Drug War 101 (With an Emphasis on Coca Cultivation)
Here I am writing primarily about cocaine, although everything in this post can be applied to heroin as well. It should be understood that both are plant-based drugs. Cocaine’s most fundamental ingredient is the coca leaf, which grows almost exclusively in the Andean region of South America. Heroin comes from the opium poppy, which grows in multiple places. Most cultivation of opium poppy for US heroin comes from Colombia, although some is also to be found in Mexico. Marijuana is another major plant-based drug. It goes all over, including within the US.
The issue that I am primarily concerned with is the simple fact that we are wasting money on the drug war as it is currently constituted. Most people are reluctant to face up to this fact because they have fears about either drugs penetrating their own families, or just higher rates of addiction in the broader society. This tends to cause a reaction that is quite negative to any discussion of shifts in our anti-drug strategy. However, I have become convinced over the years that the drug war is an utter failure and a giant waste of money. On balance, the overwhelming majority of persons who actually study the process in an depth whatsoever tends to come to the same conclusions. Indeed, within the broader literature on this subject what one finds is that the only main proponents of the drug war are either people who work within the drug enforcement apparatus of the United States (which is vast network of agencies at this point in time) or are people who simply have very passionate views on intoxicants and see the war on drugs are a moral crusade. Yes, some exceptions can be found (James Q. Wilson comes to mind), but on balance to study the drug war is to realize what a waste it is. I say this having once been a general proponent of the policies.
A basic fact that has to be understood in terms of US anti-drug policy is that it is fundamentally a supply-side set of policies, i.e., we spend the lion’s share of our money on attack the source and distribution of the drugs. It is why, for example, we have spent as much money as we have in Colombia over the years and why we are spending it now in Mexico. Colombia has long been a major managerial nexus of the drug industry and after the US targeted (successfully, to some degree) cultivation in Bolivia and Peru, it became (and remains) a major source country. Mexico has recently become the main trafficking/management country, surpassing Colombian cartels. It should be noted that Mexico became the major transshipment route to the US for Andean cocaine and heroin after a decade+ struggle by the US government to curb trafficking through the Caribbean into Miami and the east coast in general. As the above paragraph notes, and will be illustrated further below, any given success (like curbing coca cultivation in Peru) usually leads to a shifting of the problem (to more cultivation in Colombia). It is what is called the Balloon Effect, i.e, squeeze one part of the balloon and it bulges out somewhere else. Along those lines, putting the squeeze on Miami has shifted trafficking into Mexico and so forth.
A supply-side policy means, as the name suggests, is one that targets the supply of the drugs. We have demand-side elements of the policy as well, which include locking up users. We also have some treatment and education based elements. The money, however, goes overwhelmingly to supply-side policies (especially military-based interdiction and law enforcement).
There are several basic metrics for success. One is the price of cocaine (noted in the previous post), while others include: the number of hectares under cultivation, the number of hectares eliminated, seizures, and arrests of traffickers. Let’s look at hectares under cultivation and to some extent hectares eliminated.
The chart to the right is from the 2009 World Drug Report [PDF] and shows thousands of hectares under cultivation from 1994-2008. Now, we see a couple of things here. First, the Balloon Effect is quite evident as starting in 1994 it is clear that the squeeze was put on Peru and on Bolivia around 1999. However, as those countries reduced cultivation, Colombian coca famers readily took up the slack. Indeed, with some variation (both up and down), coca cultivation in the aggregate remained pretty stable from 1994-2001. It should be noted that a lot of money was being spent on interdiction at that time and it was being hailed as a great success. After all, look how much coca cultivation diminished in Peru! However, how much of a success is a policy if it the net effect of all the effort and the spending is ultimately negligible? Indeed, the experience with Plan Colombia suggests that escalation of the drug war ultimately provides only partial results-perhaps even only negligible ones.
Now, it is true that cultivation was reduced, and specifically in Colombia, starting in 2002 as Plan Colombia, which despite its original billing was an interdiction/crop eradication heavy policy. It is fair to say that the policy had some effect. However, it is worth noting that while the policy helped take coca cultivation down from it peak, it did level out at a fairly high level (~150,000+ hectares). Note, also, production in Peru starts to creep up at the same time. Another point that needs to be pointed out is that if we look at net cultivation and the level and intensity of eradication in Colombia, we are left asking if we are getting good return on our dollars especially if, as was noted in the post on price, the eradication effort is not effecting supply enough to drive up price.
The Report provides the following on crop eradication and Colombia, and we can see that a great deal of eradication effort has been engaged in, and yet the net cultivation has remained pretty steady. As such, a lot of money is being spent to destroy coca bushes, and yet the farmers have simply started planting more and more plants and have reached an equilibrium despite the actions of the US and Colombian governments. It should be noted that the coca bush is a hearty plant that is easy to grow and can be be harvested multiple times a year. And, because of the black market in coca leaves, it pays more to grow them than it does other traditional, and licit, crops.
So, what we have here is a great deal of effort and money being spent so that the cocaine market can still sell drugs at a cheaper price than it did when all of this started. People die and billions of dollars exchange hands and it is still possible to get drugs in the United States if one really wants them. So I would ask, does this stand up to a basic cost/benefit analysis? Yes, I understand very well that drug addiction is bad and that it wrecks lives. However, that is happening right now in spite of the billions spent. Indeed, a lot of lives are being ruined because of the drug war. America’s cocaine habit (and to a lesser degree Europe’s) funds, for example, the FARC in Colombia and the drug violence in Mexico. Some people are more than willing to engage in all sorts of bad behaviors if they will make a lot of money in the process. The appetite for cocaine (and other drugs) in the US coupled with prohibition equals a lot of money to be made. It means, therefore, a lot of violence to protect that money. Indeed, a lot of the violence in the southwestern United States that is being attributed to illegal immigration is really a lot more about the drug war and drug trafficking than it is about illegal immigration as we typically use the term.
The question becomes: are we getting what we, as a public, think we are getting from the drug war? Is it worth the cost or should we have a serious public debate about another way of doing business?