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Just Say No
Katerina Apostolides • The war on drugs is not worth fighting
October 2003

Ever since its Anti Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, the U.S. has conditioned foreign aid and access to its markets on adoption of narcotics control initiatives. This basically means that unless other countries fully cooperate in the U.S.-led anti-drug war, they will be decertified and might no longer enjoy U.S. aid, trade benefits, or preferential tariff treatment, while on the other hand encountering increased duties on exports to the United States and limits on air traffic with it. The problem with the U.S. trying to extend its drug war abroad is that this project has consumed a lot of money and produced very ambiguous results.

The U.S. has employed multiple strategies in its attempt to eradicate its drug problem, including interdiction, crop eradication, and crop substitution. Unfortunately, the method of interdiction, or interception of drug smuggling by authorities, has been largely unsuccessful, since at best only ten percent of drug shipments are intercepted before reaching the streets. This is generally regarded by drug traffickers as the “routine cost” of their business. Moreover, neither interdiction nor crop eradication have had noticeable effects on the final price of cocaine once it reaches the United States. Crop substitution, another strategy initiated by the U.S., involves subsidizing the growth of legal crops in foreign countries, as well as financing infrastructure projects in order to encourage peasants to take part in the legal market. Considering that farmers can make about ten times as much profit growing drug crops as they can growing any legal crop, this solution is very costly. Moreover, coca plants grow in areas and under conditions hostile to any legal plant, which means that farmers often end up cultivating both, ultimately using U.S. subsidies for drug production.

Even the arrests and killings of numerous drug lords in Colombia and Mexico, such as the Medellin and Cali cartels, heralded as milestones in the drug war, have only shown negligible results. Once a monopoly is destroyed, there is added incentive for smaller farmers to join the market. Consequently, drug cultivation has become increasingly decentralized and dispersed. The Council on Foreign Relations itself conceded that, “For twenty years, these programs have done little more than rearrange the map of drug production and trafficking.”

In addition to the obvious failure of its strategies, one of the main problems of the international drug crusade is that it promotes destabilization in foreign countries. Because the drug business is so lucrative, peasants and powerful drug traffickers ally themselves with rebel groups against the government. In Colombia, the situation has become so horrendous that it has caused the Bush administration to consider contributing military aid to counterinsurgency campaigns. If the U.S. is to apply its prohibitionist strategies with the same vigor in Mexico, where the Drug Enforcement Administration reports a “virtually geometric” increase in drug trafficking over the last five years, it will risk another Colombia, now directly on its southern border. Even Peru in 1992 announced a suspension in coca plant eradication programs, so that it could fight terrorism and destabilization in the country. Prohibitionism abroad only seems to stimulate the growth of underground networks with huge black market potential profit. This becomes the lifeblood of terrorist groups and leftist insurgents who make their profits a challenge to democratic rule.

Overhanging all of this critique is the enormous cost entailed in such an endeavor. Since 2000, the U.S. has pumped some $2.4 billion in military and economic aid into Colombia alone. If the cost of the U.S.-led drug war is expanded to include the cost of dealing with emboldened leftist rebels and mounting instability, it will reach unmanageable and dangerous proportions. In addition, the attention demanded by such regions as Iraq and Afghanistan render the drug war finally antagonistic to American interests. In the present world, its concern should be restoring stability and order to these areas, rather than generating havoc and disorder in others, under its threat of economic isolation. The U.S. must end its international war on drugs and open its markets to the legal goods of drug-source countries.

If the U.S. intends to continue fighting the drug war it has announced, it should focus on the demand rather than the supply side of drug trafficking. Recent deliberation over a possible Plan Colombia Two, to focus on counter-terrorism, intelligence and anti-kidnapping activities, indicates the depths of military and economic commitment that an international drug crusade will demand of us. After restricting our focus to the feasible —- the domestic -- we should concentrate on anti-drug education and support groups, while also increasing penalties suffered by drug dealers. Even if these methods are unoriginal and slow in taking effect, their promises are far more attractive than the international turmoil promised by taking this war abroad.

Katerina Apostolides is a sophomore in Silliman College.


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