Thursday, June 29, 2006

Editorial: Losing the Drug War -- Decriminalization would be more effective than drug eradication

The Monitor

There is an old saying: “There are none so blind as those who will not see,” which comes to mind when we see news reports about expanding the international drug war. Two stories from Colombia last week support that belief.

The first was a United Nations report that noted that despite record-setting eradication measures in 2005, the country’s coca production increased 8 percent. A day later, Colombian Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt said that despite the U.N. report, the aerial spraying campaign is working and should be stepped up.

Aerial spraying to kill coca crops is the cornerstone of the drug war in Colombia, the largest producer of cocaine used in the United States. It allows the Colombian drug warriors, with U.S. support, to reach remote jungle areas. The program is a joint effort between Colombia and the United States and is part of Plan Colombia, a drug interdiction program that has cost U.S. taxpayers $4 billion since 2000.

A report from the Office of National Drug Control Policy in April also found that the area under coca cultivation had grown, despite the spraying. So here we have two reports in recent months clearly showing that what we’re doing in Colombia isn’t working, and Pretelt’s plan is to throw even more of our money at the problem?

Actually, the main problem isn’t that the aerial eradication program isn’t successful. It’s that the drug war itself is failing. Born of the flawed idea that if drug users have trouble obtaining drugs, they’ll stop using, the drug war has been going on for decades with little success. That’s not to say federal and local law enforcement officials haven’t done their jobs. Hardly a week goes by, it seems, that the media don’t report a large bust somewhere in which thousands of dollars of drugs are confiscated. For every pound of illegal drugs they stop, however, you can be sure that many more get through to U.S. users. If they weren’t, the price would be much higher than it is. The police are doing what they’re supposed to, but they’re fighting a losing battle because the drug war ignores economics and common sense.

Making a substance illegal doesn’t make it go away; it merely increases the price. Higher prices mean more profits. Suppliers risk jail and violence to get those profits. Those risks demand even higher prices and profits to make supplying drugs worthwhile.

If officials are serious about lowering the rates of crime and drug use, they should curtail their efforts to keep consumers from getting what they want.

Decriminalization of drugs would remove the risk suppliers now face, which would lower prices. That would, in turn, lead to a decrease in robberies and burglaries because users would not need as much money to buy their drugs. That’s not to say such crimes would disappear; they’ve always been with us because not all crimes are a result of drug use.

The easy availability of illegal drugs in the United States is proof the drug war isn’t working, despite the billions we spend on it every year. That’s a pretty high price tag for a policy that’s not working.


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