Pubdate: Wed, 08 Jun 2011
Source: AlterNet (US Web)
Copyright: 2011 Independent Media Institute
Author: Rebecca Leisher


The International War on Drugs Isn't Stopping Drug Use or Trafficking 
- -- but It Is Ruining Lives. Drug Policy Expert Sanho Tree Discusses 
What We Can Do Differently.

Earlier this month tens of thousands of people marched in Mexico City
to protest a war that has left more than 35,000 people dead in the
last four and a half years. When elected president of Mexico in 2006,
Felipe Calderon vowed to crack down on drug trafficking in his
country. With the support of U.S. policies like the Merida Initiative
[pdf], he executed a military crackdown that has only increased
drug-related violence.

In Colombia, campesino farmers continue to be displaced by a
U.S.-backed civil war that has gone on for decades. The pending
U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement [pdf] threatens to further displace
these farmers by making it impossible to compete with large
agricultural producers receiving U.S. subsidies. Cocaine production
has become one of very few options for farmers merely trying to feed
their families. The Colombian and U.S. governments deal with this by
sending military forces to eradicate coca crops by spraying toxic
herbicides from helicopters--an imprecise practice that has also
eradicated many legal crops and caused health problems in the
communities they hit. In spite of the crackdowns, the percentage of
cocaine imported to the United States that comes from Colombia has
increased from 90 to 97 percent in the last decade.

Understanding the international war on drugs means examining a complex
web of interactions. Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at
the Institute for Policy Studies, describes the international drug war
as one of the most interdisciplinary problems he's ever encountered. It
involves police and prosecutors, drug trafficking gangs and peasant
farmers, addicts and casual users. It involves those wealthy enough to
consume the drugs, and also those poor enough to risk producing them. It
involves everything from the prison, education, and health care systems
to policies dealing with foreign aid, economic growth, and military
spending. And it involves the high demand coming from the United States:
With just five percent of the world's population, our country consumes
roughly two-thirds of the world's illicit drugs.

The good news is people are waking up to the counterproductive
policies and ideas promoted by the drug wars. Several former Latin
American presidents--Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Cesar Gaviria, and
Ernesto Zedillo of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico respectively--have
publicly condemned the approach of the U.S. and Latin American drug
wars and have called for a paradigm shift that "must focus on health
and education--not repression." The evidence against this war is hard
to deny--the challenge now lies in putting sustainable alternatives
into action.

In his work on drug policy reform, Sanho Tree has traveled throughout
Latin America and has seen the devastating effects U.S. policies and
influence have abroad. He speaks and writes to educate people on the
real costs of the drug war--and how we can move beyond it.

If This Is a War, Who's Winning?

Rebecca Leisher: Recently you've said the drug war in Latin America is
rivaling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What's going on here--in what
sense is this a war, and whose interests are being served?

Sanho Tree: Not many people's interests are served by this. It's not
good for the cartels that are fighting each other, it's not good for the
state, it's not good for the people. It's not even good for the drug
warriors because this is not success, this is not something we can be
proud of. But what you have is something driven by the economics of drug
prohibition, and it all descends from that. The traffickers are doing
what's in their self-interest to do--their bottom line is to maximize

They're carrying out, in Mexico for instance, a turf war. These drug
trafficking organizations are fighting over turf because the U.S. is
the biggest consumer of drugs, and Mexico is in between the production
and the demand, so the conduits--these trafficking corridors--are
incredibly profitable. There are only so many strategic choke points,
so they're fighting over control of that because it's so lucrative.

So President Calderon of Mexico gets elected in December of 2006 with
the most razor thin of margins. He thought he would do something bold
and decisive, and he rushed himself into an ill-conceived war. It's
counterintuitive, but when you have a turf war brewing, the worst
thing the state can do is get in between it. Calderon thought he could
throw 50,000 troops at this problem and solve it. Turf wars usually
have a beginning, a middle and an end, but what Calderon has done is
make sure that we have a very long middle and no end in sight. As soon
as he attacks one cartel, the others think, "Oh, they've been
weakened, we can go after their turf now." And then he goes and
attacks another one, and then suddenly the balance switches and then
they fight over there, and back and forth, back and forth.

When politicians see this kind of disorder, the temptation is to throw
water onto the fire. That's a common sense solution, but if you've
ever had a grease fire in your kitchen or an electrical fire, throwing
water--I don't recommend it. It makes it explode. That's the problem we
have here, because this fire in Mexico is a prohibition-related fire.
They're fighting because prohibition makes these drugs so valuable.
And keep in mind that this bloodshed is really over the right to
traffic and distribute minimally processed agricultural commodities.
Cannabis, cocaine, heroin--they're easy to produce, there's nothing
exotic about them, they're just plant byproducts.

A Broken Social Contract

Rebecca Leisher: So why do we keep this going, on Calderon's end, and in
the U.S.?

Sanho Tree: As long as the U.S. is here, as long as the U.S. demands
these drugs, Mexico will always be a conduit. So at the end of all this
bloodshed, there will still be drug trafficking through Mexico. And so
the question has to be asked: To what end are we waging this war?

Aside from the human cost of this--the now 36,000 dead in Mexico since
the beginning of 2007--the other cost of this is much harder to
quantify. What has been destroyed is the social contract. The idea
that the state could guarantee safety, to allow basic life to
continue, has been shattered as a result of drug prohibition-related
violence. The social contract is something that can be destroyed
rather quickly and easily, but it can take generations or decades to

Rebecca Leisher: Why don't we expand the conversation to Colombia and
other areas in Latin America. You've traveled a lot throughout those
areas in your work toward drug policy reform. In the short documentary
Shoveling Water, you visit a coca farm in Colombia to show the
devastation caused by what are largely U.S. policies, like crop spraying
to eradicate coca plants. From an international perspective, what are
some of the actual effects of these types of crackdown methods?

Sanho Tree: It has alienated people from the government. We're talking
about people who are eking out a living with the illicit crops in very
remote areas of the country, people who have been historically abandoned
by the state. And the state continues to alienate them. Instead of
saying, "we'd rather you didn't grow these illicit crops, we'd rather
you did something different, we are going to help you find an
alternative, we'll offer you something better," instead we've been
punishing them. We view them simply as criminals, and we send crop
dusters escorted by helicopter gunships to eradicate their coca crops.

The aerial spraying basically creates a giant gas cloud. It hangs like
vapor, and it will get carried by the crosswinds. It then falls and
coats the coca leaves and causes the coca plant to drop its leaves and
possibly die. But coca's a fairly hardy plant, and other plants are
much more susceptible. Corn and yucca especially--they instantly turn
brown and die. It destroys grasslands, it destroys fish
ponds--aquaculture being one of few success stories down there. It will
kill the fish, and there's lots of rashes, vomiting, diarrhea, and
infant deaths attributed to these chemicals. They're learning to
associate the state with death, destruction, and suffering.

This is what it means to be alienated from your own government. And in
the midst of a four and a decades-old civil war, this is not a good
way to win hearts and minds.

Rebecca Leisher: Who are the people growing the coca, and what are their

Sanho Tree: They're living away from any kind of major state presence--no
roads, no infrastructure that would allow them to grow legal crops and
process and sell them at a profit. These are people who have been--some
of them--forced off their lands in other parts of Colombia after four and
a half decades of civil war. Basically these are the people who the
state has forgotten.

This [photo below, courtesy Sanho Tree] is a major road in Guaviare
that comes from the provincial capitol and is connected to the rest of
the province. So if you want to reach the rest of Colombia you have to
cross that road. And the lucky campesinos will have farms next to that
road, but most of them are many kilometers away. You have to haul tons
of yucca and pineapples and other crops from your remote farm down
these dirt paths and hope that you have enough money or that some
truck will come by with room that will help you get it to the nearest
city to sell, and get there and sell it at a profit before it rots. So
in this context, would you rather be hauling cattle or tons of fruits
or vegetables, or a kilo of coca paste? That's the problem.

The pending free trade agreement (FTA) is going to put a tremendous
amount of pressure on small-scale farmers in Colombia, and these are
precisely the people we want to keep from turning to illicit crops.
How can they compete with ADM and Cargill? A lot of these farmers want
to be the kinds of farmers that grow corn and other crops.

Rebecca Leisher: The coca plant is considered sacred and is used
medicinally in a lot of indigenous communities. What roles do cultural
differences play in why we vilify some of these mind-altering substances
more than others?

Sanho Tree: The coca bush actually has a lot of historical and
beneficial uses. It is a source of medicine, of sustenance; it helps
fight altitude sickness; it fights hunger, thirst; it has protein, iron,
calcium--in the high Andes people may not have access to those kinds of
minerals and vitamins. It's called "coca mama" by many indigenous
peoples--it's a gift from the gods.

And in its natural state it's just about impossible to abuse. It's
only when it's refined into cocaine that it becomes more problematic.
Indigenous people should not have to pay the price for our abuse. It's
like saying, if you could extract methamphetamine out of coffee beans,
would we then tolerate the banning of coffee because some people had a
problem with methamphetamines? Similarly if some people have a problem
with alcohol, should we aerially spray Sonoma and Napa County and
destroy the grape crops?

Rebecca Leisher: You wrote in a recent op-ed, "There are many
alternatives in the spectrum between prohibition and total free-market
legalization." What might some of those look like?

Sanho Tree: The majority of people who try these drugs are not
problematic users, but we make policies based on the extremes, rather
than the average. And we have laws already to hold people accountable
for their conduct. If you operate a vehicle, if you endanger other
people--we already have laws in place for that. Not all use is abuse, not
all abuse is addiction. There are some drugs that you don't want people
to play around with--there aren't many happy endings on meth. But on
opiates and certainly on cannabis, there's a lot of non-problematic use.
And when some of those are problematic it's to the individual, not to

In what other forms of public health do we use police, prosecutors and
prisons as the primary means of making people healthy again? It's kind
of like treating clinical depression with a baseball bat: "Smile or
I'm going to beat you again." You can't coerce someone into being
healthy. We want doctors and therapists in the lead on this, not
police and prosecutors and prisons. They're not trained to make people

DARE ... For Something Different

Rebecca Leisher: So what are the alternatives, or where should we be
putting our resources in trying to address the root causes of the drug

Sanho Tree: The root causes on both the supply and demand side are
rooted in problems of poverty, despair, and alienation. Poverty is the
one that's easiest to identify, but despair and alienation cut across
class lines. Not only do we have to build a healthy society--we have to
build a society that's meaningful.

Our spending on the drug war is upside down. The majority of the money
goes to supply side policies, with eradication, incarceration, and law
enforcement eating up two thirds of the drug control budget. And less
than a third goes to prevention, treatment, and education. Ultimately
the best way to keep people off drugs is to give them a reason to look
forward to tomorrow. If you believe that tomorrow is not going to be a
better day, then we get all kinds of problems in society--not just
drugs. And for a lot of people, they do believe that their best days
are behind them, and so that's when you get the manifestations of not
just drugs but all kinds of antisocial behaviors.

A lot of the social democracies in Europe are able to have very
liberal drug laws and much lower rates of drug use. It's not a
question of who has tougher drug laws that determine this but they
have in many ways set out to build a healthy society. If you go to the
Netherlands and do a drug policy tour, they will take you to the
school system and show you how their education system works. They will
take you to the public housing system, the health system, and only
then will they take you to the coffee shops to talk about drugs
themselves. It's really about building a healthy individual. And
they've done something remarkable--they've managed to make marijuana
boring. It's not forbidden fruit; people can take it or leave it if
they're over 18, and most people choose to leave it. They have lower
rates of marijuana use than the United States. Those are the kinds of
lessons we need to learn.

One of the positive things we can do in the United States is have
honest educational systems instead of the D.A.R.E. program. We educate
kids about drugs in ridiculous ways. We begin with a series of lies:
"Kids, drugs are bad, they make you feel bad, don't take them." No,
they make you feel good--that's why people take them! There are bad
consequences--both in terms of the legal system and physiologically and
psychologically-- but you can't begin by a series of lies. It just
creates more cynicism. That's when it gets really dangerous because
then you can't teach kids about the really important things, about
real, relative dangers--like methamphetamines, like heroin--things that
are truly addictive and damaging. You can't equate that with marijuana.

Generationally, we're at a crossroads. It's harder and harder to find
a presidential candidate or a member of Congress that can claim to
have been drug-free all their lives. This is important because it
brings out a question we should pose to politicians: would a good,
stiff prison sentence for drug use have made your life better? And if
not, then why is it so good for all these other people, particularly
poor people and people of color?

Rebecca Leisher: On an individual level, what can people do to work
toward changing these policies?

Sanho Tree: History is made by those who show up. People have a lot more
power at the local level than they realize. How do you take limited
resources and leverage them to produce the maximum effect? You can build
effective, more powerful coalitions by understanding how power works and
what politicians listen to. It's not just a matter of emailing
politicians or your member of congress. The amount of time it takes for
you to express your opinion carries more weight if it's something that
takes more effort or time.

People in the U.S. can talk to their representatives and actually
implement international policies that help farmers in particular, not
through these FTAs which help elites. There is lots of positive-type
aid that could be used to address some of these problems, while we're
going after simple-minded solutions.

As an historian I'll tell you the only thing that I'm certain of is
change--and sometimes it's even for the better. So that's what gives me
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.