Drug Policy

'Detaining the Wind'

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The New York Times reports that drug warriors, having spent billions of taxpayer dollars and sacrificed innocent lives to push coca production from Peru to Colombia, are now pushing it from Colombia to Peru, all while having no discernible impact on cocaine consumption. Guess what the next phase of this glorious struggle will be.

"In response to law enforcement pressure in one area," says the director of the narcotic affairs section at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, "drug cultivators and traffickers switch operations to new territories." The general in charge of coca eradication in Peru says "the struggle against coca can resemble detaining the wind." The New York Times notes that prohibition-related profits are funding a comeback for the Shining Path, "the rebel group held responsible for tens of thousands of deaths from 1980 to 2000 during its war against the government."

On the bright side, says Paul Gootenberg, author of Andean Cocaine, "Washington's policy of supply-oriented intervention inevitably improves the efficiencies and entrepreneurial skills of traffickers." Meanwhile, the balloon effect allows prohibitionists to declare an endless series of victories in their perpetual war.

Addendum: Here is a chart showing cocaine use by Americans, as measured by government-sponsored surveys, between 1979 and 2008. These are the percentages reporting cocaine use in the previous year and the previous month. Not surprisingly, there is no disernible downward trend associated with coca eradication in Peru and Colombia.

[Note: The apparent increase between 2001 and 2002, when the survey was revamped, may reflect methodological changes aimed at encouraging more candid responses. There are gaps in the pre-1990 numbers because of an earlier methodological change that required recalculation. These are the numbers listed in a 1995 report of results from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.]