'The Problem Is the Replanting'


A front-page story in Saturday's New York Times notes that the multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia has dramatically increased the number of coca acres fumigated, the number of cocaine labs destroyed, the number of traffickers extradited, and the amount of cocaine seized during the last few years, with no discernible impact on cocaine availability or prices in the U.S. That part is not surprising; it follows a familiar pattern of failure for efforts to reduce drug consumption by attacking supplies in or near source countries. The surprising part is that the Times has started to notice the pattern—with respect not just to source control but to the war on drugs in general, which it notes has been waged under that name by seven administrations and now costs taxpayers something like $40 billion a year:

The lingering question is whether America's drug problem would be worse today had the drug war, nearly 40 years in the making, never been waged. That may be unanswerable.

What is clear is that the war on drugs, the original open-ended war against an elusive and ill-defined enemy, has moved inexorably onward, propelled by decades of mostly unflagging political support on both sides of the Congressional aisle.

Federal drug warriors, as always, insist we are about to turn the corner. "You see the remaining cultivation and trafficking in Colombia under pressure as you've never seen it before," says John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "We are gradually constricting them," says the ONDCP's David Murray. "This is a trade whose days are numbered." Others are less optimistic, as the Times repeatedly points out. "Colombia is the only country in the world where the problem of eradication has been resolved 10 times," says Sandro Calvani, chief of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Bogota (who made an appearance in Toby Muse's June 2005 Reason article about opposition to the war on drugs in Colombia). "The problem is the replanting." That's one way of looking at it.

Timothy Pratt covered the inception of Plan Colombia for Reason in 2000.