Rethink the Fight against Cocaine
Rethink the Fight against Cocaine
Op-Ed / Latin America & Caribbean 3 minutes

Rethink the Fight against Cocaine

Drug use is up, and Colombian farmers are unfairly targeted. Let's overhaul counternarcotics.

Every year, White House officials describe the US counterdrug policies in the same glowing terms used to describe the Emperor's new clothes: We're snuffing out coca crops and cracking down on those who grow them. But they leave out two important facts: More cocaine is coming out of South America than ever before and more young Americans are using than when the Bush administration took office.

Officials tell us they've made progress in eradicating tens of thousands of acres of coca by spraying chemical weed-killer from airplanes protected by heavily armed helicopter gunships.

They tell success stories about hundreds of tons of coca paste and cocaine they've seized on Colombian roads and on the high seas. They speak proudly of the coffee, beans, and vegetables harvested under Colombian and US alternative development projects.

But there are key facts missing in their description of the Emperor's counterdrug-policy wardrobe. When Plan Colombia (the multibillion dollar US assistance program targeted at curbing drug smuggling and supporting Colombia against armed guerrillas) started, coca was cultivated in 12 of Colombia's 34 provinces. Today it is grown in 23 of those provinces.

In 2006, after five years of Plan Colombia, four years of the regional Andean Counterdrug Initiative, and after spending $5.5 billion, some 1,000 metric tons of cocaine were produced between Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. That's about the same amount that was produced in 2002 when President Álvaro Uribe took office.

The head of the White House Office of Narcotics and Drug Control Program, John Walters, admitted at a press conference in Haiti recently that last year that cocaine production had risen to 1,400 metric tons in 2007 – a whopping 40 percent hike. Not surprisingly, his staff is scrambling to rephrase that.

Washington is focusing on the most easily replaceable link of the cocaine production chain – the impoverished campesino – through aerial spraying and forced eradication. These poor farmers feel unfairly singled out, since too many at the top of the chain – drug traffickers and illegal armed combatants – survive or are quickly replaced by equally brutal traffickers. This administration's policy of targeting the poorest is wrong.

Law enforcement and interdiction are essential to control drug trafficking, but not sufficient. A massive increase in rural development would provide a far better chance of reducing the drug supply flowing from the Andean ridge countries than eradication alone.

Colombia is faced with a continuing insurgency, which finances itself from drug revenues, and the Peruvian and Bolivian coca growers are among the continent's most impoverished indigenous communities. That's why it's so important for Washington to support a massive increase in rural infrastructure investment, rural governance, and public service extension into those communities now.

Congress made a good start last year by voting to shift Plan Colombia funding away from military to economic development and rule of law.

Unfortunately, the administration opposed it. Now Congress needs to go one step further and push this administration, and the next one, to rethink a counterdrug policy that has not achieved its goals. Fundamental changes are needed in both supply and demand policies if there is going to be a decline in cocaine trafficking into the US.

In 2002, just under 9 percent of the US population from 12 to 25 years of age admitted to using cocaine the previous year. In 2006, the same percentage said they snorted cocaine. Since the population has grown, simple math shows that in absolute terms many more used cocaine.

A one-size-fits-all demand reduction policy essentially aims to put everyone who touches cocaine in jail – whether they are one-time or weekend users, addicts or traffickers.

Certainly for traffickers, the only option is more effective law enforcement that works closely with other nations to go after their money, their assets, and their structures.

For cocaine users, it is time to build on the best models of dealing with addicts through a public health lens, with hospitals, clinics, and treatment replacing jails. And a massive public service effort should be launched to target recreational users that equates cocaine use with drunken driving – unacceptable destructive behavior. Their weekend fun kills young people in Colombia and Los Angeles and Miami. It has to stop.

Producers and consumers in the Andes, the US, Europe, and the Southern Cone must come together and admit that the Emperor's counterdrug wardrobe is threadbare. It needs new fabric and a new design – a top to bottom overhaul of counternarcotics thinking.

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