Pubdate: Sat, 26 Jun 1999
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 1999 Southam Inc.
Author: David Frum
Note: Like USA Today in the U.S., the National Post is available everywhere
in Canada


"60 Die As Colombian Troops, Rebels Clash"

That headline, appearing on a Reuters news story last week, almost begs the
Canadian newspaper reader to turn the page. We have too many troubles and
worries of our own to worry over an endlessly simmering conflict in a
country of which we know little. Besides, isn't Colombia in South America?
And aren't things more or less always in upheaval down there?

Yet the looming collapse of civil order in Colombia is not quite as far
away an event as we might assume. It's our money, after all, that is
funding the conflict.

Colombia is the largest processor of cocaine in the world, and one of the
world's largest producers of heroin and marijuana. The drug industry in
Colombia is booming: Cocaine production rose by 14% in 1997 over 1996,
according to U.S. government estimates. You don't put tens of thousands of
acres of land to use growing poppies, coca and cannabis without the local
authorities knowing about it. Nor can one run a network of factories, docks
and air strips invisibly.

And so the Colombian drug industry has bought the Colombian government --
and what it has not bought it has murdered into acquiescence. In order to
protect themselves and their dirty business, the drug lords have destroyed
the rule of law in the country, and guerillas of the far left and
paramilitaries of the far right are battling in the turmoil for power:
which means, in Colombia, for the right to collect bribes from the drug lords.

Colombia is not the only country to be afflicted in this way. Mexico, too,
is increasingly pervaded and corrupted by drugs: The Chiapas guerillas
finance themselves by drug-trafficking, drugs have bred criminal
organizations that have diversified into the kidnapping of legitimate
Mexican businessmen, of sports and entertainment stars, and of their wives
and children.

Now the painful question for Canadians and Americans: How is it that drugs
became such a fantastically lucrative industry? The answer is that in our
attempt to curb the drug use of our own population by banning the drugs, we
have raised their prices -- and profitability -- so high that countries
will fight civil wars for control of the trade.

These fantastic profits have destabilized, to the point of near-civil war,
two of the most important countries in Latin America. If we were unable to
ignore remote and strategically irrelevant Kosovo, it is hard to believe
that we -- and more to the point, the Americans who border on Mexico and
who live just across the easily traversed Caribbean from Colombia, will in
fact be very much longer able to ignore the accumulating breakdown of these
two countries.

American troops and helicopters are already waging undeclared war on
cocaine growers and traffickers in Bolivia. The U.S. government has
repeatedly pressed Colombia to admit American troops to its territory --
but, wary of antagonizing the local drug lords, it has thus far refused.

Might there not be a more sensible way? Third World agricultural
commodities do not usually yield such fabulous, murderous riches. Cocaine
and other drugs do, because we have illegalized them -- thus raising their
price. That illegalization has, however, failed to curb demand for illegal
drugs. Indeed, marijuana use among American teenagers seems to have risen
rapidly in the early 1990s from its mid-1980s lows, despite ever more
stringent penalties for marijuana use.

We tend to assume that decriminalizing or even legalizing drugs would cause
use to skyrocket. But the great surge in drug use in the 1970s began when
drug laws were draconian, and the second great surge of the 1990s has
occurred at a time when the laws have moved from the draconian to the
positively savage. In the United States, the discovery of trace elements of
marijuana or cocaine in a car or boat gives the police power to confiscate
the property, and to keep it unless you can affirmatively prove that you
are not a trafficker. Prison sentences for possession stretch ever longer,
the federal prison system is full of drug smugglers, and yet the stuff
continues to pour in.

If drug use could rise in the 1960s and 1970s despite tough laws, is it not
possible that it's larger cultural attitudes -- and not those laws -- that
determine how many people choose to experiment with them? And if cultural
attitudes are responsible, might it not be more logical to try (as has
successfully been done with cigarettes and drunk driving) to shift those
attitudes without invoking the punitive power of law? If we could, we would
save tens of millions of people in this hemisphere from chaos and war.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake