To Fix the Child Refugee Crisis, End the War on Drugs

Congress closed for the August recess this weekend without passing legislation to address the child refugee crisis on the Mexican border. Nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children, most from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, have entered the U.S. across that border in the last nine months, fleeing spiraling violence in their home countries—murder, rape, and attacks carried out by rival drug gangs, and attacks by police on suspect gang members.

The refugee crisis is now our problem, which is appropriate: The drug-linked violence that the children are fleeing is in large part our fault. Anti-drug policies in the U.S. and Europe have not succeeded in curbing drug use or in raising drug prices, but they have considerably increased crime and violence worldwide. It is time to shift the effort to focus on helping drug users at home rather than battling drugmakers and traffickers abroad.

A little-considered consequence of criminalization is displacement: When a state or country makes an activity illegal, the new criminals find new haven. Bordellos relocate to Nevada, Puritans flee to America, polluting industries settle in China. This kind of displacement suggests that others can bear the costs of an individual or community’s anti-crime measures. For example, if in the interest of preventing burglaries, home insurers require all their policyholders to use alarms or security cameras, burglars would shift their efforts to those without enhanced security measures: in this example, the uninsured, a group that is more vulnerable to begin with.

This is what has happened with drug production, which has concentrated in countries least able to control crime. Here’s a domestic example: In 2004, Oklahoma created the first state law mandating that drug stores place pseudoephedrine behind the pharmacy counter, limiting individual sales and registering the photo ID of purchasers. These regulations severely disrupted the supply of a vital ingredient in methamphetamine, and for Oklahoma, it was an effective intervention: The number of meth labs confiscated in the state dropped 71 percent in three months. But in neighboring Texas and Kansas, where pseudoephedrine remained more easily available, police officers complained of a dramatic increase in meth production. In 2008 the U.S. restricted pseudoephedrine sales nationally. So production moved abroad, first to Mexico and, when that country introduced similar laws, further south to Central America and Africa.

Trade routes can also be displaced. Around 2006, when Mexico declared war on its own drug cartels, violence ticked up in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. One result: The homicide rate in Honduras is now the highest in the world. The number of murders has more than doubled since 2006 and the rate is now 19 times that in the U.S., according to the United Nations.

– Read the entire article at Bloomberg Businessweek.