This is part 1 of a 3 part series.
In the latest round of negotiations and public stumping for his border wall, President Trump told Congress he wants $15 billion in wall funding attached to the year-end spending bill. The president’s desire to build a “big, beautiful” wall on the southern border is nothing new; what is different is that this time he has declared that it will be paid for not directly by Mexico, but instead will “pay for itself” with the savings generated by limiting the flow of narcotics into the United States. If the president gets his wall, it will almost certainly be effective in pursuit of his goal of reducing the flow of illegal immigration into the United States. What it will not do is pay for itself by reducing the costs of the opioid crisis. In fact, it may well make the crisis worse, increasing the potency and cost of the drugs that do make their way to the United States, and ensuring that the most violent and ruthless suppliers become dominant in the black-market supply.
This is all to say that there is a tradeoff between cutting off illegal immigration at the southern border by way of a physical barrier and of mitigating the opioid crisis. Building the wall may well be a good idea from an immigration policy standpoint, but regardless of any positive effects on that front there will be negative side effects and a deepening of the opioid crisis.
The argument is about as basic as basic economics gets, with a little history from the prohibition era thrown in. In economics, at least in good economics, there are always tradeoffs. If the border wall is built, the tradeoff to making it harder to smuggle drugs and people through the southern border and into the United States will be a worsening of the opioid crisis and an increase in the potency of the supply. In other words, the “price” of crossing the border will go up, both for drugs and people, and the quantity supplied of these drugs will decrease. Demand for the drugs will, however, at best, remain constant. Decreasing supply and a steady demand will lead to increasing prices. Increasing prices will incentivize suppliers to bring in more drugs or to stretch the supply they already have as much as possible.
If suppliers try to stretch the supply they already have, it will lead to ever more dangerous and more potent drugs hitting the streets. This is already happening as dealers cut heroin with fentanyl, but the problem will be exacerbated if suppliers cannot meet demand and resort to cutting their drugs with ever more lethal doses of close substitutes, in order to collect on as many now even more lucrative profit opportunities as possible. This is exactly what happened in the 1920s during alcohol prohibition, when liquors rose in alcohol concentration and the consumption of poisoned rum and poorly made or dangerously enhanced “bathtub gin” caused a string of horrific side effects, and sometimes even death.
By way of Time Magazine, a Dec. 26, 1922 edition of the New York Times reported that five people were killed in the city on Christmas Eve from drinking poisoned rum. In total, some 750 New Yorkers died from similar poisonings, and hundreds of thousands suffered horrific injuries such as blindness and paralysis. The idea that this will not happen with opioids is preposterous. For one thing, it already has, but the problem can get much, much worse, as pure strains of the drugs become scarcer and the price skyrockets. If a supplier has no qualms about selling someone a poison, it is unlikely they will be much dissuaded from selling them an even more potent version of that poison when the opportunity for even greater profits presents itself.