By Karl Radl

When I recently read Tom Wainwright’s book ‘Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel’ it quickly became clear that the author – the ‘Britain Editor’ for the left-wing magazine ‘The Economist’ – was engaging in what Howard Campbell termed ‘Narco-Propaganda’. (1)

The essence of Wainwright’s argument made throughout the semi-autobiographical book is that United States’ illegal drugs policy – created and managed by what he terms ‘Drugs Warriors’ – is a failure, because it has spent a huge amount of money without achieving a lot as it has focused on the supply side of the trade in illegal drugs. He argues, by contrast, that adopting a demand side approach – by which he means legalizing and regulating currently illegal drugs like cocaine and marijuana – would be much more effective because it would undercut the cartels.

When discussing these organizations he demonstrates throughout ‘Narconomics’ that applying an economic lens to the operations of Latin American drug cartels is an effective and powerful way to understand them. This is all well and good, but where Wainwright goes wrong is in his unstated reliance on the idea of the ‘Rational Economic Man’ – i.e. human beings will always behave in their best economic interests – and the idea that legalizing cocaine and marijuana would somehow curb the problems that US supply side drugs policy was created to stamp out.

In essence, Wainwright believes that if you stamp out the demand for illegal drugs by legalizing them it therefore lowers the price of drugs and therefore makes it unprofitable for Latin American drugs cartels to traffic them. Crime is decreased by concomitantly reducing the strong financial motive for – as well as the ability of – these organisations to engage in violent and paramilitary struggles.

The problem with this – which Wainwright doesn’t acknowledge – is that it doesn’t address the issue of addiction to cocaine and marijuana that is a social blight upon both North and Latin American societies. All Wainwright’s solution does is potentially – and I stress potentially – make it unprofitable for the Latin American drug cartels to operate; it fails to note that unless all currently illegal drugs are legalized then these organizations will still exist, engage in violence, and traffic illegal drugs to the United States and elsewhere.

What is the solution then?

Pump more money into taking the fight to the cartels in Latin America itself?

I don’t think so.

In my view Wainwright is right to stress that a demand side, rather than a supply side, approach to dealing with the effects – socioeconomic and otherwise – of the trade in illegal narcotics in North America. What Wainwright gets wrong is that he believes that the only solution to widespread abuse of illegal substances like cocaine and marijuana can only be solved by legalizing, regulation and destigmatization. Not only would this not result in any tangible change in the negative effects of the abuse of illegal drugs, but it would – as we have seen in American states, such as: Alaska, California, Colorado and Nevada as well as internationally like in the Netherlands – significantly exacerbate the issues while not bringing in enough money to cover the costs of legalization.

A viable solution then has to take into account the negative effects of the use of currently illegal substances like cocaine and marijuana, but also combat the Latin American drug trade.

That solution was demonstrated remarkably by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte when he made dealing and possessing illegal substances a crime punishable by death in the Philippines and had the police operate extra-judicially in implementing it. In other words, rather than farting around with mealy-mouth platitudes and increasing the problems of substance abuse among the people of the Philippines, Duterte took immediate action to physically eliminate the supply side of the equation by smashing the operational infrastructure of the drug-dealing and supplying networks in his country while also eliminating the core social problem of the addicts themselves.

To put it in Wainwright’s preferred economic terminology: Duterte raised the costs of doing business in the Philippines for drugs cartels so high that they simply exited the market. If one put such a policy into effect in the United States and Canada in modified form to conform to European norms and forms, then one would use the DEA’s paramilitary infrastructure to physically eliminate drug dealers and their networks while utilizing the FBI’s expertise in interrogation and information to identify targets both inside and outside of the United States by rounding up and interrogating the addicts before enforcing a one-time forced rehab to get them clean.

In essence, by taking out the whole demand side, as well as some of the supply side of the operations of the Latin American drug cartels within North America, one largely eliminates the problem of the use of illegal substances in North America and reduces what there is down to very small ‘recreational’ operations requiring far fewer resources to combat.

The problem that Wainwright has is that he refuses to recognize the fact that state-sponsored violence of this kind against a deadly socioeconomic and health menace like the trade in illegal drugs – when targeted correctly and with the focus on the needs of the majority, not the ‘human rights’ of the minority – would be – and has proven to be – the single most effective way to deal with what are, in his view, black-market corporations.

From The Purity Spiral


Howard Campbell, 2012, ‘Narco-Propaganda in the Mexican “Drug War”: An Anthropological Perspective’, Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 41, No. 2, p. 60