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The wall vs. legal marijuana: One is pointless, the other secures the border.

A new report shows how legalizing marijuana nationally would likely be much more effective at curbing drug smuggling than building a border wall.

  • The report uses recent government data to examine the effects that marijuana legalization has had on drug and human smuggling by Mexican cartels.
  • Overall, it appears that marijuana legalization has led to decreases in not only marijuana smuggling, but also smuggling of all drugs across the border.
  • The report suggests that the benefits of marijuana legalization might also serve as a model for how legalizing more immigration for workers might curb illegal border crossings.

How should the U.S. stop Mexican cartels from smuggling people and drugs across the border?

The answer isn't to build a wall, but rather to legalize pot, hire more border agents at ports of entry, and open up channels of legal immigration for workers.

Those are the takeaways of a new report by David Bier at the Cato Institute. The report uses recent government data to analyze the effects that marijuana legalization has had on the rates of drug seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border, and it also draws parallels between marijuana and alcohol prohibition and current immigration laws.

​Marijuana legalization and drug smuggling

What's demonstrably effective at stopping the flow of drugs across the border?

Bier notes that, between 2003 and 2009, Border Patrol doubled its agents, constructed more than 600 miles of fencing, and introduced new surveillance technologies. But none of this seemed to have any considerable effect on the amount of marijuana and other drugs seized by border agents between ports of entry. This was, by the way, an era when as much as two-thirds of the marijuana Americans smoked came from Mexico.

Then, in 2014, Colorado and Washington moved to fully legalize marijuana, and more states began to follow. This legalization correlated with not only a decrease in marijuana seizures at the U.S.–Mexico border, but also a drop in seizures of all drugs.

(Data visual via infogram.com)

There's no reliable data on the amount of illegal marijuana smuggled into the country annually. The next best thing is data showing the number of seizes at the border. From 2013 to 2018, the authors wrote, the amount of marijuana each Border Patrol agent seized declined by 78 percent.

"Marijuana smuggling has also not shifted toward entering through ports of entry," they wrote. "Overall, all DHS agencies seized 56 percent less marijuana in 2017 than 2013."

​Cartels compensate by smuggling other drugs

Although Mexican marijuana smuggling has decreased in the past five years, it seems cartels are trying to make up those lost profits with other, more profitable drugs: cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl. These rises, which were measured in the value of drugs seized, only occurred at ports of entry where a border wall would have no effect.

(Data visual via infogram.com)

"In light of these facts, a surge of agents, technology, and infrastructure between ports of entry does not make sense as a strategy to control the flow of hard drugs into the United States."

​Reducing the incentives to cross illegally

The report makes an analogy between immigration laws and alcohol prohibition in the 1920s: You can make either illegal, but people are still going to take part, so the better option is measured legalization. In terms of immigration, the report notes that the number of work visas is negatively correlated with illegal entries along the border over the past 70 years.

"In other words, more work visas mean fewer illegal entries," the authors wrote, adding that Congress could decrease illegal border crossings by issuing more permanent and temporary work visas, "thus reducing the incentive to cross illegally."

(Data visual via infogram.com)

Bier suggests a border wall isn't the best way to curb rates of human and drug smuggling.

"Instead, they indicate that a better approach to managing human and drug smuggling would be to hire more officers at ports of entry, increase legal channels for migration, and legalize marijuana nationwide. These alternative strategies have proved more effective than enforcement alone."

Still, it's worth noting that Bier doesn't quite address how a border wall might curb rates of illegal crossings between ports of entry.

In a separate report, Bier argues that while a wall might discourage some crossing attempts, people would still be able to cross by climbing over a wall, digging under it, exploiting damages to it by natural forces, and even using ramps to drive over it.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

Closeup of a BCG vaccination.

Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
  • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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