billions of dollars worth of hard drugs sold to the sad millions of American drug abusers cannot move efficiently in such pathways. If it did, the random chance of smugglers' getting caught -- and lightning does strike frequently -- would doom individual addicts and even whole addict populations to frantic searches and long treks to find ready sources of drugs. But the logic of the market applies even for "products" as harmful as hard drugs. Just as legal substances like aspirin move tons at a time, so must illicit drugs. Otherwise, we could never account for the size of the national drug habit.

What that means for national policy is clear. Drug trafficking of that magnitude involves so many people and businesses that it cannot remain secret. Increased scrutiny of the banks and businesses that handle the traffickers' money, container traffic and ancillary supplies of vials, glassines, "cut" materials and packaging should lead back to the hidden criminals who finance and manage this deadly trade.

Shifting gears to bear down harder on the interstate financiers, wholesalers and transporters who keep the drug trade running would put a huge dent in the illicit traffic. That would make the streets of cities like Baltimore a lot safer and make it a lot harder for drug dealers to sweep even more of our precious youth into lives of crime and degradation.

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