Vice Squad
Sunday, August 08, 2004
Central planning and the eradication of ditch weed

Earlier this month I opined about the dysfunctional incentives that would be created if the work of drug control agencies were evaluated based on the raw weight of seized drugs. That post was inspired by the Russian anti-drug agency’s claim of success based on confiscating 44 tons of drug shipments in a year. It turns out the “success indicator problem,” as this problem was called in the economics literature on central planning, may be flourishing among the “drug warriors” much closer to my home in Bloomington, IN. The Sunday issue of Bloomington’s main paper (subscription required) reports on the valiant efforts of Indiana police to use helicopters and other available means to spot and eradicate marijuana plants. According to the article, the police uprooted more than 21 million cannabis sativa plants last year. (The number actually reported in the paper was 219 million plants, but it appears to be a typo, because later in the article it is mentioned that so far this year the program has harvested more than 19 million plants, representing a more than 230% increase over last year.) However, only 31,192 of these 21 million plants were of cultivated variety. The rest apparently were wild marijuana plants or ditch weed, that have little, if any, intoxicating effect. What reminded me of my earlier post was a quote from Mr. Steve Dillon, an Indianapolis attorney and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, who said, “They are eradicating more and more plants, indicating their success. But it is ditch weed.” In a specific example, Mr. Dillon describes two of his former clients who came to Indiana from St. Louis seeking pot and were directed by somebody to a field of wild plants. They apparently didn’t know that the stuff was very low grade and stuffed a duffel bag with it. As they were leaving, they were caught. According to Mr. Dillon, “they paid a $50 fine, the cops told them to never come back and they had a 200-pound seizure of harmless wild marijuana for the books.” Just as straightforward economics would predict, if the success of the anti-drug effort is based on the weight of seized illegal drugs, the warriors’ incentive is to go after easy to find stuff that weighs a lot.

Indiana’s program, of course, represents only a relatively small part of the nationwide DEA efforts to eradicate marijuana. According to the same article, the cost of the federal program was $13.5 billion in 2002 alone. That resulted in the seizure of about 300 million plants, 98% of which grow wild and are very low grade.

Besides the old Soviet “success indicator problem,” all this effort to eradicate wild marijuana reminded me of a little story I read in a Sunday, July 22, 2004 insert to the same Bloomington paper, in the section entitled “News of the Weird” (the blurb itself was called “Crème de la weird”). It was apparently reported in China Daily in May that a Chinese businessman had spent thousands of dollars to kill (eradicate?) as many flies as he could. The obsession started 10 years ago when he became convinced that a fly ruined a big business deal for him. He and a team of volunteers he recruited claim to have killed 8 million flies. Unfortunately, unlike the businessman’s hunt for the flies, the US taxpayers are paying for the effort to eradicate wild marijuana. Even more sadly, I suspect that lots of people have been either fined or even gone to jail as a result of the DEA program simply because some ditch weed was growing on their property.

Finally, I am starting to get an impression that my hometown paper is really interested in examining the war on drugs and not necessarily in a manner favorable to the law enforcement warriors. (See my recent post based on a three part series from the paper as well as the Wednesday, August 4 issue.) Hope my impression is correct.


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