First, coca is not cocaine. Coca in its natural state is virtually impossible to abuse and has many healthful properties, but this hasn’t stopped U.S. officials from demonizing all coca (as though it was synonymous with cocaine), which has backfired for U.S. interests in Bolivia.

Historically, U.S. drug policy in the Andes has been driven by petty Washington politics and.meaningless metrics of ‘success.’ Our politicians routinely approve funding for ‘get tough’ measures because they are afraid of being smeared for appearing ‘soft on drugs.’ Meanwhile, they consistently shortchange the softer side of drug policy that actually gets closer to the root causes of these problems: adequately funding demand reduction programs at home while expanding basic economic development in drug-producing areas.

The drug warriors who must implement Washington’s policies respond to meaningless metrics such as the number of hectares eradicated or kilos interdicted. They generally don’t care about whether the coca growers have basic food security or realistic economic alternatives. Thus, ‘hitting the numbers’ is as misleading as ‘bodycount’ was to the Vietnam war because cocaleros—like peasant farmers anywhere else in the world—will do whatever it takes to feed their families, including replanting coca.

The Bolivians will reorient their priorities to meet the human realities on the ground. Once these farmers have food security, they can then diversify their local economy. Our drug war establishment will probably appear threatened by this new approach because it is a rejection of failed U.S. policies which benefit bureaucrats and politicians, while farmers receive mostly punishment. Washington has had a hard time understanding that being tough is not the same as being effective.

Sanho Tree is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he directs the Drug Policy project.

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