Friday, December 31, 2010

Twilight for Colombia's Drug Era?

Not a Colombian issue, anymore?
Tardily, I ran across this April 2010 Wall Street Journal article reporting that the illegal drug trade has dropped to about 1% of Colombia's economy, down from over 6% back in the late 80s, when Pablo Escobar ran the world's cocaine production.

Recent stories have also reported that Peru may now grow more coca leaf than Colombia, and that the U.S. street price has spiked, suggesting shortages.

I suspect that both percentage numbers are underestimates. But, whatever the truth, we're unfortunately still so far from winning the war on drugs that we've got to study strategies other than repression and prohibitionism.

Illegal drugs certainly have an out-sized impact on Colombia's identity and its public discourse, judging only by the stream of news articles about drug traffickers' arrests, killings and drug-generated corruption. And, if the economic percentage has dropped in Colombia, in Peru the cocaine industry contributes an astounding 17% of the nation's GDP.

Taking needles to an exchange in Portugal. Does
prohibition make users less likely to seek safe methods?
I got to thinking about drug policy - again - because of this story about Portugal's success in decriminalizing cocaine. After decriminalization, the number of users did not rise, while the number of court cases fell, more addicts got treatment and the number of drug-caused HIV infections dropped.

Foreign Policy magazine's predictions about next year's possible nations in conflict are also significant. The magazine lists Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. I think they're very wrong about Colombia, which is stable, growing economically and has the guerrillas on the run, but the fact that those three nations are all victims of the drug trade highlights the impacts of that industry.

At the very best, U.S. policy has pushed drug production out of Colombia into Peru and Bolivia - and it's only a matter of time before they start planting the stuff in Brazil, Venezuela, even Africa and Asia. All of this is nothing new. Peru historically was the world's biggest cocaine producer, and for a brief period a Dutch company planted coca leaf plantations in Java, making that the world's biggest producer. Colombia was only a processor and cocaine producer until Pablo Escobar imported seeds and decided to become the Johnny Appleseed of the coca bush.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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