Blockading OPEC

Perhaps gasoline prices have gotten high enough that some people will be interested in a somewhat impish (and certainly impolitic) but quite possibly an effective way to get at the root of the problem. Stick with me a moment.

The problem, from the perspective of American consumers, is that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the international oil cartel, has been successful in carrying out its conspiracy against consumers. Its members who faced historically low oil prices a year ago have agreed to hold down production, thereby restricting supplies and raising prices from about $10 a barrel a year ago to $30 a barrel today.

Most cartel agreements break down eventually because one or more members will "cheat" by selling outside official channels. Such "cheating," of course, should be encouraged, but governments can’t or won’t encourage it or acknowledge it indeed, they might prosecute people they found doing it. OPEC consists of governments rather than private companies, so it has been more successful than most cartels at keeping members in line and at being treated with respect rather than contempt and anger by other governments and the media.


So how might the cartel be undermined? How about Iraq? Why not implicitly assign the brutal Saddam Hussein the task of breaking down OPEC? It could be done rather simply by lifting U.S. and U.N. embargoes on oil exports (and other goods) from Iraq.

There’s a good argument for doing that anyway. Economic sanctions, in place since the Gulf War in 1991, have not resulted in Saddam’s ouster from power; if anything they have strengthened his grip. But the sanctions have led to immense suffering and thousands of unnecessary deaths among the Iraqi people, who suffer already from Saddam’s brutal rule.

Humanitarian and strategic arguments haven’t made much headway against these cruel and ineffective sanctions. Whether sanctions work or not, it seems both satisfyingly tough and morally high-minded to keep them in place as a gesture of disapproval.

As gasoline prices keep rising through the summer, however, perhaps a few more Americans might think about reconsidering.


The House has postponed the vote on President Zipper’s $1.7 billion military aid to Colombia proposal for this week and might end up voting next week. I hope—and the people I talk to when I make my telephone rounds in Washington say there might be a little something to it— that postponement means the War Party doesn’t quite have all its ducks lined up.

The war proponents have packaged the Colombian aid into a $9 billion grab-bag of humanitarian-sounding spending schemes, from hurricane relief, humanitarian assistance for Kosovo and E. Timor and beefing up embassy security. That always makes it harder for the Honorables to pull objectionable items out of the package or to vote against it on final passage.

The delays have supposedly been because of minor disagreements and nit-picking over other spending in the package. But it still seems to me that the longer a vote is delayed the better the chances (even though they seem awfully slim at this juncture) that noticeable public opposition to using the War on Drugs as a pretext to get the United States involved in Colombia’s civil war, which has been going on for 40 years could be organized and made known to Congress. Even if the opposition isn’t massive enough to deter approval of the package, however, it should be expressed.

I’ve written before and others are writing about the foolishness of the US getting into a conflict with no settled objectives and no exit strategy. I’d like to concentrate this week on the idea of interdiction cutting off supplies at the source or at the border as an effective way to reduce drug trafficking.

It’s not effective. Numerous interdiction programs have been tried in the last 35 years or so, and none has succeeded. Indeed, more often than not they increase supplies by spurring new source countries, new trafficking routes and even new drugs. Thanks to Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy for reminding me of some of the details.


This was a terrific movie, but a failed public policy in the 1960s. US officials thought that by destroying the Turkey-French-U.S. supply route they would destroy the heroin market. They made some impressive busts. In response, however, the heroin market expanded to sources in Mexico and Asia.

The Mexican and Southeast Asian markets are still very active. And after some modest interruptions, Turkish sources (sometimes going through Albanian gangsters in Kosovo), along with Eastern European sources, supply Europe quite nicely with as much heroin as users there want.


President Nixon, the first American president to call it a "war" on drugs, who stepped up enforcement activity markedly in the early 1970s, staked a good deal of his policy plans on this offensive against Mexico. The idea was to increase searches of vehicles crossing the border, and at its height in some places one in three vehicles crossing the Mexican border into the United States was searched.

Did it work? Not exactly. It did spur an increase in the use of prescription drug use, and increase that remained in place after the program was abandoned. Traffickers had some problems at first, but soon switched to boats and planes, which they then discovered were superior smuggling tools. The anti-Mexican effort also expanded the Southeast Asian drug markets, which were flourishing rather nicely thanks to the Vietnam war.

Ultimately the intrusive border searches interrupted commerce so seriously that they simply couldn’t be sustained. But before the program was dropped it had led to bolstering Southeast Asian markets, increased abuse of prescription drugs and pushing smugglers into establishing air and sea as well as land routes. Big success.


In the mid 1970s the government got the bright idea of spraying marijuana and poppies in Mexico with the herbicide paraquat, which kills or damages some plants and makes a certain percentage of the users of the plants that aren’t killed seriously ill. The idea was to discourage users, even if Mexican growing places weren’t totally eradicated.

The result, in a couple of years, was the establishment of extensive growing sites within the United States (mostly in national forests, which couldn’t be seized from property owners and from which growers could flee easily if enforcement officers happened by). Domestic growing now furnishes an estimated 25 percent of the marijuana consumed in the United States.

The paraquat program also spurred some to move growing sites to Colombia. That market, as we are all too piquantly aware, eventually evolved to include cocaine and heroin.


In the early 1980s, during Ronald Reagan’s first term, Florida was an important entry point for marijuana. President Reagan’s people thought a full-court press would destroy the trade. They involved the military in a very aggressive interdiction program.

The upshot, however, was that Colombian traffickers came to realize that they would get caught less often and have larger profits if they switched to less bulky (and less detectable by drug-sniffing dogs) cocaine. They also developed trafficking routes along the west coasts and through Mexico. Cocaine purity increased, the price dropped and cocaine problems increased.


President Bush increased military and other law enforcement activities in the Andean region to try to stop the cocaine trade. The results were almost undetectable in terms of any effect on the cocaine trade.

Bush also invaded Panama and arrested then-president Manuel Noriega as a major drug trafficker. Noriega was arrested and brought to the United States for a show trial, but the money laundering and drug transshipments were barely affected. They continue to this day. In fact, scuttlebutt is that Colombian growers and traffickers are already strengthening their ties and bolstering their positions in Panama just in case the latest McCaffreyite war creates some minor disturbances in the Colombian growing and trafficking industry.


During the Clinton years the main US strategy was to provide intelligence to Peru so its government could shoot down suspected traffickers. The Peruvian government, then involved in a long-term and fairly vicious struggle with the guerrilla Shining Path movement, was ready to be mobilized (and supplied with extra military equipment). It shot down some traffickers’ planes and killed some guerrillas.

In the short run you might argue that this program was fairly effective, in that it fairly seriously reduced the amount of drug trafficking in Peru. But the traffickers and growers were simply moving their operations to Colombia, creating the problems the latest infusion of $1.7 billion is supposed to solve by some magic or another.

Since 1980 the federal government has spent more than $250 billion of our money trying to win the Holy War on Drugs. Can any rational person argue that they have done anything other than to make the problems worse?

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).