If The War on Drugs Is a Success, What Does Failure Look Like?
by Charles Lemos, Sun Mar 08, 2009 at 11:53:54 PM EDT
A new drug trafficking route between South America and west Africa has grown so quickly that the 10th latitude corridor connecting the two continents has been dubbed Interstate 10. The amount of cocaine is moved along this route on its way to markets in Europe is estimated conservatively at 50 tonnes a year.
Enrique Portocarrero isn't a household name in the United States. He's not a household name in his native Colombia either because everyone knows him by his nickname, Captain Nemo which he earned by designing and building fiberglass submarines to ferry cocaine up the Pacific coast. Captain Nemo's vessels measure up to 60 feet long and are outfitted with complex ballast, communications and power systems. They are powered by 350-horsepower diesel engines, and the four-man crew had state-of-the-art radio, GPS and satellite telephone communications with a range of 2,000 miles, enough to get from Buenaventura to southern Mexico. Each sub can carry 10 tonnes of cocaine, worth $250 million in street value. Portocarrero gets a cool million per sub.
La Serranía de La Macarena
In May of last year, Colombia sent its Vice President, Francisco Santos Calderon, on a world speaking tour. His message was this:
"This destruction of the rainforest for coca production and coca plantation has gone on under the radar of the environmentalists. We hope that this will be a wake-up call. We hope that the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace will start saying 'what is this?' "
Colombia's coca producers have destroyed 5.5 million acres of rain forest with slash and burn cultivation. About half a ton of pesticides, fertilizers, sulphuric acid and other chemicals are then used to turn every acre of coca into pure cocaine. And this doesn't even begin to take into account the indiscriminate aerial spraying that Plan Colombia sponsors. One of the world's most bio-diverse massifs, La Serranía de La Macarena is being lost. It is a convergence point of six major ecological and geological forces, each exerting its own unique pressure on the local flora and fauna. The end result is a high rate of mutation. The Serranía de la Macarena has been called a biological hothouse. And this biological hothouse is on fire. The Serranía de la Macarena is in danger of being burnt away.
Nearly 25 million people worldwide are estimated to have used amphetamine and methamphetamine in the past year. This is more than heroin or cocaine, and it makes amphetamine and methamphetamine the most widely used illicit drugs after cannabis. There are approximately a half million crystal meth users are in the United States. In Oregon, meth users account for 85 percent of burglaries. And yet, crystal meth rarely broaches our national conversation.
Afghanistan's Opium Trade Revived
Since the Taliban were removed from power by the American-led invasion in 2001, Afghanistan has once again become the worlds leading producer of opium. By some estimates, more than 90 per cent of the worlds heroin originates in the opium poppy fields that can be found in approximately 20 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. The vast majority of Afghanistan's opium poppies are grown along the border with Pakistan, in five southwestern provinces with a Taliban presence. Helmand Province alone, a Taliban stronghold, accounts for half of the country's opium and "has become the world's biggest source of illicit drugs, surpassing the output of entire countries like Colombia (coca), Morocco (cannabis), and Myanmar (opium) -- which have populations up to twenty times larger." And while production did drop in 2008 from 2007, opium poppy production in Afghanistan is still at levels twice that of 2005 and represents a $4 billion trade whose profits are diverted to fund arms, munitions and other supplies for the Taliban. By way of comparison, the annual budget for the Karzai government is about $750 million.
Last year in Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, more than 1,600 people were killed in drug-related violence, often assassinations carried out in daylight. 250 people were killed in February of 2009 in drug-related murders including at least six policemen kidnapped from their police post, their heads showing up a few days later dropped off at the police station. The city boasts a modern $15 million morgue and crime lab. Plans are under way to double the morgue's size next year. It also is expected this week that the Mexican government will have the military take over the city's policing functions. And yet incredibly, Mexico's Attorney General, Eduardo Medina Mora, said at the end of February that even though more than a 1,000 people across Mexico have been killed in the first eight weeks of this year, he believes the drug violence has reached its peak and that Mexico is winning the drug war. He's not alone in that belief. John Walters, the Bush drug czar, affirmed that view in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
These are just a few of the data points that I could point to as the United Nations prepares to hold a summit on drugs in Vienna starting on Wednesday. Ten years ago, many of these same representatives met in New York at the United Nation's General Assembly's Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS). The meeting was dominated by the slogan: "A Drug-Free World: We Can Do It". If the above is success, what does failure look like?
With the United Nations summit upcoming the world press is paying increasing attention to the scourge of drugs. Today, the UK Guardian writes:
Cocaine production has surged across Latin America and unleashed a wave of violence, population displacements and corruption, prompting urgent calls to rethink the drug war.
More than 750 tonnes of cocaine are shipped annually from the Andes in a multi-billion pound industry which has forced peasants off land, triggered gang wars and perverted state institutions.
A Guardian investigation based on dozens of interviews with law enforcement officials, coca farmers, refugees and policymakers has yielded a bleak picture of the "war" on the eve of a crucial United Nations drug summit.
Almost all those interviewed agreed that insatiable demand for cocaine in Europe and north America had thwarted US-led efforts to choke supply and inflicted enormous damage on Latin America.
"We consider the war on drugs a failure because the objectives have never been achieved," said César Gaviria, Colombia's former president and co-chair of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy.
"Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalisation have not yielded the expected results. We are today farther than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs."
The commission is urging a "paradigm shift" from repression to a public health approach, including decriminalisation of marijuana. Dismal statistics about coca cultivation, cocaine exports and murder rates have amplified calls to replace a policy which dates back to Nixon with one which focuses on curbing demand.
"The strategy of the US here, in Colombia and Peru was to attack the raw material and it has not worked," said Colonel René Sanabria, head of Bolivia's anti-narcotic police force.
A report by the Brookings Institution, and a separate study by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron which was endorsed by 500 economists, have joined the chorus demanding change.
The debate comes to a head on Wednesday when ministers from across the world convene in Vienna to forge a new UN approach to drugs. The European Union and some Latin American countries hope to shape a strategy based on "harm reduction" measures, such as needle exchanges. But holdovers from the Bush administration are lobbying Barack Obama to stick with traditional US emphasis on supply.
Last week, The Economist published yet another editorial on the subject:
Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same. In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless. That is why The Economist continues to believe that the least bad policy is to legalise drugs.
"Least bad" does not mean good. Legalisation, though clearly better for producer countries, would bring (different) risks to consumer countries. As we outline below, many vulnerable drug-takers would suffer. But in our view, more would gain.
Nowadays the UN Office on Drugs and Crime no longer talks about a drug-free world. Its boast is that the drug market has "stabilised", meaning that more than 200m people, or almost 5% of the world's adult population, still take illegal drugs--roughly the same proportion as a decade ago. (Like most purported drug facts, this one is just an educated guess: evidential rigour is another casualty of illegality.) The production of cocaine and opium is probably about the same as it was a decade ago; that of cannabis is higher. Consumption of cocaine has declined gradually in the United States from its peak in the early 1980s, but the path is uneven (it remains higher than in the mid-1990s), and it is rising in many places, including Europe.
This is not for want of effort. The United States alone spends some $40 billion each year on trying to eliminate the supply of drugs. It arrests 1.5m of its citizens each year for drug offences, locking up half a million of them; tougher drug laws are the main reason why one in five black American men spend some time behind bars. In the developing world blood is being shed at an astonishing rate. In Mexico more than 800 policemen and soldiers have been killed since December 2006 (and the annual overall death toll is running at over 6,000). This week yet another leader of a troubled drug-ridden country--Guinea Bissau--was assassinated.
Yet prohibition itself vitiates the efforts of the drug warriors. The price of an illegal substance is determined more by the cost of distribution than of production. Take cocaine: the mark-up between coca field and consumer is more than a hundredfold. Even if dumping weedkiller on the crops of peasant farmers quadruples the local price of coca leaves, this tends to have little impact on the street price, which is set mainly by the risk of getting cocaine into Europe or the United States.
Nowadays the drug warriors claim to seize close to half of all the cocaine that is produced. The street price in the United States does seem to have risen, and the purity seems to have fallen, over the past year. But it is not clear that drug demand drops when prices rise. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that the drug business quickly adapts to market disruption. At best, effective repression merely forces it to shift production sites. Thus opium has moved from Turkey and Thailand to Myanmar and southern Afghanistan, where it undermines the West's efforts to defeat the Taliban.
And Colombia's Semana writes simply that:
Nobody believes that drug use is good, recommendable or ideal. It is simply a reality of the human condition and of culture. All civilizations have turned to them, and many have prohibited them. It is enough to remember the harmful criminal consequences that the prohibition of liquor had in the United States almost a century ago. Obviously the globalization of criminal networks and the boom in demand make the problem of drug use more serious. But prohibition does not solve the problem, and that has already been proven.
Prohibition has failed. It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We have been at this for thirty years. It's time to try legalization and treating drug abuse as a medical problem not a criminal one.