AFTER 50 YEARS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS, ARE WE ANY CLOSER TO WINNING? Experts wonder if it might not be time to change the focus in order to confront this problem.

By María Isabel Ortiz Fonnegra, EL TIEMPO, June 18, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

“Drug addiction is Public Enemy No. 1 in the United States.” That phrase, pronounced on June 17, 1971 by then-President of the United States, Richard Nixon, marked the beginning of a war on drugs that has celebrated 50 years and its evaluation, according to researchers, is worse than negative.

Beginning with the obvious, Isabel Pereira, Coordinator of Research on Drug Policy at Dejusticia[1], said that drug use has not ceased. “We are pursuing an impossible goal. Ever since the Stone Age, human beings have had a relationship with psychoactive substances, for recreational, therapeutic, or ritual purposes. It’s a human characteristic that isn’t going to fade away,” said the researcher.

The war on drugs has failed to carry out its three promises: less variety among substances, less quantity, and less consumption, explained Julián Quintero, Director of the Technical Social Action Corporation (ATS in Spanish), which works to reduce the harms and risks of consumption of psychoactive substances.

“This might be the biggest failure of public policy in the last 200 years. Neither by prevention, nor by interdiction has it delivered the results that it promised,” he said.

David Restrepo, Director of Rural Development and Illicit Economies in the Center for the Study of Drugs and Security (Cesed in Spanish) at the University of the Andes, even pointed out that not only has the antidrug war not served to reduce consumption, it looks as if prohibition has fomented consumption, “. . . because it generates an illegal market controlled by organized crime, whose incentive is to sell the largest possible quantity, and to control the countryside where it operates.”

Nevertheless, for Retired General Héctor Darío Castro, President of the College of Retired Generals of the Police, the war has not been a failure. “We have achieved very good results; the problems are the interests that surround drugs, but the Police and all of the Colombian authorities in control of the drug process have indeed had great success.”

But in spite of the fact that every year, on average, more than 400,000 kilograms of cocaine are confiscated, Jorge Restrepo, Director of the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (Cerac in Spanish), explained that the advances in interdiction are marginal, and are included in the losses that the drug trafficking system can absorb.

“Every advance in interdiction boosts the profitability of the traffic, fabrication, and distribution. Every advance is ultimately a reverse; that’s the principal problem with the war on drugs, every success is the seed of its own failure,” he said.

The costs

The drugs continue, but the cost of 50 years of fighting them, mainly with military, Police, and prison capabilities, has been extremely high at various levels. All of the researchers agree on this.

For example, even though it’s not easy to calculate how many lives the drug war has cost, the total includes the lives of the eradicators—civilian and military—who died because of land mines in the plantings, the lives of social leaders murdered because they made complaints, the lives of the young people that died in battles between the gangs for control of the micro-trafficking, the people that die of overdoses, which are avoidable; and others besides, indicated Pereira and Quintero.

Quintero estimated that between 2,500 and 3,500 deaths a year in Colombia could be linked to “. . . issues related to a dispute about the illegal business of coca. There could be young people in the neighborhoods, social leaders, soldiers, mafiosos . . .,” he said. He added, that even though there is under-reporting in the official data, in this country, “there may be between 40 and 60 overdose deaths every year.”

There has also been a cost, emphasized the Director of the ATS Corporation, to the democratic structure in many countries that have been seen to be affected by corruption; in the global economy, “because what is the second largest illegal parallel economy in the world—after weapons trafficking—affects the economy of the whole world,” he pointed out.

On the other hand, the economic cost in Colombia has been high. According to Senator Iván Marulanda, who proposed a bill to regulate cocaine, official figures show that between 2005 and 2015, the annual cost of eradicating illegal plantings with glyphosate was 8.8 billion pesos (roughly USD $2,350,000). “That means that in ten years, it was 88 billion pesos (roughly USD $23,500,000). That’s equivalent to the budget for the Ministry of Agriculture for 50 years.”

At the same time, there’s an impact on the environment, since the prohibition doesn’t halt the production of drugs. On the contrary, as the most recent measure of illegal planting by the United Nations shows, in spite of the fact that the number of hectares planted with coca was reduced in 2020, the potential for production of cocaine has been increasing for several years. In 2020 alone, the increase was 8 percent, with more than 1,137 metric tons in 2019 and 1,228 tons in 2020.

To make more coca with fewer raw materials, there is more use of technology and more use of chemicals that end up in water sources and in the soil, the experts say.

Another impact is on the prison system, which has a serious history of overcrowding. A document published by Dejusticia shows that between 2005 and 2014, the Police arrested 2,479,630 people, of whom 727,091 (29.3 percent) were charged with possession, trafficking, or fabrication of drugs.

That leaves an average of 80,787 arrests per year for conduct involving drugs, which is equal to 221 arrests per day, or 9 arrests per hour. The report of the research center emphasizes that by concentrating on the pursuit of that kind of activity, other actions that have more impact on organized crime are neglected. In the same period, actions like money laundering or criminal conspiracy constituted only 0.5 percent and 0.7percent, respectively, of arrests.

Currently, 18,426 people serving time in national prisons are there for trafficking, fabrication, or possession of drugs, according to data from Inpec[2], as of June 17, 2021. It’s the crime that has the fourth highest number of people behind bars, representing 11.5 percent of all criminal conduct.

“The question is how long are we going to endure this war, how long will the system of prohibition be sustained. The longer it lasts, the more lives and resources are lost,” wondered Pereira.

The ways out.

For the researchers we consulted, the country is in arrears in thinking of a drug policy with a different focus, a focus on public health, mainly, and analyzing ways to regulate illegal psychoactive substances in the same way that for decades it has regulated those that now are legal, such as alcohol.

The Coordinator for drug policy at Dejusticia emphasized that while we are achieving regulation, we need to go after the money from the criminal gangs which, after all, is their motivation. That pursuit, she says, can’t just be by Colombia: “Just like there are cartels that move the drugs, there are cartels that receive the drugs and move them to other countries, so it’s a shared responsibility.”

General Castro agrees with her on that point. He said, “We have to confront our problem, which is mainly the planting and processing, but for the part of the economy and the consumers, there has to be responsibility by the consuming countries and the financing entities.”

And he added, “Thinking that for now, regulation would not be attainable, we could do things better in many areas: promoting research on alternative uses for the plants; focusing on the illegal flow of the millions in financing that’s behind all of this, rather than concentrating on crimes of minor impact; and waiting for the results of crop substitution, which can’t be seen in just one year.

Restrepo, of Cesed at the University of the Andes, believed that the change from prohibition to regulated markets should also include measures seeking to get people that decide to consume substances to postpone the start of that as long as possible, because it has been demonstrated that the greatest risks associated with drug consumption result when it has been commenced in childhood or youth.

He also emphasized the importance of considering a different treatment for the most vulnerable populations in the supply chain, “. . . especially campesino populations, Afro-Colombians, indigenous people, who have been damaged so greatly,” he concluded.

[1] Dejusticia is a Colombian nonprofit focused on legal and social research.

[2] Inpec is Colombia’s prison system.

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