Phillip S. Smith, Editor, [email protected], 2/25/05
"Drugs and Democracy in Latin America: The Impact of US Policy," eds. Coletta Youngers and Eileen Rosin (2005, Lynn Reiner Publishers, 414 pp., $25.00 PB) and "Dangerous Harvest: Drug Plants and the Transformation of Indigenous Landscapes," eds. Michael Steinberg, Joseph Hobbs, and Kent Mathewson (2004, Oxford University Press, 325 pp, $29.95 PB)
These two complementary collections of essays on drug crops and the drug war have different aims and focuses, but between them, readers will find a wealth of information on drug production, drug prohibition, and their impact on producers and producer nations not usually found in an easily accessible fashion. "Drugs and Democracy," a project of the Washington Office on Latin America, focuses specifically on the malign effects of US drug policy in Latin America, and is written with an eye toward influencing US policy in the region, complete with a set of policy prescriptions (see below). "Dangerous Harvest," on the other hand, has a broader global scope and is written by academics for a largely academic audience.
A lengthy essay by pioneering drug politics scholar Alfred McCoy, the author of the groundbreaking 1971 "Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia," forms the centerpiece of "Dangerous Harvest," providing a framework on which to hang the field reports that constitute the bulk of the book. For half a century, writes McCoy, the US and the United Nations have been following a supply-side strategy of eliminating drug use by eliminating drug crops, all within a staunchly prohibitionist regime. It won't work, he argues. "By trying to crush global market forces with the raw power of paramilitary coercion, this prohibition policy has produced a concatenation of unwanted, even counterproductive outcomes -- rising drug production, increased consumption, powerful crime syndicates, police corruption, and political collusion."
Instead of repressing drug crop production, McCoy writes, prohibition has acted as a "stimulus" to increased production. Taking note of cocaine production in Latin American and opium production in Asia, McCoy demonstrates how prohibitionist policies have extended the breadth of drug production. Suppressing production is one area only causes it to pop up in another as the laws of the market make a given crop more profitable when supply is disrupted.
And as the contributors to "Dangerous Harvest" point out, illicit drug production is increasingly pushed to "fringe" areas outside the effective reach of national authorities, whether it be the highlands of Southeast Asia or the Amazonian jungles of Colombia. As a consequence, the indigenous peoples who inhabit those marginal areas become increasingly involved in production for the global market (as opposed to production for traditional, ritual, or sacred uses) and thus, increasingly larger targets for repression.
Whether it is the case of opium in Laos or Afghanistan and Pakistan, cocaine in Bolivia, marijuana in Belize, or the drug traffic between Mexico and the United States, the case studies in "Dangerous Harvest" uniformly demonstrate both the futility of prohibition and the drastic, disruptive effects on indigenous populations of both production for the global market and the violent efforts to repress it. But "Dangerous Harvest" also explores relatively untouched ground as well, with chapters on peyote use in Mexico and the United States, environmental problems linked to coca and cocaine production in Peru, and historical chapters on cannabis cultivation in colonial India and successful opium suppression in indigenous corners of China during the Maoist revolution.
As academics, the contributors to "Dangerous Harvests" are short on prescriptive solutions, preferring to stick with verifiable facts in the field. As co-editor Joseph Hobbs notes in his concluding essay, "The Global Nexus of Drug Production," however, some common themes emerge. "Aside from the obvious solution of limiting demand in the consuming countries, the collective answer is to wage war on poverty and inequity, not drugs." And while some contributors, such as McCoy or Harry Sanabria, the author of the chapter on Bolivia, make clear their belief that prohibition is doomed to failure, there is no strong call to end it. As Hobbs notes, "One recommendation notable by its absence in this volume is the legalization of what are now illegal drugs."
Drug policy reformers will feel anger and frustration at the senseless destruction flowing from current Latin American drug war policies that "Drugs and Democracy" details, particularly the persecuting and impoverishing impact they have on large numbers of the developing world's poor, a point the book drives home in country after country. At the same time, as with "Dangerous Harvest," out-and-out legalizers may feel a disconnect between the reality described in "Drugs and Democracy" and policy recommendations that seem tempered to reflect current political realities. While characterizing US-enforced drug prohibition as a disaster, or in own her words, "a failed and misguided policy," not only for the people of Latin America but by its own standards, editor Coletta Youngers stops short in her recommendations of calling for prohibition's end. By the standards of a progressive Washington think-tank, the reforms she lays out are eminently reasonable: Restrict the role of the US military, remove Latin American militaries from domestic drug enforcement, decriminalize peasant drug crop production, eliminate harsh penalties like mandatory minimum sentences, seek alternative development and local input.
By the same token, Youngers' recommendations reflect the larger limits constraining both mainstream liberal progressivism and harm reduction as approaches for dealing with the damage done by prohibition. What Youngers is advocating is indeed a harm reduction approach: "Such a policy should begin from the premise that, while controlling illicit drugs is a legitimate and important goal, drugs will be produced as long as there is demand. The goal therefore should be to reduce the demand as well as the damage that illicit drugs cause to individuals and society. Policymakers should seek to minimize the harmful consequences at home and abroad of illicit drug production and use and the strategies designed to curtail them."
But harm reduction does not necessarily imply ending drug prohibition, as Youngers' call for what is essentially a "kinder, gentler" prohibitionist policy demonstrates. Though many harm reductionists indeed see legalization as harm reduction on a large scale, harm reduction can nevertheless be practiced under prohibition or legalization alike. While Youngers does bring up the notion of legalization, she does so only in the context of setting it off against current prohibitionist policies in her search for "a constructive middle ground."
Similarly, Washington-focused liberal progressivism, which is probably a fair term to describe WOLA's political stance, in this case signifies a pragmatic acceptance of the broad contours of drug prohibition. That the US should intervene to "help" Latin America deal with drug problems is a given; the only question is how to do it more humanely. By crafting recommendations for a more liberal and humane prohibition, Youngers and WOLA basically accept the status quo, with one eye on affecting US drug policy at the margins.
So, anti-prohibitionists and revolutionists may be impatient with the stances taken by "Democracy and Drugs." But as with "Dangerous Harvest," there is much that is useful and informative within, and in the context of current US and international politics, it points in the right direction and makes a strong critique of current policies. For readers with a critical eye, there is much to ponder in both volumes.