Saturday, June 26, 2010

Still Coca Country?

Have you ever pushed in the side of a balloon?

What happens? It bulges out someplace else.

Many observers, including The Economist magazine, say that South America's coca leaf crop is like a balloon. When erradication pressure reduces acreage in one area, more gets planted in another.

Years ago, coca was grown only in Bolivia and Peru. Governments chopped down and pulled out
the crop in those countries - and what happened? Colombia became the biggest coca leaf grower, as it has been at least until recently.

A just-released survey of coca leaf plantings by the United Nations Office on Drugs reports that Colombian acreage declined 16% between 2007 and 2008, and 60% over the past decade. But production in Peru rose 55% over the past decade. Production in Bolivia has also risen slightly. So, Colombia may have lost its first-place position among coca leaf producers. Here's a NY Times video on coca erradication in Peru.

Regional production has declined by about 5%, but that's not much to crow about, especially considering the billions of dollars spent on the drug war, and the countless lives ended and ruined.

Some people call it all futile.

On the other hand, the War on Drugs has accomplished one thing: it's raised the price of drugs on the street, and therefore undoubtedly discouraged some people from becoming drug
consumers. That is a good thing.

However, by squeezing the supply of drugs, the war pumps up prices on the supply end, enriching drug traffickers and increasing their incentive to supply more chemicals and invent new ways to smuggle them. Should drug control efforts be focused on the supply or the demand end?

In Colombia, the drug trade has long enriched vicious guerrilla, paramilitary and plain old narcotraffickers. In Peru today the drug trade is giving new life to their own vicious rebels, the Shining Path Maoists.

The drug war also means millions of people imprisoned, most of them impoverished drug 'mules,' while the kingpins
generally stay rich and comfortable. Many other people are caught in the crossfire between the outlaw groups which traffic drugs, because as long as drugs are outlawed, outlaw groups will be the ones getting rich off of them.

The drug war's ultimate goal must not be to erradicate crops in South America or fill prisons worldwide with people engaged in the consensual conduct of selling substances to people who want to buy them. The war's goal is to protect the well-being of people who might otherwise become users or addicts.

Unfortunately, that might not be happening. While coca leaf erradication in South America may limit the amount of cocaine reaching the strees of the U.S. and Europe, those same potential drug consumers have access to lots of other chemicals, including vicious synthetic ones like methamphetamines. If the erradication were squeezing the supply, street prices would rise,
but that is evidently not happening.

If the U.S. and Latin American nations are spending untold riches to ruin the lives of innumerable people in Latin America and enriching outlaw organizations in order to keep cocaine products off of the street, only to push them into methamphetamine addiction - then we're accomplishing nothing.

Finally, if this drug erradication campaign is really pressuring the supply, then I wish someone would explain to me why they haven't started planting coca leaf in Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, or even Africa or Asia. Are the narcos practicing self-restraint? Do the appropriate soil and climate conditions stop at the borders?

Throw in the towel? Decriminalize drugs? It's worth serious consideration.

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