The War on Drugs

Drugs kill people. We hear it so often that we don’t really think about it anymore. But Im not talking about the rich coke heads in the City, or the depressed skag heads on the council estates, robbing to feed their habit. Im talking about the people killed as a result of the unwinnable war on drugs.

In Colombia war has been raging since the mid 1960’s between the various governments and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. Like much of the contemporary violence in South America, the FARC initially started life as a Marxist force rebelling against a military government, but unlike many left wing movements in south America, the FARC have not embraced electoral politics in recent years. For better or worse, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Alan Garcia have all been elected since 1999, but the FARC have kept fighting because of drugs.

Colombia is renowned as the world centre of the cocaine trade and it is estimated that about half of the FARC’s income comes from involvement in the drugs trade, totaling between $200 million and $400 million a year. This money allows them to fund a campaign which has included massacres, forced conscription of minors and various hideously inventive booby traps. They have freedom of movement in between 40% and 60 % of the country. They are believed to have been responsible for 20% of the thirty thousand deaths this war has caused.

Afghanistan is another country slithering down the same path. One of the few benefits of the Taliban’s brand of ascetic Islam was their crushing of the opium trade, opium being vital to heroin production. In 2000, according to UN officials, Afghanistan produced nearly 4,000 tons of opium, about 75 percent of the world’s supply. Mullah Omar, Taliban head and colleague of Osama Bin Laden, banned the growing of poppies from which opium comes and destroyed opium labs and jailed opium growing farmers. The UN investigation found that in the province of Nangarhar poppies grew on 12,600 acres of land in 2000. The following year poppies were planted on just 17 acres and were all destroyed by the Taliban. But since the US led invasion in 2001 and the toppling of the Taliban, opium production has come back with a vengeance. According to a UNDOC (United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime) report in 2004, “opium cultivation in Afghanistan has increased by 64 per cent compared to 2003” while cereal production fell by 43%.

Why is this? An answer is to be found in the article above. Ahmed Rehman, a farmer who lives with his brothers on less than three acres of land in Nangarhar province claimed that the opium he produced in 2000 brought in $1,100. The crop of onions and cattle feed he planted in 2001 brought him just $300. “Life is very bad for me this year,” he said. “Last year I was able to buy meat and wheat and now this year there is nothing.” In Colombia the high price commanded by drugs has prolonged a brutal war. In Afghanistan, the high price has encouraged men to abandon other crops to concentrate on profitable opium.

It is the high price of drugs that keeps the FARC fighting and Ahmed Rehman from growing food instead of opium. This high price will always be the case while demand outstrips supply. The Taliban were largely successful in throttling supply in Afghanistan but other efforts have met with less success. In 2004, Colombia’s government reported that 340,000 acres of land under cultivation for coca had been destroyed and almost 150 tons of cocaine seized. Sandro Calvani, director of the UNODC in Colombia, confidently predicted that “Considering Colombia supplies 80% of the world cocaine market, we think prices are going to rise starting in 2006” This price rise hasn’t materialized and in March 2005, General Bantz Craddock, head of US Southern Command charged with fighting the war on drugs, was forced to admit to the House Armed Services Committee that “Why there isn’t a price increase in cocaine, I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me.” If I were to guess at a reason it would be that as soon as an acre of cocoa is eradicated in Colombia, it springs up again in Bolivia.

Not only is this military effort having no effect on supply, attempts to squash demand western countries look to be ineffectual. The 2005 British Crime Survey found that between 1996 and 2004, cocaine use among 16 to 59 year olds rose from 0.6% to 2.4%. It is a similar story across Europe with 3.5 million Europeans estimated to take cocaine, a quarter of the world market. However, the United States still accounts for 40% of the cocaine market with 2.4% using the drug.

The war on drugs has been about stamping out supply and demand and neither has worked. It has driven the price up in the west so that addicts are pushed to crime to fund their habits. In other countries the high prices have funded civil unrest. Perhaps its time to look at another solution to the death and misery that the drug wars are causing? Perhaps its time to think about legalization

With drugs legal and the risk of having your crop defoliated gone, cocoa farmers in Colombia will rush to produce cocoa for the drug market, chasing the profits that the high price brings. This increase in supply relative to demand will have the effect of bringing the price of cocaine crashing down. Tom O’Connell MD has estimated that the “market price would probably be somewhere between one third and 1/20th of the illegal price”. Overnight the FARC will be bankrupt and lose much of their war making capacity. In Afghanistan the fall in price will mean that there is very little difference between what an opium grower will get for his opium and what he will get for his wheat and cereal will begin to look a viable option.

In the west, drugs could be taxed as cigarettes and alcohol are taxed. Furthermore, by bringing them under the scope of government regulation in terms of quality, it should be possible to improve the quality of the drugs available. After all, in many cases it is not the use but the misuse of drugs that causes fatalities.

Of course this is no panacea. In the cases of Colombia and Afghanistan, the west will have to end its farming subsidies so that Colombian formers can compete with them and make it worth their while to grow something other than cocoa. But bearing in mind that the war on drugs was launched 30 years ago and has had, at best, marginal results, surely it is time to look for a different solution?


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