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July 10, 2006 - The Guardian (UK)

Let's Try Being Tough On The Causes Of Coca

By Anastasia Moloney

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The latest UN office on drugs and crime (UNODC) 2006 World Drugs Report released earlier this week highlights a main trend: cocaine use in Europe is on the increase, with the highest prevalence in England, Wales and Spain.

The UNODC report also noted that Colombia, the world's leading producer of the white powder, now produces more of it than it did a decade ago. In 1996, 300 metric tonnes were produced in Colombia; today the country produces 640, according to the report.

Combating drug production in the Andean region has for years been dominated by US policy centred on the erroneous belief that by destroying coca fields, cocaine production will in turn decrease.

However, cocaine production levels in Colombia risen have not only risen but, in terms of the number of hectares of coca planted, also increased. Last year the total area under coca cultivation in Colombia increased by 6,000 hectares, to 86,000 -- a rise of 8% on 2004. And all this is despite a record number of US-sponsored aerial crop-spraying campaigns that continue to spew the toxic glyphosate chemical spray over Colombia's jungle canopies and national parks in one of the world's most biodiverse countries.

Apart from the well-documented detrimental effects of crop spraying on the environment, the main consequence of aerial spraying has been to force Colombian coca farmers to grow the illicit crop in more remote areas, along the country's borders, and to increase coca growing in neighbouring countries.

Coca cultivation in Peru is 74% higher today than it was in 2000, and it is rumoured that a "super" coca plant exists that is able to grow quickly, produce high yields and resist lashings of glyphosate.

Last year, the Colombian government launched the biggest manual coca eradication campaign in the country's history. A record number of workers and indigenous peoples have been employed to root out the sturdy green plant.

In addition, there has been a dramatic increase in cocaine seizures in Colombia and a record number of cocaine processing laboratories, known as kitchens, have been destroyed. In recent years, more Colombian drug barons have been captured and extradited to the US than even before.

Yet these measures have not curbed the number of hectares of coca currently under cultivation in Colombia. The availability of cocaine, its purity and its street price have not significantly fallen in the main consuming cities of Europe and the US, and the hardy coca leaf is still being processed into cocaine paste as never before in Colombia.

The only reasonable conclusion to be made from the 2006 UNODC report is that the US anti-drugs policy in Colombia, and to a lesser extent EU policy, is a failure and a waste of money.

If Europe wants to reduce the number of its cocaine users, currently estimated at around 3.5 million, it will have to radically reappraise its drugs policy and urge the US to do the same. In addition to hard-hitting anti-drug educational campaigns, what is required of any anti-drugs policy is that it addresses the needs of the coca farmer.

In 2005, a study conducted jointly by the Colombian government and the UNODC revealed that 55% of coca farmers, when asked why they grew coca, gave economic reasons, "either mentioning openly the profitability of doing so or the fact that coca leaves and derivatives are easily marketable". In addition, 28% stated that "they had no other choice".

Governments must attack the causes of why farmers grow coca, including poverty and unequal land distribution, rather than increase the number of crop-duster planes.

The international community needs to spend more money on sustainable alternative development projects where coca farmers are weaned off growing coca and are encouraged instead to grow legal crops with the help of government subsidies that can ensure that those legal crops are marketed and transported easily.

But in reality, it is impossible to completely obliterate consumer demand for cocaine. For this reason, and because of the failure of anti-drug policies in Colombia, the debate about legalisation must be revived in earnest and seriously considered as an alternative solution to the "war" on drugs.

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