Andean Drug War

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Latin America: Peruvian Coca Growers Push Into Indian Lands

Impelled by profits from the coca trade and crackdowns in other parts of the country, coca farmers in Peru's south-central Apurimac and Ene River Valleys (VRAE) region are pushing into indigenous lands in the country's Amazon jungle, according to a new report from the Inter Press Service news agency. The occupants of those territories are not pleased.

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Chronicle editor Phil Smith with VRAE cocalero leader Abdón Flores Huamán
Peru is the number two world coca producer behind Colombia and produced some 56,000 tons of coca leaves and about 180 tons of cocaine, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Just under half of all Peruvian coca cultivation occurs in the VRAE, where there are some 30,000 farmers who are coca union members. Only about 10,000 of those are registered with ENACO, the Peruvian state coca monopoly that buys licit coca crops.

Although Peruvian authorities are undertaking crop eradication efforts in other parts of the country, such as the Huallaga Valley, such efforts are on hold in the VRAE, where authorities fear igniting the fuse on an explosive mixture of poverty, anti-government sentiment, drug gangs, and remnants of the Shining Path who have devolved into drug traffickers or protectors of traffickers.

The commissioner for peace and development in the central jungle region, Mario Jerí Kuriyama, told IPS that indigenous Asháninka people in the area have complained repeatedly about the incursions by would-be coca-growers. In mid-July, Asháninka communities along the Ene River agreed to oppose encroachments by outsiders and protect their territories.

"Many small farmers have come into the central jungle region in the last few years to plant coca because of the higher profit margins it offers. But local indigenous people are opposed to their arrival, as they don't want strangers on their land," said Jerí Kuriyama.

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statues of coca leaves, Municipal Park, Pichari (photo by Phil Smith, Drug War Chronicle)
"The Asháninka people are opposed to the settlers, especially because they see them as having links to Sendero Luminoso, which killed their family members during the (1980-2000) armed conflict, and also because they associate them with drug traffickers. For them, these people will always be 'invaders'," anthropologist Óscar Espinosa, from Peru's Catholic University, told IPS.

One Asháninka community on the Ene, Shimpenshariato, has been particularly hard-hit, CARE technician Kilderd Rojas told IPS. After an all-day trek by automobile and boat to the remote village, Rojas reported large coca plantations near houses equipped with satellite dishes and other luxuries. "At least half of the community's land has been invaded, and of that proportion, 30 percent is planted in coca and the rest in other crops," Rojas said.

The coca growers' move into the indigenous lands is a predictable result of attempts to crackdown on coca growing and drug production in the region, said drugs and development expert Ricardo Soberón. "While the authorities celebrate their 'victories' against coca and drug production in other valleys, like the Huallaga valley, they are not noticing how the pendulum is swinging towards the central jungle, where the drug trafficking routes, armed terrorist groups, new areas of coca cultivation -- a series of factors that expose local indigenous people to the interests of the drug mafias -- are now concentrated," Soberón told IPS.

Feature: US Lists "Major" Drug Producing and Trafficking Countries, Names Only Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela as Not Complying

In their annual exercise in congressionally-mandated diplomatic hubris, the Bush administration and the US State Department Tuesday released its FY 2009 List of Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries, but only placed three countries -- Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela -- on their list of countries that had "failed demonstrably" to adhere to the US interpretation of the international anti-drug conventions and to the mandates of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act.

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Bolivian coca (source: US State Dept.)
President Bush named 20 countries as major drug producers or transit countries: Afghanistan, The Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. But while Afghanistan dominates global opium production, Colombia is the world's leading cocaine exporter, and Mexico is the primary conduit for drugs entering the US, Bush and his spokespersons aimed most of their criticism at Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela.

Bolivia is the third largest coca producer, behind Colombia and Peru, and the US has been critical of President Evo Morales' "zero cocaine, not zero coca" policies that have allowed a gradual expansion of the coca crop while at the same time working to interdict cocaine produced from coca diverted to the black market. Burma is a distant second to Afghanistan in opium production, but also a leading source of methamphetamine for Asian black markets. Venezuela does not produce drug crops, but is accused by US officials of not adequately fighting the flow of Colombian cocaine through its territory on the way to European markets.

More importantly, all three countries are current political foes of the Bush administration. The Burmese military junta has been criticized for years by Washington on numerous grounds, while Bolivia's Morales and Venezuela's Chávez are at the core of a Latin American leftist bloc that is challenging US domination in the region and is now in the midst of a diplomatic showdown with Washington. Both Venezuela and Bolivia threw out US ambassadors last week in the midst of a still-unresolved dispute between Morales and conservative opposition governors in Bolivia's resource-rich eastern provinces.

"The Venezuelan government's continued inaction against a growing drug trafficking problem within and through its borders is a matter of increasing concern to the United States," said Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs David Johnson at a Tuesday afternoon briefing on the determination. "Despite Venezuelan assurances that seizures have increased, the amount of drugs bound for the United States and Europe continues to grow," he said. Perhaps as importantly: "Venezuela has refused to renew its counternarcotics cooperation agreements with the United States, including refusing to sign letters of agreement to make funds available for cooperative programs to fight the trafficking of drugs from and through Venezuela to the United States," Johnson said.

And although Johnson conceded that Bolivia "does have a number of effective, US-supported coca eradication and cocaine interdiction programs," he warned that "its official policies and actions have caused a significant deterioration in its cooperation with the United States. President Morales continues to support the expansion of licit coca leaf production, despite the fact that current legal cultivation far exceeds the demand for legal traditional consumption and exceeds the area permitted under Bolivian law."

The expansion of cultivation had resulted in an increase of 14% in coca cultivation and an increase of potential cocaine production from 115 to 120 metric tons, Johnson claimed. He also cited the recent departure of US AID workers and DEA agents from Bolivia's Chapare coca-producing region at the firm request of the coca growers' unions backed by the Bolivian government.

"The US government's determination that Bolivia 'failed demonstrably' to adhere to counternarcotics obligations seems to demonstrate the political nature of this process," said Kathryn Ledebur of the Cochabamba-based Andean Information Network. "It is worth noting that in his press statement, Assistant Secretary Johnson felt the need to highlight that the determination was not 'a hasty decision,' because it was just that -- a hasty response to the expulsion of Ambassador Goldberg," she said.

"Word from several Capitol Hill sources just days before Goldberg's expulsion was that while there were concerns, there was no way to justify saying Bolivia had 'failed demonstrably' in its obligations," Ledebur continued. "This is the third determination since Morales was elected and the fourth since the adoption of the cato system [allowing selected farmers to grow small coca crops], yet this is the first time they chose to decertify Bolivia."

Ledebur also pointed out that while the US criticized Bolivia for growing coca in excess of legal traditional consumption and above the 12,000 hectare ceiling established by Law 1008, that ceiling had never been honored. "At the peak of US-funded forced eradication and other repressive eradication policies, coca production was never reduced to the ceiling," she noted.

"I'm not at all surprised because the drug certification process has been so tainted and archly politicized," said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington, DC-based think tank. "So you can predict that if the US has taken a certain line toward Bolivia and Venezuela, there will be a negative drug certification. The US always has a hidden test, and that's the nature of Washington's relationship with the country in question."

Birns pointed to the Clinton administration's refusal to decertify Mexico in the wake of the 1993 NAFTA agreements, although Washington had ample evidence of significant drug corruption in the Mexican government. At the same time, it refused to certify Colombia as cooperating in the drug war despite its real efforts because it accused then President Ernesto Samper of having received funding from drug traffickers during his presidential campaign. There are also non-drug examples of the politicization of certification exercises, according to Birns, who cited Reagan administration claims that El Salvador was improving its human rights situation during their civil war in the 1980s, and the Bush administration's use of the terrorism designation in order to pressure North Korea on its nuclear ambitions.

The Bolivian government was quick to challenge US figures and the whole certification process. In a Wednesday speech in La Paz, Morales countered with a UN report from earlier this summer that saw only a 5% increase in cultivation, then went on the offensive. "There should be a certification process for those who are fighting drug trafficking by eliminating the consumer market,'' Morales said. "Drug trafficking responds to the market." Morales also attacked the entire notion of US certification: "These are political decisions,'' Morales said. "We're not afraid of these campaigns against the government using black lists."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was similarly -- if predictably -- scathing Wednesday in remarks reported by Agence France-Presse "The United States can say whatever it likes," Chávez said. "That is pure garbage. It is not true. They can release whatever list they like. What do we care about this list? They can shove it in their pocket, they are no moral authority to make any lists."

At the Tuesday State Department press briefing, an anonymous reporter used the last question to ask about the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Referring to the criteria for a country's inclusion on the "majors list," he asked: "If the Majors was applied to the United States, it would be on the list, too, correct? 5,000 hectares of cannabis and a major -- and a place through which drugs flow?"

"I don't know," Assistant Secretary Johnson evaded. "I don't want to tell you something I don't know. And I'll look into that for you. I'm not trying to dodge your question. I just don't -- I don't know."

Editorial: The Coca Wars are Futile, Whereas Drug Legalization is a Win-Win

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
An August 5 article in Time Magazine, "Bolivia's Surprising Anti-Drug Success," observed that legal coca cultivation and the illicit cocaine trade are not the same thing. Despite increased tolerance for coca growing by the Bolivian government under President Evo Morales -- who came up through the ranks of the coca grower community himself to become Bolivia's first indigenous chief executive -- reporter Jean Friedman-Rudovsky notes that interceptions of illicitly grown coca destined for cocaine labs are up by 30% from 2007, and 11 tons of coca paste have been intercepted this first part of the year alone, more than in all of 2005 (the year before Morales took office), according to the country's Anti-Narcotics Special Forces (FELCN).

The point is an important one. Coca is a crop grown for generations in Bolivia and other Andean nations, and it is one that is economically needed. Cocalero leaders from Bolivia and Peru spoke eloquently to their situation, their needs -- and their rights -- at our Latin America conference convened in Mexico in 2003. Coca-based tea and candies and even soap given out by conference attendees made the point directly -- coca is not cocaine, cocaine's origin in the coca leaf notwithstanding.

Unfortunately, the article stopped there, and didn't ask the logical next question: Will Bolivia's increased drug control achievements actually reduce the global supply of cocaine?

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coca leaves drying by highway, Chapare region of Bolivia (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith, 2007)
If history and economics are guides, the answer is "no." From 1995 to 2000, for example, Bolivian coca cultivation declined from 51,000 hectares to only 8,000, according to State Dept. estimates. Growing went from 117,000 to 41,000 in neighboring Peru at the same time. But Colombian coca growing rose from 54,000 to 139,000 hectares -- not completely erasing the Bolivian and Peruvian reductions, but mostly erasing them. Meanwhile, US retail cocaine prices, adjusted for purity and inflation, are just a fifth of what they were in 1981, the year the DEA's price-tracking program started.

For the shift in coca growing from country to country to be so much greater than the overall change can only mean that demand is the dominant factor at work, not enforcement. For cocaine prices to drop so incredibly too, shows that eradication, interdiction and domestic policing all combined aren't even making a dent -- suppliers simply anticipate the losses by sending more, and they can afford it.

Bolivian farmers deserve better than harassment over a traditional crop they economically need, making the Morales administration's tolerance of coca growing just. But supply-side anti-drug efforts are futile in term of the ultimate goal, and people around the world affected by cocaine and the illegal trade deserve better too. Only global legalization can stop the violence and corruption that characterize the illegal drug trade. Addicted users will also feel freer to seek help when they are not considered criminals, and will be less likely to do harm to themselves or others in the meanwhile. Ending drug prohibition is a win-win proposition.

Latin America: Peru Constitutional Court Overturns State Law Okaying Coca Crops

The Peruvian Constitutional Tribunal, the Andean country's highest court dealing with constitutional issues, announced Wednesday that it had overturned a law approved by the Department of Puno that legalized the production of coca leaves, the key ingredient in cocaine. Puno had passed the law in February.

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stunted coca plant in garden at Machu Picchu
After Colombia, Peru is the world's second largest producer of coca. Some of the coca is legal, the farmers licensed by the government to produce it for sale to ENACO, the Peruvian state coca monopoly. But tens of thousands of other farmers grow coca without official permission, some of it undoubtedly destined to be turned into cocaine.

For the past two decades, successive governments backed by assistance from the United States, have endeavored to eradicate illicit coca crops, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Those efforts have roiled Peruvian coca production areas, with unionized coca farmers facing off against police and the armed forces.

While the Department of Puno, in far southern Peru, had sought to regularize the situation by okaying coca production, the high court held that the department was trying to set national drug policy. That is the province of the national government alone, the court held.

Latin America: In Bid to Reduce US Influence, Bolivia to Fund Own Anti-Drug Unit

The Bolivian government will fund an anti-drug unit for the first time next year in a bid to reduce foreign involvement in its fight against the cocaine trade. The primary foreign country involved in Bolivian anti-drug matters is the United States, although it currently gets some added from the European Union, too.

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coca leaves drying by highway, Chapare region of Bolivia
Bolivia is the world's number three coca and cocaine producer, behind Colombia and Peru, and has a government sympathetic to coca growers. But it has insisted it is combating the diversion of coca into the illicit cocaine market under the slogan "zero cocaine, not zero coca."

That stance is a direct rebuke to the US, which seeks to eradicate all coca as an illicit drug crop. It also flies in the face of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which classifies the coca plant as a narcotic.

The US has pledged about $25 million in anti-drug aid to Bolivia this year, but next year Bolivia will do it on its own, funding the anti-drug unit at $16 million.

"One of Bolivia's responsibilities is to tackle drug trafficking, with our own... resources, with our vision, with our hard work," Ilder Cejas, an anti-narcotics adviser working for the Interior Ministry, told Reuters. The US will be allowed to collaborate with funds and advisors, but only within programs designed by the government, he added.

While the US government has been critical of Bolivia's coca production policy, the US ambassador said the US would continue to support anti-trafficking efforts. "We value the work of the (anti-narcotics unit) and the national police against drug trafficking... We want to continue collaborating," Ambassador Philip Goldberg was quoted as saying by the La Paz daily La Razón last Friday.

Latin America: Ecuador Assembly Pardons Hundreds of Drug Mules

Ecuador's constitutional assembly last Friday pardoned hundreds of small-time drug couriers currently sitting in Ecuadorian prisons. Last year, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa proposed the pardons and other drug sentencing reforms, saying it was absurd to sentence low-level couriers to more than a decade in prison for as little as 3.5 ounces of cocaine.

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Rafael Correa
The constitutional assembly took over legislative power in the country after suspending the nation's Congress last year. Under the assembly's action, prisoners who had been convicted of carrying 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of drugs or less, had served at least 10% of their sentences or one year in prison, and were not repeat offenders were pardoned.

Ernesto Pazmino, director of Ecuador's public defender's office, told the Associated Press the application process was to begin this week, and the government has 30 days to release eligible prisoners.

"The president has come through with his promise, and we appreciate him and the assembly members," Carlo Aragundi, head of a prisoners' organization at a jail in Quito, told the AP. Aragundi estimated that as many as 1,200 prisoners may be eligible.

Although Ecuador produces almost no coca, it is sandwiched between Colombia and Peru, the world's number one and two coca and cocaine producers, and is frequently used as a transit country for cocaine headed to North America. President Correa acknowledged last year that his own father had spent three years in a US prison on drug charges.

Latin America: Bolivia's Chapare Coca Growers Tell USAID to Get Lost, Say They Will Seek Funding from Venezuela

Coca grower union leaders in Bolivia's Chapare region said Wednesday they will suspend development projects funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and instead look to Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez for help. They accused USAID of using its assistance to undermine Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower union leader who is an ally of Chávez, Washington's bête noire in Latin America.

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Bolivian congressman Asterio Romero spoke with Drug War Chronicle in person in March 2007
"We want USAID to go. If USAID leaves, we will have aid from Venezuela, which is unconditioned and in solidarity," Chapare coca leader Julio Salazar told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Venezuela already provides financial assistance to Bolivia. Chávez has also invested in the Andean nation's effort to create an industry around coca products, providing support in the building of coca-processing facilities.

Asterio Romero, vice president of Chapare's main coca-growing group, told the AP growers on Tuesday agreed to cancel the USAID's operations in the region and gave it until Thursday to leave.

The coca grower action has apparently taken both governments by surprise. The US Embassy in La Paz refused comment, saying it had not been officially informed of the coca growers' decision. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said Tuesday he was not familiar with the decision, but that his government wants to make US aid "more transparent."

President Morales has accused USAID of financing his political opponents. Among them are wealthy landowners from the country's eastern provinces who are seeking greater autonomy or secession.

Our Drug War Alliances in South America Are Crumbling

Decades of drug war demolition tactics have taken their toll on our diplomacy in South America:

QUITO (Reuters) - From Argentina to Nicaragua, Latin Americans have elected leftist leaders over the last decade who are challenging Washington's aggressive war on drugs in the world's top cocaine-producing region.

These governments are shaking off U.S. influence in the region and building defense and trade alliances that exclude the United States. Some now say they can better fight drugs without U.S. help and are rejecting policies they do not like.

The strongest resistance to U.S. drug policies is in Ecuador and Bolivia, two coca-growing countries of the Andes, and in Venezuela.

This is just the inevitable consequence of bribing foreign governments to let our soldiers run around on their land slashing and burning the livelihoods of impoverished populations. We've declared war on the coca plant itself, insisting that it not be grown even by indigenous people who've used it for thousands of years for altitude sickness and appetite suppression. As it becomes increasingly clear that none of this is accomplishing anything, everyone's starting to realize that we have no intention of ever leaving.

We literally go around giving report cards to sovereign nations rating their cooperation in our own hopeless effort to stop Americans from using drugs. Both sides in the South American drug war are funded with U.S. dollars, yet we bare only the burden of our own indulgence, not the horrific violence and destabilization wrought by the endless war on drugs.

Thanks to democracy, however, the victims of our disastrous policies in South America may elect leaders who want to kick us the hell out. I can’t say I blame them.

Feature: US Drug Policies Flawed and Failed, Experts Tell Congressional Committee

The US Congress Joint Economic Committee yesterday held a historic hearing on the economic costs of US drug policy. The hearing, titled Illegal Drugs: Economic Impact, Societal Costs, Policy Responses, was called at the request of Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), who in his opening remarks described the all-too-familiar failure of US drug policy to accomplish the goals it has set for itself. It was the second hearing related to incarceration that Webb has convened under the auspices of this committee.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
"Our insatiable demand for drugs" drives the drug trade, Webb pointed out. "We're spending enormous amounts of money to interdict drug shipments, but supplies remain consistent. Some 86% of high schoolers report easy access to marijuana. Cocaine prices have fallen by about 80% since the 1980s," the freshman senator continued. "Efforts to curb illegal drug use have relied heavily on enforcement. The number of people in custody on drug charges has increased 13-fold in the past 25 years, yet the flow of drugs remains undiminished. Drug convictions and collateral punishments are devastating our minority communities," Webb said.

"Our current policy mix is not working the way we want it to," Webb declared. "The ease with which drugs can be obtained, the price, the number of people using drugs, the violence on the border all show that. We need to rethink our responses to the health effects, the economic impacts, the effect on crime. We need to rethink our approach to the supply and demand of drugs."

Such sentiments coming from a sitting senator in the US in 2008 are bold if not remarkable, and it's not the first time that Webb has uttered such words:

In March of last year, he told George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News program This Week: "One of the issues which never comes up in campaigns but it's an issue that's tearing this country apart is this whole notion of our criminal justice system, how many people are in our criminal justice system more -- I think we have two million people incarcerated in this country right now and that's an issue that's going to take two or three years to try to get to the bottom of and that's where I want to put my energy."

In his recently-released book, A Time to Fight, Webb wrote: "The time has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana," "It makes far more sense to take the money that would be saved by such a policy and use it for enforcement of gang-related activities" and "Either we are home to the most evil population on earth, or we are locking up a lot of people who really don't need to be in jail, for actions that other countries seem to handle in more constructive ways."

Still, drug reformers may be impatient with the level of rethinking presented at the hearing. While witnesses including University of Maryland criminologist Peter Reuter, author of "Drug War Heresies," and John Walsh, director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) offered strong and familiar critiques of various aspects of US drug policy, neither of the words "prohibition" or "legalization" were ever uttered, nor were the words "tax and regulate," and radical alternatives to current policy were barely touched upon. Instead, the emphasis seemed to be on adjusting the "mix" of spending on law enforcement versus treatment and prevention.

The other two witnesses at the hearing, Kings County (Brooklyn), New York, Assistant District Attorney Anne Swern and community coordinator Norma Fernandes of the same office, were there to talk up the success of drug court-style programs in their community.

[The written testimony of all four witnesses is available at the hearing web site linked above.]

"US drug policy is comprehensive, but unbalanced," said Reuter. "As much as 75% of spending goes to enforcement, mainly to lock up low-level drug dealers. Treatment is not very available. The US has a larger drug problem than other Western countries, and the policy measures to confront it have met with little success," he told the committee.

Reuter said there were some indications policymakers and the electorate are tiring of the drug war approach, citing California's treatment-not-jail Proposition 36, but there was little indication Congress was interested in serious analysis of programs and policies.

"Congress has been content to accept rhetoric instead of research," Reuter said, citing its lack of reaction to the Office of National Drug Control Policy's refusal to release a now three-year-old report on drug use levels during the Bush administration. "It's hardly a secret that ONDCP has failed to publish that report, but Congress has not bothered to do anything," he complained. "We need more emphasis on the analytic base for policy."

But even with the paltry evidence available to work with, Reuter was able to summarize a bottom line: "The US imprisons too many people and provides too little treatment," he said. "We need more than marginal changes."

"US drug policies have been in place for some time without much change except for intensification," said WOLA's Walsh, noting that coca production levels are as high as they were 20 years ago. "Since 1981, we have spent about $800 billion on drug control, and $600 billion of that on supply reduction. We need a stiff dose of historical reality as we contemplate what to do now," he told the committee.

With the basic policies in place for so long, some conclusions can now be drawn, Walsh said. "First, the balloon effect is real and fully relevant today. We've seen it time and time again, not just with crops, but also with drug smuggling routes. If we want to talk about actually reducing illicit crops and we know eradication only leads to renewed planting, we need to be looking for alternatives," he said.

"Second, there is continuing strong availability of illicit drugs and a long-term trend toward falling prices," Walsh said, strongly suggesting that interdiction was a failed policy. "The perennial goal is to drive up prices, but prices have fallen sharply. There is evidence of disruptions in the US cocaine market last year, but whether that endures is an open question and quite doubtful given the historical record," he said.

"Third, finding drugs coming across the border is like finding a needle in a haystack, or more like finding lots of needles in lots of different moving haystacks," he said. "Our legal commerce with Mexico is so huge that to think we can seal the borders is delusional."

With respect to the anti-drug assistance package for Mexico currently being debated in Congress, Walsh had a warning: "Even with US assistance, any reduction in the flow of drugs from Mexico is unlikely." Instead, Walsh said, lawmakers should adjust their supply-control objectives and expectations to bring them in line with that reality.

Changes in drug producing countries will require sustained efforts to increase alternative livelihoods. That in turn will require patience and a turn away from "the quick fix mentality that hasn't fixed anything," Walsh said.

"We can't expect sudden improvements; there is no silver bullet," Walsh concluded. "We need to switch to harm reduction approaches and recognize drugs and drug use as perennial problems that can't be eliminated, but can be managed better. We need to minimize not only the harms associated with drug use, but also those related to policies meant to control drugs."

"It is important to be able to discuss the realities of the situation, it's not always a comfortable thing to talk about," Webb said after the oral testimony. "This is very much a demand problem. I've been skeptical bout drug eradication programs; they just don't work when you're supplying such an enormous thirst on this end. We have to find ways to address demand other than locking up more people. We have created an incredible underground economic apparatus and we have to think hard about how to address it."

"The way in which we focused attention on the supply side has been very much mistaken," agreed Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), who along with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) were the only other solons attending the hearing. "All this focus on supply hasn't really done anything of any value. The real issue is demand, and prevention and dealing with people getting out of prison is the way to deal with this."

Reuter suggested part of the solution was in increase in what he called "coerced abstinence," or forced drug treatment. Citing the work of UCLA drug policy researcher Mark Kleiman, Reuter said that regimes of frequent testing with modest sanctions imposed immediately and with certainty can result "in a real decline in drug taking and criminal activity."

That got a nod of agreement from prosecutor Swern. "How long you stay in treatment is the best predictor of staying out of trouble or off drugs," she said. Swern is running a program with deferring sentencing, with some flexibility she said. "The beauty of our program is it allows us to give people many chances. If they fail in treatment and want to try again, we do that," she said.

As the hearing drew to an end, Webb had one last question: "Justice Department statistics show that of all drug arrests in 2005, 42.6% were for marijuana offenses. What about the energy expended arresting people for marijuana?" he asked, implicitly begging for someone to respond, "It's a waste of resources."

But no one connected directly with the floating softball. "The vast majority of those arrests are for simple possession," said Reuter. "In Maryland, essentially no one is sentenced to jail for marijuana possession, although about a third spend time in jail pre-trial. It's not as bad as it looks," he said sanguinely.

"There's violence around marijuana trafficking in Brooklyn," responded prosecutor Swern.

WOLA's Walsh came closest to a strong answer. "Your question goes to setting priorities," he said. "We need to discriminate among types of illicit drugs. Which do the most harm and deserve the most emphasis? Also, given the sheer number of marijuana users, what kind of dent can you make even with many more arrests?"

And so ended the first joint congressional hearing to challenge the dogmas of the drug war. For reformers that attended, there were generally thumbs up for Webb and the committee, mixed with a bit of disappointment that the hearings only went so far.

"It was extraordinary," said Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the DC-based Institute for Policy Studies. "They didn't cover some of the things I hoped they would, but I have to give them props for addressing the issue at all."

"Webb was looking for someone to say what he wanted to say with the marijuana question, that perhaps we should deemphasize law enforcement on that," said Doug McVay, policy analyst at Common Sense for Drug Policy, who also attended the hearing. "I don't think our witnesses quite caught what he was aiming for, an answer that arresting all those people for marijuana takes away resources that could be used to fight real crime."

Sen. Webb came in for special praise from Tree. "Perhaps because he's a possible vice presidential candidate, he had to tone things down a bit, but he is clearly not afraid to talk about over-incarceration, and using the Joint Economic Committee instead of Judiciary or Foreign Affairs is a brilliant use of that committee, because this is, after all, a policy with enormous economic consequences," Tree said. "Webb is clearly motivated by doing something about the high levels of incarceration. He held a hearing on it last year, and got the obvious answer that much of it is related to drug policy. Having heard that kind of answer, most politicians would walk away fast, but not Webb, so I have to give him credit."

Reversing the drug war juggernaut will not be easy. The Congressional Joint Economic Committee hearing Thursday was perhaps a small step toward that end, but it is a step in the right direction.

Latin America: Coca Production Up Last Year, UN Reports

In an annual report released Wednesday, Coca Cultivation in the Andean Region, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found itself "surprised and shocked" to announce that the amount of land devoted to coca growing in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru had risen to more than 181,000 hectares, or more than 700 square miles. That is a 16% increase over 2006 figures and the highest level of cultivation since 2001.

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Bolivian coca leaves drying in warehouse -- the sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08''
Colombia, which remains the region's largest coca and cocaine producer despite a seven-year, $5 billion dollar US effort to wipe out the crop, had the most dramatic increase, jumping up 27%. Cultivation increased 5% in Bolivia, where a coca-friendly government is de facto allowing small increases, and 4% in Peru, where a non-coca-friendly government is in constant low-level conflict with coca growers.

"The increase in coca cultivation in Colombia is a surprise and shock: a surprise because it comes at a time when the Colombian government is trying so hard to eradicate coca; a shock because of the magnitude of cultivation," said UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa. "But this bad news must be put in perspective," he added in desperate search of a silver lining. "Just like in Afghanistan, where most opium is grown in provinces with a heavy Taliban presence, in Colombia most coca is grown in areas controlled by insurgents", Costa said, noting that half of all cocaine production and a third of all cultivation occurs in just 10 of the country's 195 municipalities.

But despite the increase in coca cultivation, cocaine production remained stable. Last year, global potential production of cocaine was 994 metric tons, according to the UNODC, while in 2006, it was 984 metric tons. The UNODC pointed to lower yields as a result of pressure from massive aerial eradication, which caused farmers to seek out peripheral lands and resort to smaller, more dispersed coca patches.

"In the past few years, the Colombian government destroyed large-scale coca farming by means of massive aerial eradication, which unsettled armed groups and drug traffickers alike. In the future, with the FARC in disarray, it may become easier to control coca cultivation," Costa predicted rosily.

Last year, Colombia's drug police, working with US funds and US contractors, sprayed herbicide on 160,000 hectares of coca and manually eradicated another 50,000 hectares. But as in the past, Colombia's coca growing peasants, faced with few alternatives, have adapted rapidly, negating the gains of the eradicators.

While Congress has gone along with the $5 billion experiment to eradicate coca in Colombia in the last year of the Clinton administration and throughout the Bush presidency, the clamor is rising on Capitol Hill for a shift in emphasis in US aid. Currently, the aid goes 80% to security forces and 20% for development assistance. Solons can rightly ask just what they've been getting for all that money.

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