Drugs

Busted Vs. Bailed-Out: Should DEA and SEC Switch Jobs?

While the DEA is overzealous with drug busts, the SEC gives corrupt bankers a slap on the wrist.

Photo Credit: Songquan Deng / Shutterstock.com

Pick up a quarter-pound of outdoor organic Purple Kush, split it four ways, and sell it to some friends, and you might find yourself ratted out by a narc. Put under police surveillance. Surreptitiously recorded by a confidential informant. Tailed home from work by an unmarked car. Until the cops kick down your door, shoot your dog and handcuff your kids. And that's just low-level local bullshit.

Meanwhile, the big, bad Drug Enforcement Agency burns through roughly $2.5 billion in taxpayer money every year going after kingpins, cartels and the occasional cancer patient caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. By comparison, Congress allocates only around $1.6 billion per year to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal agency responsible for policing Wall Street.

Mary Joe White, President Obama's current nominee to head the SEC, most recently worked as a defense attorney, hired by the most powerful financial firms in the world whenever they landed in hot water. Which, if you're wondering, is way different than putting Pablo Escobar's lawyer in charge of the DEA. Of course, only time will tell whether White will turn around and bite the hand that once fed her so lavishly, or just slap it on the wrist occasionally, but the smart money is squarely on the latter.

“The size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them,” US Attorney General Eric Holder recently informed a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing investigating money laundering at the big banks. “If you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.”

Holder's clear surrender of any responsibility to hold too-big-to-jail bankers criminally accountable for their actions came in response to a question about the federal government's recent record $1.92 billion settlement with HSBC, negotiated after a long paper trail proved the British multinational spent years rather blatantly laundering huge sums of money for the world's most deadly drug dealers. As Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone and others have reported, the government's case against HSBC included evidence that couriers from the cartels repeatedly deposited "hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, in a single day, into a single account, using boxes designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows."

That “record” fine, by the way, represents just five weeks of profits for HSBC, a pathetically small penalty for the crimes it committed, never mind all the blood money it pocketed along the way. No wonder when the settlement was announced in December, the bank's stock price spiked up.

As Senator Elizabeth Warren noted, nobody involved in HSBC's ongoing criminal enterprise spent so much as an hour behind bars, or even faced arrest, despite knowingly aiding and abetting not just the cartels' massive trade in cocaine and heroin, but by logical extension all of the prohibition-fueled violence that goes along with it, from turf war shootouts in Boise, Idaho to political assassinations in Sinaloa, Mexico. Given the fact that HSBC profited mightily from these dirty dealings, got caught, and suffered no serious consequences, why, exactly, shouldn't the bank do it again? And what message does that send to impressionable kids considering a career in high finance?

Perhaps our collective take-away should be that the system's no longer broken. We've moved far beyond that now, to fucked up beyond all repair. So how about instead of trying to reform these two irredeemably compromised institutions, we repurpose them instead, by having the DEA and the SEC switch jobs? Yes, just like that.

Imagine undercover DEA agents infiltrating Goldman Sachs' corporate retreat posed as hedge fund douchebags. Snitches in the Morgan Stanley mailroom. Stop-and-frisk operations on the street outside the Treasury Department. No knock raids on corporate offices. CEOs getting their phones tapped. And overseas paramilitary operations against the Cayman Islands' leading tax shelters.

Keep in mind, much like the Wu Tang Clan (and unlike the SEC), the DEA ain't nothing to mess with. With more than 10,000 employees, it maintains 86 foreign offices in 67 countries. Hell, it's even got its own drones. All to fight a war that can't be won, at least not without turning this country into a true totalitarian state. Otherwise, there's just no way to stop people from buying and selling mind-altering substances. Even in our most high-security prisons, they remain widely available. Which makes you wonder what, exactly, a “drug-free society” would look like.

The problem, at its most irreducible, is that most of what you pay for when you buy illegal drugs are the embedded risks taken by producers, middlemen and dealers. Which means the more aggressively the government enforces drug prohibition, the riskier (and therefore more profitable) the blackmarket becomes. That's why the DEA can't stop or even deter the drug trade. It can only do more of what it has already done, which is to act as the cartels' Darwinian predator, thinning their herd just enough to help them grow stronger, richer, more violent, and more adaptive as a species.

So what would hurt the cartels?

First, legalize, tax and tightly regulate the production and sale of drugs to deprive them of their primary profit engine. Then set loose the financial experts and career prosecutors at the SEC, armed with a stack of cases related to tax evasion, illegal wire transfers, money laundering and other white-collar crimes. Follow the money trail all the way to places like HSBC, and don't stop until you put a significant number of those country club criminals behind bars.

See if that doesn't shake things up.

Now, as for the question of how do we keep the SEC and the DEA honest in their new roles moving forward? That's easy. You simply have the nation's top sportswriters switch to financial news and let all the business reporters who never saw the big crash coming start over covering high school basketball games.