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.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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