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In the War on Drugs, Success Means Failure

Members of the Costa Rican Coast Guard prepare to board a fishing boat to inspect it for cocaine near Puntarenas, Costa Rica, March 4, 2011. (Photo: Tomas Munita / The New York Times)

On August 8, 2010, as Juan Manual Santos was sworn in as president of Colombia, he received a promise from then-national security adviser Gen. Jim Jones that the US would continue its “strong partnership” with Colombia. The mainstay of that partnership is, of course, the war on drugs, which, in late June 2010, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Director Antonio Maria Costa touted as having achieved a measure of success. “The drug control policies adopted by the Colombian government over the past few years – combining security and development – are paying off,” he said. Since it's obvious to pretty much everyone on the planet that the drug war is raging more violently than ever, that cocaine is plentiful, cheap and just as addictive as ever, how is it possible that we continue hearing about the success of the war on drugs?

Here's how. For the last decade, for those who have a stake in the billions of dollars being spent to “fight” drugs, it all comes down to one data point: the total acreage of coca plants that are cultivated in Colombia in one year. When the number goes down, papers are drafted, budget reports are crafted and sound bytes fly through the air with ease and conviction, proclaiming the end of our 40-year battle against cocaine. But what does this number really mean for slowing, stopping, eradicating drugs? Nothing.

Here's an idea of why this endlessly quoted statistic is so meaningless: Say that obesity has become a plague of American society. People are dropping like flies. The medical establishment is overwhelmed with patients suffering heart disease, diabetes, stroke – all because of their addiction to and overconsumption of carbohydrates. The biggest and most evil player in this scourge is, of course, corn and all of its delicious derivatives. So, the federal government decides to save society from their deadly dependence by outlawing corn.

Now, say a certain svelte governor of Midwestern State X decides he will lead the crusade to end the corn addiction and save millions of lives and billions of dollars in medical costs. Wanting to be at the forefront of the War on Corn, he allows the federal government to fumigate all of the now-illegal crops growing in his state. Government Contractor X accepts the job to the tune of several hundred million in tax dollars and sprays herbicide from airplanes, wiping out all of the corn crops in State X.

Well, there's no way in hell we're giving up our Doritos, our Captain Crunch, our soft drinks, beer and cheese spread … in fact, we may even kill for them. With the idea that corn may be no more, every junk food manufacturing corporation goes into overdrive, buying up the illicit kernels. And to make up for the loss of corn from State X, State Y, whose governor hasn't agreed to fumigation, picks up the slack and doubles its production. Then State Z follows suit.

All across the country, more corn then ever is being produced and sold on the black market. Corn farmers turn to felons, becoming uber-rich in a race to fill users' needs. Billions are spent on diet aids and on gym memberships to try and mitigate the collective bulge, but there is no slowdown to the demand. Even State X minimarts are chock full of starch-filled snacks. The obesity epidemic is greater than ever, heart disease and diabetes patients fill State X hospitals. Thousands succumb to diseases directly linked to corn. Still, Governor of State X lauds his success. “Not a single ear of corn now grows in my state! What a great success we've had!” he proclaims. “More federal money is needed to continue this great success!” Congress signs off on a hefty budget to keep fighting the War on Corn.

The same success that happened in State X happened in Colombia last year when US-funded aerial fumigation and the Colombian civil war were factors that helped decrease the total area of coca cultivation in that country. Costa called the news “a remarkable achievement.” However, as usual, Colombia's next-door neighbor and decades-long coca production buddy, Peru, stepped in to fill the void, taking the lead at 45 percent of global production over Colombia's 39 percent, with Bolivia picking up the slack. So, in 2009, the square acreage of coca grown in Colombia was down. Big success – and enough to convince the US Congress to approve another half billion dollars for Colombia in 2010 and to ask for another half billion for 2011. For every other distasteful side dish of illegal drugs – trafficking, violence, addiction, corruption – it was business as usual.

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