Drug Control Policy and Smuggling Innovation: A Game-Theoretic Analysis

By Krebs, Christopher P.; Costelloe, Michael et al. | Journal of Drug Issues, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview
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Drug Control Policy and Smuggling Innovation: A Game-Theoretic Analysis

Krebs, Christopher P., Costelloe, Michael, Jenks, David, Journal of Drug Issues

Noncooperative game theory has been proposed as a research tool to be used in the study of criminal decision-making processes. Despite this offering, game theory has enjoyed very little attention from criminologists. In this study, game theory is applied to a specific crime, drug smuggling, in order to determine if fluctuations in key policy variables have the potential to diminish the expected utility of smuggling drugs, thus encouraging lawful behavior. The simulation proposed herein indicates that decreasing the expected utility of smuggling drugs to a level where lawful behavior is likely to be chosen is an infeasible mission from a policy perspective. Additionally, a recent drug smuggling innovation, known as "black powder," is likely to only increase the expected utility of smuggling drugs. Black powder is a simple industrial cloaking method that renders many surveillance strategies and chemical tests futile. The consequences of black powder and the exchange between drug control agents and drug smugglers are discussed.


Noncooperative game theory is a viable research tool that can be employed to study situations in which people make decisions concerning whether to engage in criminal activity or lawfully conforming behavior. While there has been extant literature purporting to explain criminal decision-making processes, the application of game theory has recently waned in crime and deviance writings. Game theory, however, has continued to be used considerably by economists and is increasingly being utilized in other social sciences, such as psychology and political science. It is the contention of this paper that the continued application of this conceptual framework to criminal decision-making will assist in informing both theory and policy.

Bueno De Mesquita and Cohen (1995) support game theory as a theory-- construction strategy with great analytic potential and encourage an increasing application of it to crime and deviance. The application of game theory can assist in increasing our understanding of the effects of implemented crime policies on the criminal decision making process. Specifically, game theory allows one to study or measure how changes in key policy variables affect the decision making process of potential or practicing criminals. These authors call for additional research utilizing game theory to study criminal decision-making and the role of crime policy. While references to game theoretic models have not entirely disappeared (e.g. Bueno De Mesquita & Cohen, 1995; McCarthy, Hagan, & Cohen, 1998), this call has largely gone unheeded.

While Bueno De Mesquita and Cohen (1995) use game theory to study crime of no specific variety, its theme permits specificity without compromising its analytic potential. Drug smuggling is a specific criminal behavior that seems to be an appropriate target for the application of game theory, and a specific game-theoretic model of drug smuggling behavior is offered in this paper. Essentially, the game being proposed is a deterrence game, in which policymakers make decisions based on what they know about drug markets in hope of deterring people from producing, smuggling, selling, and using drugs.

Several recent advancements in drug smuggling will prove to make this inquiry especially interesting. One such advancement is known as "black powder," which is a cloaking method that renders doctored drugs virtually undetectable by sight, smell, and even chemical testing. Such advancements are likely to have profound impacts on the game. Generally, this paper uses game theory to study drug smuggling, and assesses how black powder will affect drug markets and drug interdiction efforts. More specifically, the purpose of this paper is to: (1) employ noncooperative game theory in an analysis of drug smuggling behavior towards the end of explaining why drug smuggling is sometimes preferred to lawfully conforming behavior, (2) study how advances in smuggling technology and capability, namely black powder, are a product of the game itself and subsequently change the nature of the game, and (3) determine what effect such drug smuggling advancements have on the efficacy of drug control policies.

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Drug Control Policy and Smuggling Innovation: A Game-Theoretic Analysis


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