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The Human Cost of "War on Drugs"

50 years of criminalisation of drugs and 40 years of blatant failure of “war on drugs” has only made the problem worse. Policy makers must listen to the real victims: the people on the front lines

Jimmy Kainja
22 June 2011

The recent Global Commission on Drug Polity report has made it clear that “the war on drugs has failed”. The 19-member commission comprised a former United Nations Secretary general, former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and a host of other influential people, including a host of intellectuals.

In Britain, celebrities and influential people, including Sir Richard Branson, are calling for the British government to decriminalise drugs. It is not a new debate. In fact, the study has only confirmed a view that many people, among them top politicians such as Prime Minister David Cameron, already knew. Yet history suggests that Cameron will not even consider a policy review on drugs. In the USA, Barack Obama has pledged its continued help for Mexico’s “war on drugs”.

This has been and continues to be a predominantly middle class and technocrats led debate between pro and anti drug decriminalisation camps. The real victims on the frontlines of this “war” are never heard. That is what the drugs debate hardly considers: the human cost of the drugs trade. Director Rachel Seifert’s Cocaine Unwrapped (2011), a film shot in the frontlines of the drugs industry, from coca farmers in the Americas to the streets of Baltimore, tells this ignored story of how this illegal, brutal and unregulated trade is destroying lives of poor farmers and predominantly disfranchised black youth in the USA.

Contrary to the mainstream media facilitated debate, it is not the drugs that are destroying people’s livelihoods but policies guiding the unregulated trade. It is now 40 years since President Richard Nixon launched a “war on drugs”, and 50 years since the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotics criminalised drugs. These measures have only escalated violence and deaths are still mounting. It is estimated that over $6 billion has been spent fighting production in Colombia alone. Yet the country remains the principal global supplier of cocaine. 37,000 people are estimated dead in Mexico alone, on average 12 are being killed everyday. The violence has worsened since 2006 when Mexican President Felipe Calderon decided, with the help of the USA, to use military force to fight drug cartels. An estimated 500,000 people are in prison in the USA on drugs charges. These staggering figures have not stopped, and there is no evidence that it will stop, the demand for drugs.

Bolivian president Evo Morales, a former coca farmer himself, has pointed out that farmers in the Americas will always produce and supply coca, so long as there is demand for it. Morales has repeatedly argued that coca is not cocaine; it is tribal plant that Bolivians have used for at least the last 500 years. A Bolivian government official argues that blaming coca alone for drugs problem in the West is the same as blaming a sugar cane for alcohol abuse.

Many peasants do not plant coca for criminal reasons, it is a source of income and many farmers would be happy to stop the supply if there was alternative and viable way of earning a living. A passing of law in Bolivia that allows farmers to plant a smaller amount of coca, mostly for traditional use and production of other useful products, has tremendously reduced the problem in Bolivia. It is the criminalisation and efforts to get rid of coca without giving the farmers alternative ways of survival that is fuelling the coca production. It is the indiscriminate fumigation of plantation with the aim of killing coca that is forcing peasants to plant the crop. A farmer observed that there was no point in planting other crops because it will be fumigated anyway. It felt better to lose coca to these chemicals than a legal crop, he argued.

50 years of criminalisation of drugs and 40 years of blatant failure of “war on drugs” has only made the problem worse: increased insecurity in places like Mexico and Ecuador, and the social and financial cost is too high to pay. Policy makers must listen to the people on the front lines of the “war on drugs”. These are the real victims and not criminals and they are better placed to help finding solutions for their problems. There is no point looking the other way pretending everything is fine when there is clear evidence from left, right and centre that the policies have failed.

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