Breaking the addiction to the drug war
In Vienna this Wednesday policy makers will convene once again to consider the United Nations strategy for battling illegal narcotics worldwide. It’s a war that is statistically impossible to win. A report today from the Guardian points to the massive cocaine trade out of Latin America to exemplify how the supply-side war on drugs is equivalent to shoveling water on an international scale:
The crucible is Colombia, the world’s main cocaine exporter. Since 2000 it has received $6 billion in mostly military aid from the US for the drug war. But despite the fumigation of 1.15m hectares of coca, the plant from which the drug is derived, production has not fallen. Across the whole of South America it has spiked 16%, thanks to increases in supply from Bolivia and Peru.
Says 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.”
Says Colonel René Sanabria, head of Bolivia’s anti-narcotic police force: “The strategy of the US here, in Colombia and Peru was to attack the raw material and it has not worked.”
Halfway around the world it’s the same story with the heroin trade out of Afghanistan.
If, as Tom Friedman argued yesterday, we have crossed a historic inflection point for fundamentally recasting our global economic paradigm, then it seems the costly war on drugs should be of a piece. There are no easy solutions, but there are promising alternatives to the status quo. A few years ago I reported an in-depth series for Salon examining “harm reduction” policy implemented in Vancouver, whose emphasis at a local level was on curbing drug demand and its attendant social problems. It appeared to work remarkably well.
There are signs the Obama administration might take things in a different direction. For his new director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, President Obama reportedly has nominated Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, whose views on drug policy seem decidedly more moderate than those of Bush-appointed hardliner John P. Walters. As the Guardian also notes today, a report last fall by the Government Accountability Office concluded the war on drugs had failed in Colombia — a report that was commissioned by then Senator Joe Biden.