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DEMING HEADLIGHT: Silent shifts in the Drug War

February 18th, 2010

By Jess Hunter-Bowman

There's one thing that Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all agreed on: expanding military aid to Latin America to fight the so-called "Drug War."

A new phase of the Drug War began in 2000 under President Bill Clinton, with $1.3 billion in "emergency" funding to fight cocaine production in Colombia by destroying the raw material for it -- coca plants. President George W. Bush continued the fight, which sent nearly $6 billion in aid to Colombia between 2000 and 2008. When cartel violence began to spiral out of control in Mexico, he shepherded hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Mexican military. President Barack Obama initially followed in his predecessors' footsteps, but now appears to be headed down a wiser path.

By any measure, the military approach to countering a demand-driven cocaine trade has been a complete failure. When Congress approved spending billions of dollars on military aid to Colombia a decade ago, policymakers insisted that it would slash coca production by half within five years. Instead, the South American country's coca production is basically unchanged from 1999, the year before Clinton launched Plan Colombia. Today the U.S. government reports Colombia produces 294,000 acres of coca. That's virtually the same as the 303,000 acres it believed were planted in 1999.

Some Drug War fanatics in Washington have suggested that a 6,000-acre reduction in opium poppy production in Colombia is proof of success. Nothing could be further from the truth. Colombia's opium production represents approximately 1 percent of the global market. Any reduction in Colombian poppy acreage probably has more to do with increases in Afghanistan's production, the global leader with 389,000 acres in production in 2008, than eradication operations in Colombia.

Perhaps the most important test of the Drug War's success is the number of people using cocaine here at home. After all, policymakers justify giving our money to brutal foreign militaries by assuring us that we'll see a reduced drug supply at home -- and therefore fewer drug dealers and addicts.

However, we've seen a sharp increase from 1.2 million cocaine users in 2000 to 1.9 million users in 2008, according to the Department of Health and Human Services' National Survey on Drug Use and Health. So the Drug War is failing by that measure too.

As these military programs have wholly failed to affect drug production and consumption, the collateral damage left in their wake is immense. Just in Colombia, well over 10,000 farmers have filed official complaints that the chemicals wildly sprayed on their fields in the world's second-most bio-diverse country have destroyed food crops, surrounding forests, and livestock -- while damaging their families' health.

Meanwhile, human rights groups have accused Colombia's and Mexico's U.S.-backed militaries of thousands of brutal abuses against innocent civilians.

Obama has started trying to right some of these wrongs. His proposed budget for 2011 would cut the failed counternarcotics funding for Colombia by 11 percent from 2010, which is nearly 50 percent lower than Republican-controlled levels in 2007. He's calling for approximately 30 percent less military aid to Mexico.

Additionally, the Office of National Drug Control Policy is significantly increasing funding for domestic drug treatment and prevention, aiming to add $341 million to such programs in the next fiscal year. This is a smart strategy. For years, research has indicated that domestic drug control strategies are over 10 times more effective at reducing drug abuse than our ill-advised adventures in Latin America.

Being on the right path doesn't mean that drug policy is in the right place yet. We need to cut spending on ineffective U.S. counternarcotics assistance for the Colombian and Mexican security forces even more.

But Obama's new budget conveys a clear message: International military adventures that make Washington's hawks feel good while failing to make a dent in the drug trade are on their way out. Thankfully, rational decisions seem to have crept into U.S. drug policies. People here at home and across the hemisphere will be grateful.

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