Evaluating Claims About Drug Seizures at the Border

The amount of drugs seized between legal points of entry has become a key point in the debate over President Trump’s proposed border wall. Critics argue that if most drugs are coming in through legal border crossings, a wall is not likely to have a significant impact.

James Carroll, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, threw a wrinkle into this debate at a House hearing last week. Testifying before the House Government oversight committee, Mr. Carroll said that by weight, more drugs were intercepted between ports of entry.

Yet, earlier in the hearing, Mr. Carroll seemed to agree with Congresswoman Deborah Wasserman Shultz when she said that 90% of drugs were seized at legal points of entry. So, which is right? The answer depends on the basis you use to measure the amount of drugs coming into the country. And further, the types of drugs we’re talking about.

What the Data Says

We looked at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) data for Fiscal Year 2018. CPB breaks data down between the U.S. Customs Office of Field Operations, which staffs legal border crossings, and the Border Patrol, which maintains responsibility for the rest of the border.

The data shows that far more high value narcotics like cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and fentanyl were seized at border checkpoints then between them. For example, 89% of cocaine and 90% of heroin were seized by Customs Agents at legal points of entry. However, 61% of marijuana was seized by Border Patrol agents between checkpoints.

Chart of relative amounts of various drugs seized at and between legal points of entry
Author’s calculation based on CBP FY2018 Enforcement Statistics.

Marijuana, by weight, accounts for 85% of all drugs seized by CPB. So, when looking at the data in those terms, Mr. Carroll is correct that more total pounds of drugs are seized between border checkpoints. But, this is misleading. By value, marijuana accounts for a far smaller proportion, only 19%, of drug seizures.

More Seized at Border Checkpoints By Value

If we measure by the street value, 76% of drugs seized arrived through legal ports of entry. That’s short of the 90% Ms. Wasserman-Shultz cited, but still a substantially different story. (We assume she mistook the statistic for heroin for all drugs.)

Author’s calculation of FY2018 CBP enforcement data. Values of various drugs were based on recent CBP press releases.

President Trump’s Claim

President Trump has argued that a border wall is needed because drugs were mostly entering the country between points of entry. “And they don’t come in through the portals, they come in between the portals where you have no barrier,” he said in January.

By our calculations about 54% of drugs, by weight, come in between points of entry. However, by value it’s only 24%. Mr. Trump’s statement is way off the mark by any measure.

The Bottom Line

President Trump is wrong to suggest that drugs are coming in exclusively between ports of entry, or “portals” in his words. With the exception of marijuana, most of the drugs seized are at legal border checkpoints.

Still, a lot of the drugs coming in between checkpoints may go undetected and wall might help disrupt this. However, it’s only part of the solution. Drug traffickers are likely to find ways around physical border barriers. They may simply toss drugs over the top of, or dig tunnels under, any wall.

While President Trump is overselling the value of a wall in aiding drug interdiction, it cannot be discounted altogether. In this case, like most these days, the reality is far more complex than the rhetoric coming from Washington.

Recent Articles

Related Stories