Preventing illicit drug trafficking has been described as a primary goal of President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. But the president and lawmakers supportive of the wall are playing fast and loose with the facts to bolster that argument.
For example, here’s what Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) said on the House floor last week:
“Further, on an average, 300 Americans die per week from heroin. Ninety percent of all the heroin in the U.S., and marijuana and cocaine, 90 percent of that comes from our southern border.”
The congressman seems to be partly borrowing from White House messaging. Trump made the same claim about heroin-related deaths and trafficking. Though it appears to be technically true that a large majority of heroin smuggled into the U.S. travels over the southern border, federal drug enforcement officials have pointed out that the bulk of it is trafficked through legal ports of entry, raising questions about how a wall could combat the trend.
Democratic lawmakers have also cited the same data to argue against the wall.
“Overwhelmingly, when we talk about building new walls and barriers to stop narcotics, we’re ignoring the obvious: 80 to 90 percent of the drugs are coming through the ports of entry,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), for example, said while questioning attorney general nominee William Barr on Tuesday. “Building a new concrete wall from sea to shining sea doesn’t even address this issue.”
Other drugs aside, Yoho’s claim about marijuana is explicitly false, no matter how you slice it.
As more states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes or recreational use, border patrol has seen dramatic reductions in the amount of illicit marijuana seized at the border. In fiscal year 2017, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seized about 1.6 million pounds of marijuana. That’s about half of what the agency seized in 2013.
It’s difficult to say definitively what portion of the total marijuana in the U.S. the DHS figure represents, since it’s still largely an illegal market that can’t be precisely tracked, but it’s certainly not 90 percent. Colorado sold about 665,000 pounds of cannabis in 2017 alone. Oregon cultivators harvested 2.6 million pounds of marijuana that same year.
Gil Kerlikowske, a former White House drug czar and commissioner of U.S. Customers and Border Protection under President Barack Obama, also recognized that border seizures of marijuana have been on the decline for “easily the last eight years.”
“We have 10 states where marijuana has become legal,” he said in an appearance on C-SPAN this week.
The apparent acknowledgement that legalization cuts down on illicit marijuana smuggling is a bit of a surprise coming from Kerlikowske, who during his tenure with the Office of National Drug Control Policy said the word legalization wasn’t even “in the president’s vocabulary, and it’s not in mine.”
With respect to Yoho, while he peddled a false claim about illicit marijuana trafficking on the House floor, it is worth noting that he has cosponsored legislation aimed at protecting states that legalize cannabis from federal interference, and has voted for an amendment to do the same.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.