Published on Tuesday, March 13, 2001 in the Guardian of London
Just Like Vietnam
The United States is Bogged Down in an Unwinnable War on Drugs
by Matthew Engel
The United States is staging a new offensive in the drugs war, most forcefully on the public relations front. In Bolivia, we are assured, the production of coca - the plant which is the basis of cocaine - has almost been eradicated after a three-year US-backed campaign.
In Colombia, an aerial spraying campaign in the coca-growing heartland of western Putamayo has reportedly destroyed thousands of acres of crops. Colombian officials are describing the operation as "a resounding success". Two senators have just returned, praising the Colombian military's financial probity and commitment to human rights - a combination of remarks that just happens to send my personal Geiger counter, which records bullshit quotient in news reports, completely off the clock.
The word "Vietnam" still haunts policy-making in Washington, and President Bush has refused to sink further manpower into Colombia. But if you take the drugs war as a whole, the similarities are overwhelming. With the very best of intentions, Washington has committed vast quantities of resources to an unwinnable contest against a far more committed, hydra-headed enemy. And as in Vietnam, many of those resources seem devoted to kidding themselves, visiting senators and the public about operational successes.
A lot of the participants were stoned out of their brains in Vietnam too. But that war got stopped because the sons of America's suburbs started being killed and wounded in large numbers. In this war, those suffering most directly are the disempowered and voiceless: South American peasants; low-grade suppliers who get caught and jailed; addicts who end up being driven further into dependency.
It is a low-level conflict that suits pretty well everyone else: politicians who like to pretend they are taking action; recipients of their largesse who make fat livings out of the funding; the titans of the recreational drug industry who make vast and almost risk-free profits; and most of their customers, who have enjoyed a plentiful supply for decades.
Almost every action in this war has the reverse effect to what was intended. Donnie Marshall, of the US drug enforcement administration, admitted to Congress last week that the strikes against coca meant that Colombia has suspended attacks on poppy plantations, so its heroin exports have increased. Cocaine use has been dropping in the US, as the nasty effects of crack have become better known; heroin increase, however, has doubled in five years.
The Guardian reported last month that the planes were indeed successfully spraying coca crops; they were also spraying fruit trees, maize plants and schoolchildren, who were suffering from rashes, headaches and vomiting. The promised aid to the peasants had of course not arrived. A Washington Post reporter noted a week ago that on almost every farm hit by the herbicide, young coca plants were now in evidence. In Bolivia, where victory is being proclaimed, less than half the families (a UN estimate) have received assistance in planting alternative crops and most of these crops are failing. It makes British farm policy looks sensible.
There are tiny scraps of evidence that the US is starting to wake up to its folly. In its Hollywoodish kind of way, the successful film Traffic has at least made the subject topical. A new administration, in which an urge to cut costs is vying with a dictatorial nature, is showing the odd smidgin of interest.
The New York-based Drug Policy Foundation says that 500,000 Americans are now behind bars on drugs charges, compared with 50,000 in 1980. (Of course, most are black so what the heck?) The drugs war cost the US more than $40bn last year, according to the foundation: "Yet illegal drugs are cheaper, purer and more readily available than ever before." Footling with the supply chain of this brilliantly successful free market, with occasional prissy lectures to children, has solved absolutely nothing.
In Britain, the debate is still bogged down on the minor question of legalising cannabis. We desperately need someone to understand the bigger picture: that legalising, controlling, restricting, taxing and de-glamourising recreational drugs offers massive prizes by breaking the power of the cartels and gangs, emptying the jails and - if handled properly - cutting usage as well.
The crimes of about 70% of Britain's prisoners are in some way related to drugs. There's no chance of sense from the present government, petrified of both the White House and the Daily Mail. There's even less hope from Hague and Widdecombe (the Smith Square cartel). Miss Widdecombe is even now probably working on plans to outlaw sex and rock 'n' roll as well. But is it remotely possible that a chastened post-election Conservative party, searching for a big idea, might actually hit upon a good one?
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001