Attack on Drug Crops a Failure for Centuries

Attack on Drug Crops a Failure for Centuries
Posted by FoM on January 21, 2001 at 07:06:01 PT
By Dan Gardner
Source: Chicago Sun-Times 
In the 16th century, the Marques de Caete, the Spanish viceroy of Peru, was bothered by the extent to which Indians were chewing coca leaves, a practice that delivers a small amount of the same drug users take when they snort cocaine today.The Marques ordered a limit to the amount of coca that could be planted. He even set up financial incentives to get farmers to substitute food crops for coca. It didn't work. Coca was too much in demand, too lucrative.
Not even the power of the viceroy could stifle the power of the market. Still, the idea that drug problems can be solved by eradicating the source plants is so simple and powerful that it survived the Marques' failure and many others like it.Today, international anti-drug efforts are increasingly targeting source plants in the field. The elegant cannabis plant that becomes marijuana and hashish; the squat coca bush, whose leaves produce cocaine, and the gangly opium poppy, whose sap becomes opium and heroin--these plants are international criminals, the targets of one of the greatest law-enforcement efforts in history.The United States and the United Nations are spending billions of dollars trying to destroy them. Third World nations are adding major contributions from their slim budgets. The economies of whole regions, even whole countries, are at stake. Supporters, especially the U.S. government, insist these efforts can work with enough resources and cooperation. The UN has set a target date for the total eradication of coca, opium poppy and marijuana: 2008.This isn't the first time the UN has set a target date for the end of drug production: In 1961, the UN said coca and opium poppy would be wiped out worldwide by 1986.Crop-eradication programs, say the critics, have been tried and failed repeatedly and will always fail. Worse, they say, the attack on source plants wastes resources that could go to treatment and development, devastates eco-systems, destabilizes societies and spreads the violence and corruption of illegal trafficking from country to country.The argument could be said to be between the "cops" and the "economists." The "cops" favor going after source plants in the field. In some cases, that means uprooting the plants one by one. More often, it involves sending helicopters and aircraft to spray herbicides, a method capable of destroying hundreds of hectares of coca, opium poppy or marijuana in an afternoon.For the United States, this has been policy for decades. In the 1970s, it became a major effort, made notorious when President Jimmy Carter's order to spray Mexican marijuana fields resulted not in the eradication of the marijuana trade but the delivery of poisoned marijuana to Americans.Today, crop eradication is central to U.S. counternarcotics thinking. But though eradication programs have destroyed huge crops of drug-producing plants, these losses always have been quickly and easily replaced elsewhere. Colombia's Operation Splendor is a typical example.In 1994, the Colombian government of Ernesto Samper, caught in a corruption scandal and struggling to return to the good graces of the United States, announced that it would eradicate the country's entire coca and poppy crop within two years. The Americans kicked in planes, helicopters and herbicide. Tens of thousands of hectares of drug crops were destroyed.But just as swiftly, every hectare was replaced, and then some: Colombia's net production of coca and opium poppy exploded even while spraying was at its most intense. The U.S. and Colombian governments responded to this failure with even more vigorous eradication efforts. Did they work?A State Department report released last March declared the latest eradication efforts a success. But a 1999 report from the General Accounting Office paints a bleaker picture: Despite two years of extensive herbicide spraying, the GAO said there has not been any net reduction in coca cultivation.In fact, Colombia, which grew very little coca in the early 1990s, is now by far the world's largest coca cultivator.The critics of the "cops" are the "economists." They say there's an obvious reason why eradication efforts have failed and always will: the law of supply and demand. Wiping out supply leaves demand unsatisfied. Unsatisfied demand causes rising prices. Rising prices cause more people to produce supply.Thus, squeezing production in one place causes it to expand elsewhere (the balloon effect). Examples abound. When opium poppy-growing went down in Pakistan, it surged in Afghanistan. Poppy went down in Thailand and Mexico, and up in Burma and Laos. Marijuana was suppressed in Mexico, so it shot up in Colombia. When it dropped there, it went up in the United States. Coca plummeted in Peru and Bolivia and soared in Colombia."As long as there is demand in the United States and Europe," says Jaime Ruiz, senior adviser to the Colombian president, "there is going to be supply. If it is not from Colombia, it is going to be from somewhere else."Still, some "cops" defend crop eradication by pointing to the linchpin of the economists' argument: prices. Rising prices at the production level may spur more production, the cops argue, but they also mean rising prices for the consumer. And higher prices discourage people from using drugs, which is the point of the exercise.In fact, rising prices at the production level typically don't result in higher street-level prices for drugs. As Peter Reuter, a professor at the University of Maryland, explained in the New York Times, it costs cocaine refiners only 30 cents to purchase the coca leaf needed to produce a gram of cocaine, which sells for about $150 in the United States. Even if the price of the leaves doubled, the change in retail price would be negligible.And even that assumes that any increase in production cost would be passed on to the ultimate consumer, which need not happen since the traffickers have such a huge profit margin to start with. A 1994 report commissioned by the U.S. government from RAND, the American public-policy institution, found that in reducing cocaine use, treatment of heavy cocaine users is 10 times more cost-efficient than interdicting smuggled drugs and 23 times more cost-efficient than crop eradication.These results suggest, the report concludes, that if an additional dollar is going to be spent on drug control, it should be spent on treatment, not on a supply-control program. But far from heeding this advice, the "cops" instead developed a more sophisticated mode of crop eradication. Acknowledging that the "balloon effect" is real, the new approach combines eradication with development aid, to give farmers positive economic incentives to abandon drugs and grow legal crops. But getting farmers to switch from drug crops is a tough sell.In rural Colombia, where bare subsistence is the economic norm, a farmer can make $500 a month per hectare of coca; legal crops would do well to fetch half that. An even bigger barrier to getting farmers to switch crops is a lack of basic infrastructure. Many drug-growing farmers live in areas so isolated they have no roads linking them to markets, or roads so poor that crops rot on the way. But drug traffickers offer farmers door-to-door pickup.And drug crops are easy to grow and harvest. Coca in particular is a farmer's dream. It can produce four harvests a year. A bush can produce for decades. And coca thrives even in rocky or acidic soils. The UN and the U.S. government think all these factors can be overcome, particularly through infrastructure development. Beyond that, a U.S. State Department official says, these folks would be offered the opportunity for government services in the form of schools and health clinics.Peru and Bolivia began major anti-coca efforts of this type in the 1990s. Peru's coca cultivation is down 66 percent in the last four years (helped in part by a fungus that attacked Peru's coca bushes). Bolivia's has fallen 55 percent in 2 1/2 years. Colombia's coca production rose rapidly at the same time, but not as much as these drops, meaning there was a net reduction in the total amount of coca grown. Or so the authorities thought.Further analysis showed that Colombian cocaine productivity was 2 1/2 times higher than previously believed. It's impossible to say for how long the United States has been underestimating South American cocaine production. Once the 1998 and 1999 figures for Colombia were adjusted accordingly, the major drop in cocaine production vanished.Instead, the decrease was only marginal. Undeterred, the U.S. government argues that Peru and Bolivia still prove crop replacement works. Many are deeply skeptical. Ricardo Vargas, a Colombian sociologist who studies the drug trade, insists that even if the government succeeds in scrapping traffickers' supply, they'll just set up somewhere else.In fact, there are signs that gains in Peru and Bolivia already are being lost. Prices for coca are steadily rising, tempting farmers to return to the business. Traffickers have started refining cocaine in Peru itself, and opium poppy, which had been little in evidence in the country, is expanding.U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey told Congress last fall that in Peru, the drug-control situation is deteriorating.Even if the United States, the UN and local governments managed the huge task of pushing coca production down and keeping it down across South America, there's little to keep it from popping up anyplace else in the world.The move from shipping drugs to producing drugs wouldn't be difficult for some. Albanian gangs recently have attempted to grow coca in the Albanian countryside. In the late 19th century, coca was grown commercially in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Iwo Jima and Nigeria. At the beginning of the 20th century, Indonesia exported more coca leaf than Peru.What's to prevent drug traffickers from starting coca production in a large, unstable, corrupt country such as Nigeria or Indonesia? The State Department official responds there's no reason for anyone else to grow it because they'd have to compete with these very vicious trafficking organizations to introduce it to the market.But if coca production were suppressed in South America, it would be those very vicious trafficking organizations that would be growing it elsewhere. Call it the globalization of the balloon effect.For Third World nations, whose meager budgets can ill-afford failed schemes, the costs of crop-eradication policies are high. The dismal failure of Operation Splendor, to take one example, cost Colombia and the United States $300 million.Splendor, and similar programs that followed it, also inflicted another cost on Colombia, one quite common when crop eradication schemes are tried. Tens of thousands of coca farmers who saw their livelihoods vanish in a spray of herbicide felt betrayed by their government. At times, protests grew to resemble open revolt.According to the U.S. government, almost 800,000 hectares has been cleared for the coca trade over the last 15 years, less than one-third of which is now in use. As Ruiz, the senior adviser to Colombia's president, notes, the land available in the Andes region is so vast that "you spray fields, and you don't do anything. They just move somewhere else because they have the territory."Ecosystems also are afflicted on a more local level. Although the United States is adamant that the herbicides used in spraying are environmentally safe, their long-term effects are open to some doubt. Chemicals that certainly are unsafe, however, are those used to process coca leaf into cocaine.To dodge the authorities, traffickers use small, mobile laboratories that stay at one place in the jungle for a week or two, then move on. Since it takes about 210 liters of gasoline (or kerosene or acetone) and 50 kilograms of cement to process just one kilo of cocaine, piles of noxious waste are left scattered all over the processing regions.A new anti-drug strategy is further cause for alarm. The fungus that attacked Peruvian coca is being worked into a bio-herbicide to be dumped on coca in other countries. The United States is pushing Colombia to apply this bio-herbicide.The State Department bills it as a more environmentally friendly approach, but there's inherent danger in introducing an alien species to new ecosystems.If at least some of the perils of crop eradication are speculative, the benefits are entirely so. More than 400 years after the Marques de Caete tried and failed to stop coca in the fields, there is still little reason to think that these policies can substantially reduce drug use and the harms associated with it.Source: Chicago Sun-Times (IL)Author: Dan GardnerPublished: January 21, 2001Copyright: 2001 The Sun-Times Co.Address: 401 N. Wabash, Chicago IL 60611Contact: letters suntimes.comWebsite: Articles - Dan Gardner
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Comment #1 posted by Ethan Russo, MD on January 21, 2001 at 07:49:39 PT:
Too Sensible to be Ignored
Dan Gardner strikes again with another article that shoots down any hint of rationale behind the War on Drugs. It is too sensible to be ignored, but it will be, for politicians care more about appearance than results, posturing rather than success. May they be condemned for their ignorance.
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