Just Say Alternatives

A willingness to become dependent on addictive drugs or the drug trade knows no borders. It extends from the streets of the United States and Europe to the isolated hamlets of Colombia and Afghanistan, where poor farmers feed the trade and themselves by growing drug-related crops.

Resources to break this chain must be balanced between drying up the supply and ending the demand. Too often, the latter gets neglected.

That's why it's worth watching an attempt in California to put stronger emphasis on treatment and education of drug-users. On Nov. 7, Californians passed an initiative mandating treatment instead of jail for nonviolent drug offenders. The idea is simple: People need to be shown a lifestyle alternative to drug dependency. Otherwise, many offenders will just leave prison and resume the old ways.

The same idea can work in drug-supply nations. In the mountains where the coca or opium poppies are grown, farmers need to be shown an alternative to that lucrative line of work. Consider the farmers in Colombia's remote Putumayo province. The government has been trying for years, with the help of the US, to discourage coca cultivation. That's usually meant the military just fumigates farmers' fields. But the lure of narcotics money also means the crops soon materialize elsewhere.

Putumayo is one area targeted for a different approach. Under the new "Plan Colombia," military seizure and destruction of large-scale coca plantations run by drug cartels will continue. But a big chunk of resources will be devoted to persuading small farmers that their interests lie in other crops or businesses.

Alternatives such as organic coffee, require big investments and long-term payoffs. If these options are to have any credence, they need considerable interim aid to keep farmers going. That aid should include such practical steps as improving transportation systems so crops can get to market.

In Afghanistan, too, the United Nations has pushed alternatives to growing the opium poppy. Funding is dwindling, however. The anti-poppy campaign has shifted to the Muslim fundamentalist rulers, the Taliban, who have declared poppy cultivation as un-Islamic. But clerical edicts may be as ineffective as crop eradication.

"Crop substitution" programs are not new, but they still provide the best long-term solution. With the right combination of agricultural advice, sustained aid, and moral suasion, these farmers, like drug addicts, can see they do have a choice.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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