All Commentary
Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Politics of Cocaine: How U.S. Foreign Policy Has Created a Thriving Drug Industry in Central and South America

William L. Marcy has written an extensive and cogent historical critique of the U.S. war against the cocaine trade originating in Latin America. As the title indicates, he shows how this counterproductive war has led to a thriving drug industry in the Americas.

Marcy criticizes U.S. policy for conflating the drug war and the Cold War, assuming that only leftist forces were benefiting from the drug trade, pressuring South American governments to suppress cocaine supplies using armed force, assisting those countries in eradication efforts by training and equipping their militaries, destroying coca crops by spraying dangerous herbicides without providing options for alternative crops, and ignoring the U.S. demand for cocaine as an important part of the problem.

Although Richard Nixon started the “war on drugs,” Ronald Reagan militarized it and believed the drug trade to be a unique transgression among leftist groups during the Cold War, despite the heavy involvement of his beloved Nicaraguan Contras and many nonleftist government leaders. Contrary to counterinsurgency warfare doctrine, the forced eradication programs turned the coca farmers away from their governments and toward leftist guerillas. Sending the local military to eradicate farmers’ crops only strengthened the bond between the farmers and leftists, and led to corruption in the region’s militaries.

Bill Clinton weakly attempted to reduce U.S. drug demand, but he and George W. Bush both continued the failed, militarized supply-suppression policy aimed at Latin America. Marcy concludes that except for a slight decline in the late 1990s, drug production in the Andes has remained constant or risen since the inception of the drug war in 1970. Between 2003 and 2006, for example, Colombia’s coca production increased by almost 38 percent. In 2007 coca growers expanded land under cultivation and farmers were learning to adapt to eradication efforts.

Marcy’s critique of U.S. policy seems spot on, but his solution leaves something to be desired. He acknowledges that some experts have urged drug legalization but concludes that this option is not yet politically possible in the United States and may actually cause more problems than it solves in northern Andean regions. He argues that rich landowners would benefit from legalization by seeing coca-growing land become more valuable, or multinationals would swoop in and snap up the drug profits—leaving most coca farmers poor in a semifeudal system. But Marcy seems a bit oblivious to the economics of drug production, which would predict that legalization would decrease the price of drugs and therefore lower the value of drug-producing land. Furthermore, most of the profits earned on drugs derive from the risks taken in an illegal business, so most of the losses would fall on cocaine laboratories and traffickers.

Marcy laments that eradication has always trumped providing markets for alternative crops. Yet even if U.S. policy could provide markets for alternative crops, the illegality of drugs likely would make profits from growing cocaine much more lucrative than any other possible crop. And legalization—by reducing drug profits and taking the fire out of the wars funded by them—is also the best way to provide incentives for guerillas to put down their weapons.

To his credit Marcy recommends decriminalization of drugs in the United States to put downward pressure on the price, and thus the production, of cocaine. Economists believe such demand-reduction strategies are superior to supply-suppression strategies. He notes that the northern Andean region is so large and remote that controlling drug production there is impossible. Cocaine growing, production, and trafficking just move around in response to futile efforts by authorities—whether local or a distant superpower—to stamp them out. While Latin American countries correctly complain about U.S. demand being the primary factor, the United States has maintained its costly and ineffective supply-suppression policy for decades. Thus Marcy usefully suggests limiting the U.S. military presence in the region and getting local militaries out of the counter-drug mission.

The flaw in Marcy’s strategy is that it does not go far enough. True, drug legalization efforts are stymied by popular perceptions in the United States and, he observes, by entrenched antidrug bureaucracies in the United States and the northern Andes that garner jobs and large budgets from the war on drugs. But legalization is the only strategy that can work to eliminate the need for the costly—in lives, money, and corruption—war on drugs. Marcy, then, is wrong when he says that the war on drugs might ultimately be won by incremental changes in policy. The war must be abandoned.