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Editorial: DEA's "Project Deliverance" Will Undoubtedly Fail to Deliver

Submitted by David Borden on (Issue #636)

David Borden, Executive Director

David Borden
DEA acting chief Michele Leonhart, and her boss, US Attorney General Eric Holder, are bragging about a major, DEA-led operation that has netted 2,200+ arrests, with pounds of drugs and millions of dollars seized. "Project Deliverance" involved more than 300 law enforcement agencies, more than 3,000 DEA agents, and took 22 months. According to DEA's press release, they captured 1,262 pounds of methamphetamine, 2.5 tons of cocaine, 1,410 pounds of heroin, and 69 tons of marijuana, plus $154 million.

Operationally, Deliverance was certainly a big project -- it's easy to see why they're excited. And for the thousands of people throughout the US who were arrested in it, it's a life-changing event, though for the worse. But will Project Deliverance make any real difference in drug use and the drug trade? Is the operation really a big deal, when examined next to the reality of drug use and the drug trade in the United States today?

I hate to be a wet blanket, but if history is a guide, Project Deliverance will have no long-term impact on the drug trade. Though notable in its scale, the operation is only one of many carried out by the US and allied governments over decades. During that time, the measure of drug availability -- price, an increase implies a product is less available, relative to its demand* -- has gone in the opposite of the intended direction, and dramatically. For example, the average US street price of cocaine is less than a fifth in real terms than it was in 1980. Previous drug sweeps have seen their temporary gains erased in just one or two weeks.

The reason is that the big sounding numbers touted by Leonhart, while large for the agency and our government, are small compared with the drug trade and its incentives. Deliverance's 2.5 tons of cocaine constitute less than one percent of the 300 metric tons of cocaine the government estimates are consumed annually in the US. So do the 69 tons of marijuana. They did get a few percent of the heroin, if numbers don't deceive, but even that's still small. And the 2,200 alleged dealers and traffickers arrested in Project Deliverance make up a similarly tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of people employed in the US by the illegal drug trade. Some drug businesses will doubtless be extinguished by Project Deliverance, but others will have little difficulty replacing the lost supply or filling the open positions. And how much powder or weed did the investigators let go by during the 22 months it took to complete the operation? How much will they have to let slip by during the months or years it takes to mount the next one?

Michele Leonhart announcing ''Project Deliverance''
In an uncharacteristically "big picture" review published a few weeks ago, the Associated Press declared the 40-year drug war a failure by every measure. Will media follow that lead and go beyond the surface in their reporting on Project Deliverance? I have a few suggestions for those intrepid reporters who would like to:

  • Ask DEA or DOJ spokespersons if they expect the substances targeted in the sweep to be less available to US consumers of them, and if so for how long.

  • Ask them if previous operations, individually or collectively, have had that effect. If they say yes, ask them to be specific as to how, and compare their evidence with numbers like the aforementioned cocaine prices.
  • Do some follow-up, say two or three weeks from now. Ask government officials, cops who walk the drug beat, and drug users, what if any difference they saw in the supply of the targeted drugs after the sweep, and if so if they see still any. Follow up again in one or two months. See if DEA will give you early access to the price data.

Be forewarned that DEA reps will probably be less excited to address those questions than they were for the press conference. But the questions are no less important. Because the shiny piles of cash and drug bags whose photos you can find on the DEA web site are not the only reality of drug prohibition, nor its most important aspect. The bigger reality is that of countless drug transactions, almost entirely hidden from view, about as many of them today as there were yesterday before Project Deliverance delivered its thin slice of the drug trade, barely scratching the surface.

* Nitpickers and drug war defenders may point out that demand for cocaine has also dropped since 1980, and that the price drop could be explained that way. No dice -- frequent, "hardcore" cocaine and other drug use remained roughly constant despite a drop in the number of "casual" users, and it's the frequent users who account for the vast majority of the consumption.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


ms sun (not verified)

am guessing the DEA will scurry around the questions, and in essense, will NOT answer them! cause we all know the truth ...

btw, over the yrs, when local fuzz gets a bust, they'll grossly OVER report the street value ... u can rest assured, DEA will do likewise ... jeez ....

in alabama

Fri, 06/11/2010 - 11:14am Permalink
blank (not verified)

Thanks, Dave, for another well written article on the failure of prohibition. Let's hope that someone has the fortitude to ask those questions.

blue skies!

Fri, 06/11/2010 - 11:25am Permalink
moldy (not verified)

I remember when Nixon started the war. Same thing, every night, pix of drugs, money, and guns. That was 1972. How's that war going Dick? JFC!

Fri, 06/11/2010 - 11:26am Permalink
rita (not verified)

the Drug Czar recently promise us that there would be no more war? I guess he forgot to tell the soldiers; or is this what he calls "peace"?

Fri, 06/11/2010 - 11:47am Permalink
rita (not verified)

no government campaign would continue and thrive at such a hideous cost if it were, in fact, a failure. As long as the drug warriors are allowed to make the laws and run the courts, their dirty ugly war will continue, because, in their eyes, their dirty ugly war is an unqualified success.

Fri, 06/11/2010 - 11:51am Permalink
Maui Guy 420 (not verified)

And what dose DEA stand for?


Should be BWG


Fri, 06/11/2010 - 1:35pm Permalink

I suppose drug enforcement is a good career for people who want a job but really don't care if they get anything good done and doesn't matter if they provide any value to their employer. Typical gov't workers who just collect a paycheck and pension ... jobs where MULTIPLE people do the job one person could do.

Fri, 06/11/2010 - 3:36pm Permalink
George (not verified)

I just checked the federal prison population at -- it's 211,438. If all the 2,200+ people get federal charges (I don't know what it means as far as jurisdiction when an operation is DEA-led) and convicted, we will have increased our federal prison population by more than 1%...all for nothing as every last one of these people will be replaced very quickly and many will die in the process (i.e. intra-organizational fights, turf wars, etc.).

Fri, 06/11/2010 - 4:37pm Permalink
John Q. Average (not verified)

Look at it this way, folks: they gotta do SOMETHING to justify their jobs. It's the nannyism of the State.

Fri, 06/11/2010 - 5:23pm Permalink
Msgtvance (not verified)

If the drug war were say a program to end child poverty and after 10 years there were twice as many children in poverty, Congress and the media would be calling for an end or change in the program. Here we have a policy that has not delivered on it's promises in 70 years.and not a word from Congressional leaders or the media. What the hell are they afraid of? They keep screaming, especially on the right about wasting tax dollars and they hypocritally continue this failed program. The left is just as bad. They claim to base their decisions on science and logic but continue to support prohibition when science and logic prove the failure of this policy. A pox on both their houses!!!!!

Fri, 06/11/2010 - 7:24pm Permalink
Millie Reeves (not verified)

This is a war on PEOPLE! How many POW's do we take? I am wondering what happened to using our brains and realizing that once somethin is discovered or invented..we cannot make it disappear! We are an advanced species, we teach our young, we educate ourselves and when it comes to the subject of "drugs"or more intelligently referred to as "chenicals" and how/what they can do. Chlorine cleans the toilet, bleachs your clothes, helps prevent alage in the pool etc..Don't recommend snorting Comet but I suppose you could. Paint, ( I don't know the chemical compound or name.) it can change the color of your walls, seal and protect your vehicle, you can sniff the fumes and get real disoriented and toxic fumes will burn your sinuses, you may have paranoid delusions, and damaged motor skills but you can sniff it if you want to. Not very smart, but it's your brain! Now if you are an adult and I am an adult, and you have a substance that I want to buy. I may want to alter my mind or mood with it. I make the purchase and drive to the privacy and safety of my home where I consume it. If I don't hurt anyone, take anyone's belongings or disturb ANYONE's right to pursue happiness as they choose, what have I done to society? why should i be deemed dangerous and worthy of confinement? Are we going to ASSUME that all people under the influence of a chenical are going to "freak out" and therefore we will punish you for something that you MIGHT do because you DO DRUGS!!! YOU DO DRUGS! I am an adult! Stay out of my URINE. I am so fed up with the whole thing. I don't believe we should treat it like a medical problem only. Some people have medical issues that need to be addressed and if medication increases their quality of liffe, hey that's why we create. discover and constantly research chemicals. But if I work all week and I decide I want to pursue happiness this Friday night dropping LSD, or snorting meth or smoking a cig, or takung shots of whiskey, or chugging expresso, pigging out on BBQ ribs, eating 20 boxies of twinkies for the sugar rush and because my boyfriend dumped me and eating food makes me numb, or if I jog for miles because it releases endorphines and being skinny makes me feel better than you, or if I go to church on Sun. but what I really do is gossip about all the heathens, tearing down their reputation, (making it sound worse or even making things up about people) because it makes me feel so perfect and chosen, God loves me more than her "she got pregnant in high school". We all have thorms in our side, something that we may not be so proud of, but doing drugs doesn't equal a junkie. People have been known to HOARD just about anything. I've rambled on long enough... I hope some day we won't need the government to tell us how to wipe our ass!

Sat, 06/12/2010 - 2:11am Permalink
sicntired (not verified)

[email protected],Vancouver,B.C.CanadaIn my 40 + years watching the war on drugs I have seen so many of these dog and pony shows I have no idea what the governments are trying to achieve.It's certainly not an end to drug use,we all know that just isn't in the cards.This one had some real big numbers in the drug and bust area but where were the weapons.You can't have drugs without weapons.We have been told that over and over.I guess it was just an afterthought.I'm sure the narcs are working on the next big bust and the organizations they knocked out are being replaced by more up and comers wanting to make a million.I've seen this movie so many times and it never changes.The faces and the names change but the streets are still running with drugs and that is something that won't change till the demand stops.Anyone want to bet on that happening?

Sat, 06/12/2010 - 3:11am Permalink
psysprouts (not verified)

The opposition are tugging on straws. Will their final resolve involve planting a few needles into terrorists and update the war to ENDLESS?

Sat, 06/12/2010 - 6:04am Permalink
Carl (not verified)

I can't help but to be cynical about this. The drug war is really about money and control whether that is the intention of govt. leaders or not. Various govt. bureaucracies, police agencies, prison guard unions, privatized and govt. prisons, etc. etc. ad nauseum depend upon maintenance of the status quo for their $$$$$$. And aren't prescription drugs now more popular than street drugs anyway? Prescription drugs support a huge underground welfare economy. I've seen late stage terminal cancer patients sell some of their narcotics (to me), and out of necessity to survive what time they have left. People will pay up to 50 cents or even more per mg. for oxycontin pills. These black market prices are simply irresistible for poor people. Heroin and speed are produced for pennies per dose but sell for dollars per dose on the black market. Drug users and victims of black market fueled crime suffer or die. The rich and powerful on both sides of the law become more rich and powerful. The drug war will remain a complete success as long as it is forever perpetuated.

Tue, 06/15/2010 - 3:30am Permalink
newageblues (not verified)

The DEA says 141 'weapons' were seized, who knows what they are calling a weapon. In any case, the number is very small compared to the number of arrests. With the most likely consequence of these arrests, besides spending more borrowed money to detain and try them, being violence from turf wars as replacements fight over newly available turf. If that much effort had been focused on violent criminals, it would have made a real difference to public safety and saved lives.

Tue, 06/15/2010 - 8:55am Permalink
mizshell (not verified)

thank you so much for speaking common sense. i've read several stories by different journalists that stroke obama and the dea for a job well done. way to take the trash off the streets. whatever.
the war on drugs will never ever be over. why? ...because, we live in a society of people who even though lawmakers don't think they should make their own decisions, do make thier own decisions. taking all those drugs off the streets just makes addicts look harder, and the price goes up.
the area i live in has been hard hit by this opeation deliverence. you can't find heroin right now to save your life, but give it 2 weeks. where there is demand, there will be a supply. we live among addicts. period. you don't have to like it, but you do have to accept it. it's time we look at decriminalizing addiction. other countries have legalized drug use and it's working for them.
i'm looking forward to seeing how that same question is answered in the not so distant future...Have we won the war on drugs? have we continued to put a dent on the supply pouring into the u.s.?
the war on drugs is the only war the u.s. has taken on and continues to LOSE!!! least the d.e.a. and other agents got to look busy right?
all hail the chief!!! lol

Thu, 06/17/2010 - 9:55am Permalink

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