Pubdate: Sat, 23 Sep 2006
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2006 The New York Times Company
Author: John Tierney
Cited: Drug Policy Alliance
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Terrorism)


The most enlightening speech at the United Nations this week, I'm 
sorry to say, was the one by Evo Morales of Bolivia.

I don't mean it was a good or even a coherent speech. That would be 
too much to expect from the world leaders' annual gasathon. The 
rhetorical bar is extremely low. Morales, like his friend Hugo 
Chavez, spent much of his time ranting about a new world order based 
on the economic policies that have worked such wonders in Cuba.

But Morales at least brought a visual aid -- and thank God, it wasn't 
a book by Noam Chomsky. Unlike Chavez, he didn't assign reading 
homework to the U.N. Instead, he held up a small green coca leaf, and 
when he talked about international drug policies, he made more sense 
than anyone in the United States government.

We've sacrificed soldiers' lives and spent billions of dollars trying 
to stop peasants from growing coca in the Andes and opium in 
Afghanistan and other countries. But the crops have kept flourishing, 
and in America the street price of cocaine and heroin has plummeted 
in the past two decades.

Meanwhile, we've been helping terrorists and other enemies abroad. 
The Senate has voted to send Afghanistan more money for programs to 
harass opium growers, whose discontent is already being exploited by 
the resurgent Taliban. In the Andes, American drug policies made 
Bolivians so mad that they elected Morales, a former leader of the 
coca growers, who campaigned for president on the kind of 
anti-American rhetoric he spouted this week.

At the U.N., he denounced "the colonization of the Andean peoples" by 
imperialists intent on criminalizing coca. "It has been demonstrated 
that the coca leaf does no harm to human health," he said, a 
statement that's much closer to the truth than Washington's take on 
these leaves. The white powder sold on the streets of America is 
dangerous because it's such a concentrated form of cocaine, but just 
about any substance can be perilous at a high enough dose.

South Americans routinely drink coca tea and chew coca leaves. The 
tiny amount of cocaine in the leaves is a mild stimulant and appetite 
suppressant that isn't more frightening than coffee or colas -- in 
fact, it might be less addictive than caffeine, and on balance it 
might even be good for you. When the World Health Organization asked 
scientists to investigate coca in the 1990's, they said it didn't 
seem to cause health problems and might yield health benefits.

But American officials fought against the publication of the report 
and against the loosening of restrictions on coca products, just as 
they've resisted proposals to let Afghan farmers sell opium to 
pharmaceutical companies instead of to narco-traffickers allied with 
the Taliban. The American policy is to keep attacking the crops, even 
if that impoverishes peasants -- or, more typically, turns them into criminals.

Drug prohibition in Bolivia and Afghanistan has done exactly what 
alcohol prohibition did in America: it has financed organized crime.

The only workable solution is to repeal prohibition. Give Afghan 
poppy growers a chance to sell opium for legal painkilling medicines; 
give Andean peasants a legal international market for their crops in 
products like gum, lozenges, tea and other drinks. As Ethan Nadelmann 
of the Drug Policy Alliance proposes, "Put the coca back in Coca-Cola."

That's what Morales wants, too, and he's right to complain about 
American imperialists criminalizing a substance that has been used 
for centuries in the Andes. If gringos are abusing a product made 
from coca leaves, that's a problem for America to deal with at home. 
The most cost-effective way is through drug treatment programs, not 
through futile efforts to cut off the supply.

America makes plenty of things that are bad for foreigners' health -- 
fatty Big Macs, sugary Cokes, deadly Marlboros -- but we'd never let 
foreigners tell us what to make and not make. The Saudis can fight 
alcoholism by forbidding the sale of Jack Daniels, but we'd think 
they were crazy if they ordered us to eradicate fields of barley in Tennessee.

They'd be even crazier if they tried to wipe out every field of 
barley in the world, but that's what our drug policy has come to. We 
think we can solve our cocaine problem by getting rid of coca leaves, 
but all we're doing is empowering demagogues like Evo Morales. Our 
drug warriors put him in power. Now he gets to perform show and tell 
for the world. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake