It’s hard not to feel a bit snubbed by Donald Trump if you’re Colombian President Ivan Duque. Twice now, Trump has canceled official visits to the Andean coca giant, often correctly referred to as the “cocaine capital” of the world. Last week Trump sent in his stead Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met with Duque in the Caribbean city of Cartagena. As usual the so-called “War on Drugs” was a key component of the agenda.
If I could sit down for a beer with Duque and Pompeo, I would ask them if they enjoy reading The Onion from time to time. In keeping with a general trend of satirical news becoming reality, The Onion was spot on 20 years ago when they wrote a prescient headline: “Drugs Win Drug War.”
Apparently, politicians have not gotten the message.
Yes, cocaine is a scourge on society. Wealth Americans, Canadians, Australians, and Western Europeans buy cocaine, fueling a vicious cycle, that funds terrorism and draws rural Andean peasants into its web. Yet, cocaine is hardly issue #1 these days, even for die-hard drug warriors. Heroin is bad enough; but the real threat to the health and vitality of American society is fentanyl: a drug that is far more addictive, powerful, and deadly than cocaine.
Libertarians will be saying this until we are blue in the face: but Trump, Pompeo, and Duque seem unable to see this fundamental truth: we will never control the supply of drugs, if we can not control the demand for drugs. The very nature of the illegality of drugs is precisely what gives powerful incentives to swathes of dirt poor Andean farmers to sell their meager crops to drug trafficking outfits, often aligned with Marxist guerrillas or paramilitaries.
Duque and Pompeo discussed what is often presented as a panacea: crop substitution. The idea is that farmers can be bribed, through generous government subsidies to grow other agricultural products, thereby depriving the cartels of their supply of coca leaves and paste. Let’s just say that the results have been less than impressive thus far.
There is no inherent reason that a gram of cocaine should cost $78 per gram on American streets. It is a plant like any other. Its very illegality is what drives its booming business.
Here is the sad reality: the United States has showered Colombia with funding to fight the Drug War, for decades. Going back to long before Santos and Uribe…the eradication of the coca bush has been one of the pillars of the extremely close Colombo-American alliance. Really, it seems more about cementing our geopolitical relationship and throwing some money at the military-industrial complex, than actually keeping cocaine off the streets.
After billions of dollars of aid, here is the reality: coca production is up, not down, in Colombia.
As the BBC points out in a recent article, just the southwestern state of Narino alone, has more terrain dedicated to cultivation than the entire country of Peru. If that is not a sufficiently damning fact about the success of the US-backed “War on Drugs” in Colombia, then I don’t know what is.
If Duque, Trump, and Pompeo really want to reduce hectares under cultivation, they should legalize cocaine. The only reason several hundred thousand farmers grow the bush is because it pays far more than any other agricultural crops. Legalize cocaine: prices plummet, violent crime drops, terrorist and insurgent groups lose a major source of funding, and farmers (of their own volition) stop cultivating the coca bush.
I will conclude with a simple question: if you ask 100 Colombians…would you rather spend a couple hundred million dollars eradicating the coca bush from Colombia…or…would you rather invest that in Colombian infrastructure, and put more police on the streets in crime-ridden neighborhoods in Bogota, Cali, and Medellin.
The Colombian people don’t care about the War on Drugs…just the politicians. The US and Colombian governments can throw money at the problem all they want, but it is not going to eradicate the coca bush on Colombian territory.