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Books - The Cocaine Connection
Written by Merrill Collett   

Looking back over the 20 years that have passed since Operation Intercept attempted to block the flow of Mexican marijuana, Washington can claim some successes for its antidrug policies in Latin America. Supported by more than $95 million in U.S. aid, Mexico carried out a marijuana and opium poppy eradication effort that did serious damage to the country's drug trade in the 1970s. Bowing to U.S. pressure, Colombian President Turbay signed an extradition treaty in 1979 and militarized the marijuana-trafficking Guajira Peninsula. Threatened with the loss of U.S. foreign aid, the Bolivian government set up a voluntary coca-eradication program that wiped out 2,570 acres in 1987 and early 1988. Do these short-term successes point toward a long-term victory over Latin American drug trafficking? The evidence suggests not. In fact, these cases point toward certain defeat. In Mexico, farmers used improved techniques of landscaping, fertilizing, irrigating and concealing their crops to produce bumper harvests of marijuana plants and opium poppies beginning in 1981. These new methods make eradication more costly and difficult. Mexico is once again this country's chief foreign supplier of heroin and marijuana. In Colombia, the military withdrew from the Guajira in fear of being corrupted by the traffickers, and the government set aside extradition after the Extraditables threatened the stability of the state. In Bolivia, while the government eradicates coca in some regions the peasants expand cultivation in others. This ebb-and-flow resulted in a net increase of 5,580 acres of new coca fields in little more than a year-1987 to early 1988.

As for the broader question of winning or losing the war on drugs, the answer is so obvious that there is no debate. The numbers speak for themselves: The amount of cocaine entering the country between 1984 and 1987 nearly quadrupled while its price went down as much as 40 percent, reaching a low of $80 a gram on the street. The only real achievements of U.S drug diplomacy have been to increase friction with neighboring nations and to reinforce the stereotype of a heavy-handed Uncle Sam quick to bring his big stick down on Latin America.

Washington's errors began with the "war on drugs" metaphor. War is an image frequently used by politicians because it evokes strong sentiments against a common enemy. In an effort to mobilize mass support, recent U.S. Presidents have launched a "war on poverty," a "war on inflation" and a "war on drugs." The antidrug effort is the nearest of any of these to a real shoot-out between the forces of good (the police) and evil (the pushers), and it has passed into the popular imagination as an accurate picture of the problem. Thus the enormously complex issue of drug abuse and trafficking has been reduced to a matter of law enforcement. But, as Colombian President Barco argued in an editorial written for a U.S. newspaper, "if all that were required to stop drugs were the commitment and competence of law enforcement authorities in Colombia and the United States, we would have solved this deadly problem years ago." The problem persists, and the war on drugs is starting to look like what one expert calls the New Hundred Years' War. If the United States is to avoid endless conflict, politicians and the media will have to stop waging the war on drugs in speeches and headlines. The tough talk is producing no solutions. Another metaphor is needed.

An alternate image would be "drugs as plague." An ABC News Special in 1988 called drugs "A Plague Upon the Land." National leaders frequently refer to drugs as a scourge and an epidemic, but plagues and epidemics arise out of nature and descend upon humankind. The responsibility for these tragic events is not ours. Drug use is different. Users choose drugs. A baby born brain-damaged because its mother was a crack consumer certainly did not choose its fate, but nonetheless a choice was made—by the ignorant or indifferent mother. The U.S. drug problem is a conglomerate of millions of such decisions.

Drugs as Business

Until recently this element of choice was largely ignored, but a new generation of drug experts has put choice—the U.S. demand for drugs—at the center of their analytical model. The new thinking is based on economic rather than law-and-order logic. Laws still play a part, but they are the laws of supply and demand. The focus is on drugs as a business. This shift toward an economic model puts drugs in the proper perspective. It allows us to see that the United States should bankrupt the drug business by redudng demand.

Explored in think tanks, the economic model has shed new light on the obscure world of drug trafficking and produced new insights into U.S. policy failures. By reasoning back from drug seizures and street prices, economist Reuter has convincingly argued that interdiction can never decrease cocaine imports. No matter how many U.S. tax dollars are spent to seal the borders, cocaine will keep coming because there are so many methods of bringing drugs in and smuggling costs are such a small percentage of the final price of the product. If more drugs are seized, the traffickers will simply increase the amount sent, with only a negligible increase in price.

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The supply-and-demand model of drug trafficking has moved out of the think tanks and into policymaking circles. In 1988 there was hardly a public official in Congress, the White House or the Justice Department who did not profess a determination to fight the supply of drugs by reducing demand. The Reagan Administration translated the supply-and-demand model into a policy of "get the users." Congress cooperated by passing a drug bill that imposed harsh penalties on users of even small amounts of marijuana.

Individual Rights Versus U.S. Drug Enforcement

Zero tolerance, critics claim, is doomed because demand cannot be repressed. Illicit drugs have been so persistently popular in the United States during this century that one big-city police chief calls the fight against them "one long glorious failure." Millions of U.S. citizens like drugs. Why they like drugs is another question. The answer may have something to do with the belief in the right to "the pursuit of happiness." Or perhaps the explanation can be found in what philosopher William James called the "moral weightlessness" of modern times. Whatever the reason, drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, are thoroughly woven into U.S. life. The government would have to rip apart the social fabric to extract illicit drug use from the U.S. national culture.

Some lawmakers are willing to take extreme measures to end the drug problem. Among the proposed amendments to the 1988 drug bill were the following provisions: permit police to make "good faith" drug searches without warrants; cut off Federal funds from companies that fail to ensure a "drug-free workplace," thus encouraging employers to spy on employees; and execute traffickers whether or not they had been involved in murders. Civil libertarians objected to these proposals as infringements on the Constitution, and they were removed from the final bill, but there is no guarantee they will not become law in the future. As public pressure builds to do something about drugs, politicians become more willing to compromise civil liberties. Drugs are a simmering social issue that can boil over into political demagoguery.

In the debate over individual rights versus drug enforcement, the question of drug testing occupies center stage. The spectrum of opinion on this issue stretches from those who believe with former President Reagan that testing should be carried out randomly at workplaces everywhere to those who consider mandatory urinalysis not only expensive and unreliable but an unacceptable invasion of privacy. In the two cases to reach the U.S. Supreme Court so far, justices ruled that railroad workers and U.S. Customs Service employees could be tested. The two cases raise different issues. Even staunch supporters of civil liberties can see an argument for testing transport workers as a matter of protecting the safety of the public, but public safety is not an issue for Customs Service workers. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia called the Customs Service's random testing an "immolation of privacy and human dignity in symbolic opposition to drug use." The Customs Service decision has caused critics to accuse the court of making drug policy rather than defending the Constitution. Aside from the constitutional issues involved, testing seems unnecessary. After analyzing the urine samples of 2,100 of its employees, the Customs Service found only one with any trace of illegal drugs. These results hardly justify the Federal government's plan to expand its drug-testing program, which cost about $15 million in 1988. The challenge for the United States is to develop an antidrug policy that is both constitutional and within its budget.

Legalizing Drugs

Reflecting on past failures to repress drug demand and the high cost of continuing the same policies into the future, several scholars, newspaper columnists, police officers and top city officials have proposed legalization as an alternative. They argue that the problem is not the drugs but their illegality: antinatcotics laws make drug smuggling hugely profitable. Drug dealers would disappear just as bootleggers did after the end of Prohibition. With the stroke of a pen, legalization would unclog the courts, eliminate drug-gang violence in the inner cities and restore respect for the law by making it conform to practice. Some of the $8 billion spent by Federal, state and local governments to enforce drug laws could be funneled into antidrug education and treatment. These programs could also benefit from taxes on drugs like those levied on alcohol and tobacco.

In foreign relations, the legalization of drugs in the United States would pull out the props holding up the Latin American traffickers. Only its illegality explains why the product of the lowly coca bush costs 6,000 times more in New York City than the finest Colombian coffee. Legalization would topple this logic. The highly developed skills of the smugglers would have no value in an unrestricted market for cocaine. Legalization advocates argue that Latin America's underground empire would wither away, removing an obstacle in U.S.-Latin American relations.

This strong foreign policy argument must be tested against the impact legalization would have on U.S. society, particularly on the poverty-stricken inner cities. The middle class could save itself: those cocaine users with discipline could regulate their habits; those without could pay for drug treatment. But many observers are convinced that the desperate, uneducated poor are ill-equipped to resist crack cocaine sitting on a shelf in a corner store. DEA Chief John Lawn has warned that legalization would sign the death warrant for the ghetto. Lawn argues that the problem is not the laws, but the drugs themselves. He has a case when it comes to cocaine, a dangerously "reinforcing" drug which may be the most psychologically addictive substance in common use. Crack carries its users to an instant euphoria followed by a deep depression that can be lifted by more crack.

But Lawn's warning doesn't apply to marijuana. After 20 years of scientific studies there is convincing evidence that marijuana is not addictive and poses a health hazard no greater than tobacco. In 1988 the DEA's chief administrative law judge called marijuana "one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man." Such statements give impetus to the argument that marijuana should be legalized. Opponents of marijuana legalization say it would increase the use of the drug, and some of the new marijuana users would eventually become cocaine and heroin users. Legalization advocates counter with the argument that there is nothing inherent in marijuana to create a need for harder drugs.. If there is a link, proponents say, it is not the marijuana itself but the marijuana pusher. The pusher is a mobile market for all the drugs that cannot be purchased legally, from marijuana to heroin. The legalization of marijuana would separate it from the illegal market and thus diminish contact between marijuana consumers and hard-drug pushers. The experience of the Netherlands shows that the creation of a separate, legal market for marijuana can actually reduce heroin use.

The legalization of marijuana, some proponents argue, would also give the government new credibility as it attempts to educate the public about cocaine. The U.S. Surgeon General's successful campaign against cigarette smoking has shown that education is the most cost-effective way to change health-damaging behavior. This lesson could be applied to the drug problem. Drug use is a choice. Government can educate effectively about the consequences of that choice. Critics of the government's efforts to curb drugs claim that the government's information about narcotics has been so moralistic and so factually incorrect that users have rejected all warnings and experimented with any drug, no matter how dangerous. A government mature enough to put aside its alarmism about marijuana should be able to speak calmly and wisely about the real effects of cocaine. Funding for this anticocaine education effort could come from the former budget for marijuana repression. In 1987 the Federal government budgeted $3.8 million for eradication alone. That is more than the $3.5 million allocated in 1989 to the office of the new "drug _czar," former Secretary of Education William Bennett.

A New Drug Diplomacy?

Although his funds are few and his statutory authority is limited, Bennett occupies a position with enough power and influence to reorient the U.S. antidrug effort from a "war" on drug suppliers to an educational campaign aimed at cutting drug demand and bankrupting the drug business. To do this Bennett would have to argue down those who see law enforcement as the answer. This pressure, which surges out of a frustrated population, has already pushed an unwilling Pentagon into drug interdiction. In 1988 Congress ordered the Department of Defense to play a greater role in narcotics interdiction by creating a drug intelligence network; providing support services to civilian agencies; and deploying the National Guard against trafficking. The Pentagon fears that soldiers will be corrupted by traffickers and that the military will become a scapegoat for the failures of U.S. drug policy. A more fundamental criticism is made by RAND economist Reuter. He says that the armed forces bring few relevant assets to the interdiction effort. For example, deploying high-tech military hardware is of little use if cocaine does not show up on radar screens. Military interdiction will only encourage smugglers to use commercial transport, as opposed to private planes, boats and trucks.

Given that the U.S. public wants antidrug enforcement to continue, national leaders should try to scale down short-run expectations and set as a goal not winning a war but deflating the cocaine trade to manageable proportions. The Medellin cartel promoted U.S. drug consumption by turning random drug smuggling into an organized industry that cranked out cheap cocaine for millions of consumers. The most the United States can do is to push the drug business out of the mass market and back into the underground. This will be costly and difficult. One approach would be for law enforcers to tailor their efforts to the drugs-as-business pattern by using more intelligence and less force. Instead of kicking down doors, antidrug agents would spend more time chasing paper trails and doing Securities and Exchange Commission-style investigations. Only good intelligence work can tell the Customs Service which of the 7 million cargo containers entering the country every year contain illicit drugs. Intelligence work is difficult in drug-producing countries, where the power of drug dollars is great and U.S. investigators are hampered by their inexperience abroad. This is one argument for the DEA to shrink the number of its overseas agents and to rely more on carefully chosen and well-rewarded foreign agents and allies. Instead of organizing assaults on jungle cocaine laboratories in Peru and Bolivia, DEA personnel could put first priority on U.S. money laundering and other drug-related, white-collar crimes at home. This would encourage Latin America to fight drugs by emphasizing that the United States no longer considers drug trafficking some other nation's problem.

In acknowledging its role as the world's biggest consumer of illicit drugs, the United States has moved away from a strictly bilateral approach to drug diplomacy. Washington now says the drug fight must go multinational. In April 1988 Attorney General Meese proposed to Colombian President Barco that a multinational police force be deployed against the Medellin cocaine cartel. Colombia ignored the proposal and Bolivia flatly rejected it, but the proposal took shape in another form. The following August the DEA launched a series of joint operations in Latin America under the auspices of a 30-nation group called the International Drug Enforcement Conference. Multinational police operations were matched by an aggressive diplomatic effort. The State Department began lobbying international organizations and Western governments for greater cooperation in combating the Latin American traffickers.

The renewed U.S. willingness to work within world forums departed from previous Reagan Administration policy, offering evidence that the Administration was so alarmed by the drug danger that it was willing to reconsider its unbending commitment to independent foreign policy action. Latin American leaders had been seeking such a policy shift for some time. As Central America developed its own peace plan, and as Washington suffered foreign-policy defeats in Panama and Haiti, Latin America became impatient with any pretensions of U.S.,hegemony in the hemisphere. The Bush Administration says it is sensitive to Latin America's new mood, but only time will tell if the United States can chart a successful antidrug policy in the hemisphere's changed diplomatic environment.

A truly multinational antidrug effort is likely to run into resistance within Washington itself. The DEA is dubious about working with governments in drug-producing countries, where corrupt leaders might tell traffickers about antidrug activities and thus put the lives of U.S. lawmen in danger. A case in point is the 1985 murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena by traffickers allegedly protected by Mexican officials. If the DEA is suspicious of foreign governments, it also has reservations about its own. Agents complain about U.S. government priorities that put domestic politics and foreign policy concerns above fighting drugs. For example, the United States passed up a chance to capture top traffickers Jorge and Fabio Ochoa because the State Department feared their arrest would set off political disturbances in Colombia, according to a Newsweek report. Internal conflicts are constant because some three dozen different Federal offices are involved in Washington's antidrug effort. The ongoing interagency turf battles inside the U.S. government underscore the difficulty of uniting several governments in an antidrug alliance. Countries may hammer out a common program, but putting it into practice will be another matter. And then there is the question of money. How much will each member nation pay to sustain the joint antidrug effort? Recent history suggests that Washington does not want to bear a big part of the burden. Although the United States gives lip service to a multinational drug battle, words have not been backed up with large amounts of dollars. In 1988 the United States, the world's biggest consumer of illegal drugs, paid only 5 percent of the $60 million budget of the UN Fund for Drug Abuse Control.

 

Our valuable member Merrill Collett has been with us since Tuesday, 21 February 2012.

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