Earlier this month tens of thousands of people marched in Mexico City to protest a war that has left more than 35,000 people dead in the last four and a half years. When elected president of Mexico in 2006, Felipe Calderón vowed to crack down on drug trafficking in his country. With the support of U.S. policies like the Merida Initiative [pdf], he executed a military crackdown that has only increased drug-related violence.

In Colombia, campesino farmers continue to be displaced by a U.S.-backed civil war that has gone on for decades. The pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement [pdf] threatens to further displace these farmers by making it impossible to compete with large agricultural producers receiving U.S. subsidies. Cocaine production has become one of very few options for farmers merely trying to feed their families. The Colombian and U.S. governments deal with this by sending military forces to eradicate coca crops by spraying toxic herbicides from helicopters—an imprecise practice that has also eradicated many legal crops and caused health problems in the communities they hit. In spite of the crackdowns, the percentage of cocaine imported to the United States that comes from Colombia has increased from 90 to 97 percent in the last decade.

With just five percent of the world’s population, the United States consumes roughly two-thirds of the world’s illicit drugs.

Understanding the international war on drugs means examining a complex web of interactions. Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, describes the international drug war as one of the most interdisciplinary problems he’s ever encountered. It involves police and prosecutors, drug trafficking gangs and peasant farmers, addicts and casual users. It involves those wealthy enough to consume the drugs, and also those poor enough to risk producing them. It involves everything from the prison, education, and health care systems to policies dealing with foreign aid, economic growth, and military spending. And it involves the high demand coming from the United States: With just five percent of the world’s population, our country consumes roughly two-thirds of the world’s illicit drugs.

The good news is people are waking up to the counterproductive policies and ideas promoted by the drug wars. Several former Latin American presidents—Fernando Henrique Cardoso, César Gaviria, and Ernesto Zedillo of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico respectively—have publicly condemned the approach of the U.S. and Latin American drug wars and have called for a paradigm shift that “must focus on health and education—not repression.” The evidence against this war is hard to deny—the challenge now lies in putting sustainable alternatives into action.

In his work on drug policy reform, Sanho Tree has traveled throughout Latin America and has seen the devastating effects U.S. policies and influence have abroad. He speaks and writes to educate people on the real costs of the drug war—and how we can move beyond it.

If This is a War, Who’s Winning?

Rebecca Leisher: Recently you’ve said the drug war in Latin America is rivaling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s going on here—in what sense is this a war, and whose interests are being served?

Sanho Tree: Not many people’s interests are served by this. It’s not good for the cartels that are fighting each other, it’s not good for the state, it’s not good for the people. It’s not even good for the drug warriors because this is not success, this is not something we can be proud of. But what you have is something driven by the economics of drug prohibition, and it all descends from that. The traffickers are doing what’s in their self-interest to do—their bottom line is to maximize profits.

They’re carrying out, in Mexico for instance, a turf war. These drug trafficking organizations are fighting over turf because the U.S. is the biggest consumer of drugs, and Mexico is in between the production and the demand, so the conduits—these trafficking corridors—are incredibly profitable. There are only so many strategic choke points, so they’re fighting over control of that because it’s so lucrative.

So President Calderón of Mexico gets elected in December of 2006 with the most razor thin of margins. He thought he would do something bold and decisive, and he rushed himself into an ill-conceived war. It’s counterintuitive, but when you have a turf war brewing, the worst thing the state can do is get in between it. Calderón thought he could throw 50,000 troops at this problem and solve it. Turf wars usually have a beginning, a middle and an end, but what Calderón has done is make sure that we have a very long middle and no end in sight. As soon as he attacks one cartel, the others think, “Oh, they’ve been weakened, we can go after their turf now.” And then he goes and attacks another one, and then suddenly the balance switches and then they fight over there, and back and forth, back and forth.

When politicians see this kind of disorder, the temptation is to throw water onto the fire. That’s a common sense solution, but if you’ve ever had a grease fire in your kitchen or an electrical fire, throwing water—I don’t recommend it. It makes it explode. That’s the problem we have here, because this fire in Mexico is a prohibition-related fire. They’re fighting because prohibition makes these drugs so valuable. And keep in mind that this bloodshed is really over the right to traffic and distribute minimally processed agricultural commodities. Cannabis, cocaine, heroin—they’re easy to produce, there’s nothing exotic about them, they’re just plant byproducts.

A Broken Social Contract

Rebecca Leisher: So why do we keep this going, on Calderón’s end, and in the U.S.?

Sanho Tree: As long as the U.S. is here, as long as the U.S. demands these drugs, Mexico will always be a conduit. So at the end of all this bloodshed, there will still be drug trafficking through Mexico. And so the question has to be asked: To what end are we waging this war?

The root causes on both the supply and demand side are rooted in problems of poverty, despair, and alienation.

Aside from the human cost of this—the now 36,000 dead in Mexico since the beginning of 2007—the other cost of this is much harder to quantify. What has been destroyed is the social contract. The idea that the state could guarantee safety, to allow basic life to continue, has been shattered as a result of drug prohibition-related violence. The social contract is something that can be destroyed rather quickly and easily, but it can take generations or decades to rebuild.

Rebecca Leisher: Why don’t we expand the conversation to Colombia and other areas in Latin America. You’ve traveled a lot throughout those areas in your work toward drug policy reform. In the short documentary Shoveling Water, you visit a coca farm in Colombia to show the devastation caused by what are largely U.S. policies, like crop spraying to eradicate coca plants. From an international perspective, what are some of the actual effects of these types of crackdown methods?

Sanho Tree: It has alienated people from the government. We’re talking about people who are eking out a living with the illicit crops in very remote areas of the country, people who have been historically abandoned by the state. And the state continues to alienate them. Instead of saying, “we’d rather you didn’t grow these illicit crops, we’d rather you did something different, we are going to help you find an alternative, we’ll offer you something better,” instead we’ve been punishing them. We view them simply as criminals, and we send crop dusters escorted by helicopter gunships to eradicate their coca crops.

The aerial spraying basically creates a giant gas cloud. It hangs like vapor, and it will get carried by the crosswinds. It then falls and coats the coca leaves and causes the coca plant to drop its leaves and possibly die. But coca’s a fairly hardy plant, and other plants are much more susceptible. Corn and yucca especially—they instantly turn brown and die. It destroys grasslands, it destroys fish ponds—aquaculture being one of few success stories down there. It will kill the fish, and there’s lots of rashes, vomiting, diarrhea, and infant deaths attributed to these chemicals. They’re learning to associate the state with death, destruction, and suffering.

This is what it means to be alienated from your own government. And in the midst of a four and a decades-old civil war, this is not a good way to win hearts and minds.

Rebecca Leisher: Who are the people growing the coca, and what are their circumstances?

Sanho Tree: They’re living away from any kind of major state presence—no roads, no infrastructure that would allow them to grow legal crops and process and sell them at a profit. These are people who have been—some of them—forced off their lands in other parts of Colombia after four and a half decades of civil war. Basically these are the people who the state has forgotten.

This [photo at left] is a major road in Guaviare that comes from the provincial capitol and is connected to the rest of the province. So if you want to reach the rest of Colombia you have to cross that road. And the lucky campesinos will have farms next to that road, but most of them are many kilometers away. You have to haul tons of yucca and pineapples and other crops from your remote farm down these dirt paths and hope that you have enough money or that some truck will come by with room that will help you get it to the nearest city to sell, and get there and sell it at a profit before it rots. So in this context, would you rather be hauling cattle or tons of fruits or vegetables, or a kilo of coca paste? That’s the problem.

The pending free trade agreement (FTA) is going to put a tremendous amount of pressure on small-scale farmers in Colombia, and these are precisely the people we want to keep from turning to illicit crops. How can they compete with ADM and Cargill? A lot of these farmers want to be the kinds of farmers that grow corn and other crops.

Coca Mama

Rebecca Leisher: The coca plant is considered sacred and is used medicinally in a lot of indigenous communities. What roles do cultural differences play in why we vilify some of these mind-altering substances more than others?

If some people have a problem with alcohol, should we aerially spray Napa County and destroy the grape crops?

Sanho Tree: The coca bush actually has a lot of historical and beneficial uses. It is a source of medicine, of sustenance; it helps fight altitude sickness; it fights hunger, thirst; it has protein, iron, calcium—in the high Andes people may not have access to those kinds of minerals and vitamins. It’s called “coca mama” by many indigenous peoples—it’s a gift from the gods.

And in its natural state it’s just about impossible to abuse. It’s only when it’s refined into cocaine that it becomes more problematic. Indigenous people should not have to pay the price for our abuse. It’s like saying, if you could extract methamphetamine out of coffee beans, would we then tolerate the banning of coffee because some people had a problem with methamphetamines? Similarly if some people have a problem with alcohol, should we aerially spray Sonoma and Napa County and destroy the grape crops?

Rebecca Leisher: You wrote in a recent op-ed, “There are many alternatives in the spectrum between prohibition and total free-market legalization.” What might some of those look like?

In what other forms of public health do we use police, prosecutors and prisons as the primary means of making people healthy again?

Sanho Tree: The majority of people who try these drugs are not problematic users, but we make policies based on the extremes, rather than the average. And we have laws already to hold people accountable for their conduct. If you operate a vehicle, if you endanger other people—we already have laws in place for that. Not all use is abuse, not all abuse is addiction. There are some drugs that you don’t want people to play around with—there aren’t many happy endings on meth. But on opiates and certainly on cannabis, there’s a lot of non-problematic use. And when some of those are problematic it’s to the individual, not to society.

In what other forms of public health do we use police, prosecutors and prisons as the primary means of making people healthy again? It’s kind of like treating clinical depression with a baseball bat: “Smile or I’m going to beat you again.” You can’t coerce someone into being healthy. We want doctors and therapists in the lead on this, not police and prosecutors and prisons. They’re not trained to make people better.

DARE … For Something Different

Rebecca Leisher: So what are the alternatives, or where should we be putting our resources in trying to address the root causes of the drug problem?

Sanho Tree: The root causes on both the supply and demand side are rooted in problems of poverty, despair, and alienation. Poverty is the one that’s easiest to identify, but despair and alienation cut across class lines. Not only do we have to build a healthy society—we have to build a society that’s meaningful.

Ultimately the best way to keep people off drugs is to give them a reason to look forward to tomorrow.

Our spending on the drug war is upside down. The majority of the money goes to supply side policies, with eradication, incarceration, and law enforcement eating up two thirds of the drug control budget. And less than a third goes to prevention, treatment, and education. Ultimately the best way to keep people off drugs is to give them a reason to look forward to tomorrow. If you believe that tomorrow is not going to be a better day, then we get all kinds of problems in society—not just drugs. And for a lot of people, they do believe that their best days are behind them, and so that’s when you get the manifestations of not just drugs but all kinds of antisocial behaviors.

A lot of the social democracies in Europe are able to have very liberal drug laws and much lower rates of drug use. It’s not a question of who has tougher drug laws that determine this but they have in many ways set out to build a healthy society. If you go to the Netherlands and do a drug policy tour, they will take you to the school system and show you how their education system works. They will take you to the public housing system, the health system, and only then will they take you to the coffee shops to talk about drugs themselves. It’s really about building a healthy individual. And they’ve done something remarkable—they’ve managed to make marijuana boring. It’s not forbidden fruit; people can take it or leave it if they’re over 18, and most people choose to leave it. They have lower rates of marijuana use than the United States. Those are the kinds of lessons we need to learn.

One of the positive things we can do in the United States is have honest educational systems instead of the D.A.R.E. program. We educate kids about drugs in ridiculous ways. We begin with a series of lies: “Kids, drugs are bad, they make you feel bad, don’t take them.” No, they make you feel good—that’s why people take them! There are bad consequences—both in terms of the legal system and physiologically and psychologically— but you can’t begin by a series of lies. It just creates more cynicism. That’s when it gets really dangerous because then you can’t teach kids about the really important things, about real, relative dangers—like methamphetamines, like heroin—things that are truly addictive and damaging. You can’t equate that with marijuana.

Generationally, we’re at a crossroads. It’s harder and harder to find a presidential candidate or a member of Congress that can claim to have been drug-free all their lives. This is important because it brings out a question we should pose to politicians: would a good, stiff prison sentence for drug use have made your life better? And if not, then why is it so good for all these other people, particularly poor people and people of color?

Rebecca Leisher: On an individual level, what can people do to work toward changing these policies?

Sanho Tree: History is made by those who show up. People have a lot more power at the local level than they realize. How do you take limited resources and leverage them to produce the maximum effect? You can build effective, more powerful coalitions by understanding how power works and what politicians listen to. It’s not just a matter of emailing politicians or your member of congress. The amount of time it takes for you to express your opinion carries more weight if it’s something that takes more effort or time.

People in the U.S. can talk to their representatives and actually implement international policies that help farmers in particular, not through these FTAs which help elites. There is lots of positive-type aid that could be used to address some of these problems, while we’re going after simple-minded solutions.

As an historian I’ll tell you the only thing that I’m certain of is change—and sometimes it’s even for the better. So that’s what gives me hope.

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