Trump said this weekend in a tweet that he would more than willing to shut down the government if he doesn’t get funding for that border wall that he claimed a million times would be paid for by Mexico. And he’s using the heroin problem to justify it, claiming that 90% of the heroin in the country comes across that border. As usual, he’s wrong about virtually everything.
“Ninety percent of the heroin in America comes from our southern border, where eventually the Democrats will agree with us and build the wall to keep the damn drugs out,” Trump said.
The one thing he has right here is that most of the heroin that enters the United States does come across the Mexican border. But that doesn’t mean a wall would do much, if anything, to keep the heroin out. There are many reasons for this, which The Economist pointed out last year. First, and most obviously, because attacking the supply does no good if you don’t reduce the demand. If the demand remains high, the price goes up and someone will be willing to do whatever it takes to supply it because they get filthy rich doing it. And this is particularly true of heroin, which comes in very tiny packages that are easy to smuggle in through legal border crossings.
Control efforts along the Mexican border appear to be particularly ineffective in dealing with heroin. Michelle Keck and Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera of the University of Texas looked at the number of hours border patrol agents spent patrolling the Mexican border, drug seizures and drug process. They found that more patrolling was associated with no change in the level of heroin seizures.
A wall, furthermore, would largely be an irrelevance to the trade. Most heroin that comes across the Mexican border is transported by vehicle and smuggled through official entry points because it is a low-volume, high-value commodity. The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation estimates that the entire quantity of pure heroin consumed in America each year would take up 633 cubic feet –or about one sixth of the cargo volume of a single eighteen-wheeler truck. By way of comparison, the Department of Transport reports that 327,647 loaded truck containers entered America from Mexico in July 2017 alone. And a 60-pound sack of heroin would be worth many millions of dollars, suggesting it is extremely unlikely that a smuggler would risk launching it over a wall to land on an unsuspecting border patrol officer on the other side.
If they can make millions and millions of dollars, a wall will barely register as an inconvenience to them. They’ll go over it, around it or under it. They’ll drop the shipments at sea rather than crossing a land border. If there is a huge amount of money to be made, focusing on shutting down the supply only increases the profits and thus the incentive to do so. It’s a war that cannot be won on the supply side.
But all of this is just a pretext. Trump couldn’t care less about heroin. His war is not against drugs, it’s against Latino people. But he can’t say that, so he has to use a dog whistle.