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Human Rights and Global Drug Policy

I wrote this essay for my application for a human rights fellowship to fund my fall internship with the Drug Policy Alliance. I didn’t get the funding, but I’m sharing this essay as a proponent for new approaches to drug policy based on public health and human rights.

The Drug Policy Alliance (“DPA”) plays a prominent role in the ongoing international dialogue about the role of regulation, criminalization, and medicalization of controlled substances, along with their possession, use, and abuse, and disruption of the black markets in which they are bought and sold. Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann serves as an adviser to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which states as its purpose: “to bring to the international level an informed, science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies.” The Global Commission’s 2011 report galvanized leaders in Latin America to collaborate on a momentous report by the Organization of American States (OAS), calling for a reconsideration of drug prohibition as the most effective form of drug control policy. The OAS report favored an approach “in which drug use is treated as a public health issue and consumption reduced through evidence-based prevention campaigns.”

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Coca eradication and the globalized U.S. War on Drugs

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Despite all that I am discovering about the environmental and economic dimensions of Colombian geopolitics, my primary reason for getting involved has always been to discredit the illogical and counterproductive strategies that the U.S. government has employed in its folly to enforce a “drug-free” society. We humans have always sought mind-altering experiences to elevate our existence and analgesic painkillers to soothe our angst.

Granted, our coexistence with drugs has certainly not always been pleasant. The desperation of addiction is an affliction that I would not wish on my worst enemy. But instead of educating ourselves as much as we can about how to moderate use of psychoactive substances and prevent them from causing harm, we have decided to punish drugs themselves by criminalizing them and naming them the “enemy.” Banning something doesn’t make it disappear—it just pushes it into a black market, where there’s always demand.

From “How to Chew Coca Leaves” (click for link)

Coca eradication is, theoretically, a supply-side military intervention in the chain of cocaine cultivation. Erythroxylum coca is a plant native to western South America that plays a central role in indigenous healing traditions. The coca leaf is chewed regularly in the Altiplano (Andean Plateau) to cure altitude sickness, and archeological evidence shows that its use dates back about 8,000 years, especially in Peru and Bolivia. It has been the target of U.S. military and counter-narcotics policy in Latin America because it contains less than one percent cocaine alkaloid, which must be chemically extracted from the leaves to synthesize the cocaine that is eventually consumed by North Americans. The Transnational Institute has an excellent fact sheet on how coca came to be criminalized, along with opium and marijuana, by most nations via adoption of the U.N. Conventions on Narcotic Drugs beginning in 1961.

Colombia has been a primary beneficiary of U.S. foreign aid since Plan Colombia, which refers generally to the partnership beginning in 2000 between the State Department and Colombian security forces dedicated to combating “narco-terrorism.”[1] Notice how we’ve neatly conflated national security with counter-narcotics—Plan Colombia’s goals included not just eliminating illicit drugs, but also left-wing guerilla groups. (The exact nature of the relationship between the official Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary units is, one might say, undetermined.)

Militarized eradication of coca began as part of Plan Colombia, and includes both aerial fumigation (herbicides sprayed from helicopters over suspected illicit crop fields) as well as manual eradication (physically uprooting the plants). Let’s start with the fact that no one gets rich from cultivating coca. The regions with coca economies are some of the most impoverished, with little or no state presence. Families who grow coca do it because there is no alternative to sustain their communities in areas controlled by criminal armed actors. They are not in control of the highly organized system of cocaine production that enriches drug cartels. Without addressing the root social causes of coca production, eradication will never result in extinction of coca; it will only drive cultivation further into the jungle. In 2000, only 12 of Colombia’s 32 departments had any coca cultivation; by 2007, that number had grown to 23.[2]

Military eradication of coca has only spread it to more regions of Colombia.

Military eradication of coca has only spread it to more regions of Colombia. (click for full article from Witness for Peace)

So…have we won??

[1] Mondragón, H. (2007). NACLA Report: In the name of democracy. Democracy and Plan Colombia. From http://nacla.org/files/articles/A04001044_1.pdf
[2] Witness for Peace. (2009). An exercise in futility: Nine years of fumigation in Colombia. From http://witnessforpeace.org/downloads/An_Exercise_in_Futility.pdf