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Rethink the fight against cocaine

Drug use is up, and Colombian farmers are unfairly targeted. Let's overhaul counternarcotics.

By Mark L. Schneider / May 23, 2008


Every year, White House officials describe the US counterdrug policies in the same glowing terms used to describe the Emperor's new clothes: We're snuffing out coca crops and cracking down on those who grow them. But they leave out two important facts: More cocaine is coming out of South America than ever before and more young Americans are using than when the Bush administration took office.

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Officials tell us they've made progress in eradicating tens of thousands of acres of coca by spraying chemical weed-killer from airplanes protected by heavily armed helicopter gunships.

They tell success stories about hundreds of tons of coca paste and cocaine they've seized on Colombian roads and on the high seas. They speak proudly of the coffee, beans, and vegetables harvested under Colombian and US alternative development projects.

But there are key facts missing in their description of the Emperor's counterdrug-policy wardrobe. When Plan Colombia (the multibillion dollar US assistance program targeted at curbing drug smuggling and supporting Colombia against armed guerrillas) started, coca was cultivated in 12 of Colombia's 34 provinces. Today it is grown in 23 of those provinces.

In 2006, after five years of Plan Colombia, four years of the regional Andean Counterdrug Initiative, and after spending $5.5 billion, some 1,000 metric tons of cocaine were produced between Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. That's about the same amount that was produced in 2002 when President Álvaro Uribe took office.

The head of the White House Office of Narcotics and Drug Control Program, John Walters, admitted at a press conference in Haiti recently that last year that cocaine production had risen to 1,400 metric tons in 2007 – a whopping 40 percent hike. Not surprisingly, his staff is scrambling to rephrase that.

Washington is focusing on the most easily replaceable link of the cocaine production chain – the impoverished campesino – through aerial spraying and forced eradication. These poor farmers feel unfairly singled out, since too many at the top of the chain – drug traffickers and illegal armed combatants – survive or are quickly replaced by equally brutal traffickers. This administration's policy of targeting the poorest is wrong.