It’s no secret, drugs are everywhere in America. No matter how furiously the U.S. government fights to stop them from coming in, thousands of tons of cocaine, heroine, amphetamines and marijuana (still) are smuggled into the country annually.

It’s a thriving industry with a clinically loyal customer base and limitless demand. Whatever gets past the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and local law enforcement, makes its way out onto the streets and into the hands of American consumers.

But what of the drugs that don’t make it through? What happens to those that the U.S. government seizes?

One might imagine that, when dealing with something as valuable and illegal as narcotics, the DEA would take every precaution to make sure the contraband is protected against theft and accounted for in full. After all, these are the frontline soldiers of America’s trillion-dollar War on Drugs — capturing narcotics and keeping them off the streets is their one job.

However, even in the confident hands of these dedicated federal agents, drugs have proven to be a slippery product.

To understand the deficiencies of drug confiscation in the U.S., it’s important to know how drugs are supposed to be dealt with after law enforcement captures them. First, the confiscating officers are supposed to record the exact weight, type and amount of the drugs taken at the scene of the crime. According to the DEA's "Laboratory Operations Manual," confiscated drug “exhibits” should then wait at field divisions for no more than three days before being sent to the DEA forensic labs for analysis and storage.

The drugs are then hand delivered by special law enforcement agents or shipped (via a third-party organization) to the labs. There, a drug evidence custodian weighs the exhibit, compares the records to the delivery, and moves the cargo into storage where it awaits analysis. When all these steps have been completed, and all the evidence from an exhibit has been gathered, the drugs are finally incinerated.

That all sounds pretty bulletproof, one might think. But when the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) audited the DEA last year (visiting three separate drug storage facilities and examining 250 drug exhibits), they found the entire system to be riddled with holes.

Fifty-one percent of the exhibits had no gross weights recorded at confiscation — a mistake that might tempt those entrusted with the big-ticket product to take a little off the top (like FBI special agent Matthew Lowry, who is currently serving time for stealing heroine seized as evidence to feed his addiction).

They also found 15 percent of the drug exhibits were kept at field divisions far longer than the allotted three days — some as long as 361 days — a mistake DEA managers provided no explanations for.

Then, when third party organizations had been hired to transport drugs to forensic labs (in the event that an agent could not hand deliver them to the drug evidence custodian), five shipments had gone totally missing.

Dr. Bruce Bagley studies drug trafficking and security issues at the University of Miami. He was provisioning his home for the impending Hurricane Irma when we spoke on the phone. Despite the grim task, he laughed when asked about the OIG’s findings.

“The facts of the matter are, that both the DEA and police forces have ‘leakage’ out of those processes, some drugs go astray and actually are filtered back into the illicit drug market,” he says.

Bagley also suggests that as much as 20 percent of drugs seized by American law enforcement — both in the United States and elsewhere in the world — never make it to the incinerator.

And even if they do, incinerating toxic substances is a wickedly complex endeavor. The DEA cannot simply throw tons of drugs into an open pit fire and call it a day. Every state has varied environmental standards and regulations that must be met (to avoid fines and lawsuits), and the methods of incineration that are permitted by law tend to be grossly expensive.

If you suspect this whole operation is a huge hassle for almost no headway, you aren’t alone. Criminal organizations like the Sinaloa or Guadalajara Cartels are terrifying and utterly evil entities, this everyone agrees on. They kidnap and murder thousands of innocent people every year, constantly cultivate chaos across Central and South America and fuel crime here in America.

Yet instead of fighting them with taxpayer dollars and American lives, the country could very simply pull the drug-rug out from underneath their feet. It seems like the legalization of narcotic substances (and federal funding of drug education, preventative social programs, and treatment) could very well be the coup de grâce of America’s War on Drugs, no?

However, the problem doesn’t all lie with the cartels. We can’t blame McDonald’s for America’s obesity problem, after all, just because it filled a hungry market niche. The problem is America’s appetite. And in this case, it’s an appetite for drugs. Legalization could very well rob the cartels of their business by providing other outlets of processing. Not only would it possibly encourage quality control and make drugs both cleaner and safer, but it would work to treat the problem at its source: the users.

Still have doubts? Let’s take it a step further: because, even when the DEA does manage to make a massive drug bust, seizing thousands of pounds — or perhaps even an entire distribution warehouse — it doesn’t do much to curb the influx of drugs into the U.S. In fact, according to Dr. Bagley, it can do just the opposite.

“[Drug] confiscation is ultimately a self-defeating proposition,” he adds, “because it basically creates scarcity in the market, scarcity raises prices and that creates more incentive for groups to find alternate ways to bring drugs into the country.”

We have a failing system of narcotic seizure and storage, which has cost taxpayers over $1 trillion in 40 years. It’s a system that does little to hurt or even slow down drug trafficking in America, and instead stimulates the black market, making business ever more profitable for traffickers while ruining lives and destroying families across the world.

“In that sense,” Professor Bagley ends, “the war on drugs is not only systematically a failure, it has been counterproductive.”

[Cover: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Luke Pinneo]