Posted by Elyssa Pachico on Sep 15, 2010 Leave a comment

If Americans took less drugs, would violence really decrease in Colombia?

Colombia news - Cocaine trade

“We live next to the world’s largest drug consumer, and all the world wants to sell them drugs through our door and our window,” Mexican President Felipe Calderon lamented in a television interview last week. It is not the first time that Calderon has complained about how consumption patterns in the U.S. are funding, in part, the horrific and seemingly never-ending bloodshed in Mexico.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton echoed his remarks in March, when she acknowledged, “Yes, we accept our share of the responsibility … We know that the demand for drugs drives much of this illicit trade and that guns purchased in the U.S. are used to facilitate violence here in Mexico.” She emphasized this again in comments made last week to the Council of Foreign Relations, when (alongside a comparison of Mexico to Colombia’s insurgency, which I tried to talk about here), she stated, “those drugs come up through Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, through Central America, southern Mexico, to the border, and we consume them … So I feel a real sense of responsibility to do everything we can.”

Colombian officials have similarly complained that for all the Plan Colombias and massive drug seizures and presidential pledges to fight narco-trafficking, much of the conflict in the country is fundamentally driven by a simple matter of supply and demand. U.S. citizens want cocaine from Colombia, and meth, heroin and marijuana from Mexico. And with billions of dollars to be made on the illicit market, enterprising drug traffickers are all too willing to supply the much-demanded product. But what can the U.S. actually do, in terms of policy, to halt drug consumption within its borders? And would this really have an effect on the violence that has long ravaged both Colombia and Mexico?

One policy approach the U.S. could take is drug use prevention schemes. Studies show that teens are most likely to begin experimenting with narcotics between 15 and 17, and those who start earlier run a higher risk of becoming abusers of hard drugs. So theoretically speaking, with a concentrated public education campaign, you might be able to reduce the rate of addiction.

However, it is tricky to measure how effective these kinds of prevention programs really are. In all honesty their efficacy is probably nil. On one hand you have your public awareness campaigns, some memorable, some not (I for one still remember watching the infamous D.A.R.E. “this is your brain on drugs” commercial). Education programs in schools are another possible measure. But really, who believes that the occasional homeroom workshop on the evils of marijuana use is going to stop a teen from walking into the parking lot and rolling up a joint, especially if that child comes from a single-parent home, can’t afford college even with massive student loans, and studies in one of America’s many, many failing school districts? I would argue that rather than increasing investment in drug-prevention programs, the best way to ensure that fewer young people end up as heavy drug users is for Congress to ensure that the youth population has ample education and employment opportunities.

Another key approach – and the one that has so far dictated U.S. policy – is interdiction, arrest, and other coercive measures. The argument goes that if you seize enough drugs and capture enough traffickers, drugs become less available, prices go up, and people become less inclined to consume them. Every week Colombian security forces trumpet the latest massive seizure of narcotics, and the statistics flow fast and furious: the navy has seized 21 tons of cocaine so far this year, police seize two and a half tons of pot in Bogota, police seize a record amount of heroin on the coast, etc, etc, etc. Similar announcements prevail in the U.S.

The problem is that targeting dealers and traffickers does not have any long-term impact on the street price of narcotics. Oh, now and again someone will come out and claim that cocaine prices have risen, as the DEA did at the end of 2007, or claim that the global supply of drugs is decreasing, as recently asserted by a director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. But for all the concentrated enforcement efforts in the past three decades, have we seen any sustained drop in the availability of drugs in the U.S.? If there has been any effect at all, it is always sporadic and short-lived.

Focusing on interdiction has another key side effect. Certainly, if enough tons of cocaine are seized, from Miami to Cartagena to Lazaro Cardenas, there is less out there on the market and prices jack up. But if your average drug-trafficking thug guesses that for every five tons of cocaine shipped, only one will be seized, then what’s the next logical step for any businessman? Start shipping an even larger amount of cocaine. It may be that for even one kilo of cocaine to make it to Miami, the FARC have to first churn out ten kilos, and make a pretty penny while doing so. As a result increased interdiction may actually end up making things worse for supplier countries like Colombia.

Another possible policy approach towards reducing drug consumption in the U.S. is to increase funding for treatment programs. This is a highly-touted solution in certain political circles, and in some ways I can see how it makes sense. The U.S. spends horrifying amounts of money incarcerating small-time drug offenders, even though study after study proves that putting addicts in rehab programs is far more cost-effective than locking them up. Increased treatment, combined with law enforcement efforts, would mean that instead of putting hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders into jail (where they are likely to descend further into cycles of drug addiction and crime), you could rehabilitate the most frequent drug consumers and thus break the cycle.

But at the end of the day, as much as Congress may expand treatment programs for addicts, it’s doubtful this would noticeably impact total U.S. consumption (let alone reduce the demand for drugs from Colombia or Mexico). Calderon is justified, somewhat, in giving the U.S. a share of the responsibility for Mexico’s drug-fueled problems, and Clinton is right, somewhat, in assuming some of that responsibility. Still, I am pretty pessimistic that there is anything the U.S. could do, policy-wise, that could reduce domestic consumption enough to impact the conflict dynamics in supplier countries.

But at least in Colombia’s case, there is another important dynamic that should be considered when it comes to drug consumption: usage within Colombia has increased dramatically over the past several years. According to leading conflict think tank Nuevo Arco Iris, micro-trafficking has become a major source of funding for criminal groups, especially in cities. In this case, asking what the U.S. could do to reduce drug consumption is no longer the key point. It may be that it is Colombian consumption that is now partly driving the conflict.

Last weekend I went with a friend to visit a family in one of Medellin‘s working-class comunas. The family’s 18-year-old younger brother lay on a bed in the other room, because he’d overdosed on bazuco the night before. He looked terrible: pale and twitching and blinking. “Se enloquecio,” his older brother said. “He went crazy with the drugs. Just like every Friday.” Why didn’t they take him to the hospital, I asked. “For what?” was the reply. “Just so they would tell us he’s crazy?”

Crazy, crazy, young people, putting stuff up in their noses and in their veins and in pills and in pipes. What are you supposed to do?