Forgotten but not yet gone; War on Drugs targets innocent victims in producer countries

With NATO sorties dropping bombs on Yugoslavia every day, now may not seem like the best time for an op/ed piece about the War on Drugs. More than a decade old and far removed from the front page, the War on Drugs has ceased to grip Americans’ attention. But this only shows that we have become habituated to our government’s violation of human rights and misguided pursuit of the national interest, with dire consequences for Americans who use drugs and foreigners who produce them. The time I spent in Bolivia, the origin of much of the coca that is made into cocaine and hence ground zero in the War on Drugs, made it painfully clear that the United States must cease the immoral, impractical policy of eradicating Bolivia’s coca plants.

On the surface, coca eradication does not fit the mold of clear cut, dramatic interventions like the NATO raids and the Gulf War. Bolivia’s government appears to cooperate with the Drug War and its soldiers do most of the dirty work. But astronomical foreign debt and heavy dependence on American aid have greatly undercut Bolivia’s sovereignty and the Bolivian soldiers that fight the War on Drugs receive most of their training, supplies and orders from the United States. If these orders do not specifically sanction the routine violations of human rights committed by the forces responsible for coca eradication against the growers, they at least create the conditions

The name War on Drugs conveniently dodges the issue of the human beings who get caught in the crossfire. The Drug War’s architects choose its victims when they decide whether to target the supply of drugs, that is, foreigners or the demand for drugs, that is, Americans. Not only does the choice to focus most of America’s effort on the supply side inaccurately and irresponsibly suggest that the blame for America’s cocaine habit belongs in South America, but the central tenet of this strategy, the eradication of coca, endangers the tens of thousands of Bolivian peasant farmers and their households who depend on coca for their subsistence. These farmers do not make cocaine; labs in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia do this. The fact that these farmers have no viable alternative to the cultivation of coca stems in large part from American policies.

In the midst of an economic tailspin in the early 1980s, the Bolivian government had to implement the now infamous “structural reforms” before it could receive assistance from the United States, the World Bank and the IMF. With little choice but to comply, the government immediately dismantled its old import substitution economy and joined the global capitalist economy. The flood of cheap imports that ensued has decimated Bolivia’s agriculture, industry, and mining, leaving the tens of thousands of unemployed with two bleak options: join the informal economy, a euphemism for self-employment as a streetvendor, or grow coca. The overcrowded, hyper-competitive state of the informal economy can make growing coca look like an attractive option in spite of all its risks.

Even if one can overlook the immorality of punishing Bolivian cultivators of coca for actions that American economic policy served to strongly encourage, if not necessitate, the supply-side strategy has a further deep flaw: it cannot possibly succeed. American demand is too great; the producers’ potential profits are too attractive; the land suitable for cultivation is far too vast. The governments we depend upon to fight our war stand to gain too much from partial cooperation with the producers and in the case of Bolivia even depend on drug money to supplement a legal income that has seriously dwindled in the wake of structural reforms. Coca eradication has made no significant inroads into the supply of cocaine and even its modest, temporary victories do not diminish America’s drug problem, as domestic drugs or other foreign drugs meet the leftover demand.

The solution is not so simple, however, as switching to a demand-side War on Drugs, which unjustly jeopardizes the livelihood of the coca cultivators just as surely as the supply-side strategy. At the same time that America switches the Drug War to the domestic front, the government must also lift its current ban on the commercial use of coca. Researchers have discovered thousands of legitimate uses for the plant and economists argue that the market could absorb the current supply and even support expanded production.