Thursday, April 10, 2008

La Coca no es Cocaína*

The single fact that drives me insane with anger when it comes to drugs is the complete erasure of the responsibility of the drug-using countries, combined with their refusal to see any solution other than those that penalise the countries where the source plants are grown.

Let us examine the famous USAmerican "War on Drugs". To begin with, why is it a war? Who are they waging the war against? Nature? Chemistry? Their own citizens who are caught with 1 ounce of marijuana and spend 10 years in jail? There are several hundreds of websites that detail the costs of the War on Drugs to the USA, its healthcare, its prison systems, etc. Lots of calls for the legalization of marijuana exist, but has anyone ever considered legalizing hard drugs? It would make them a lot easier to control. It would also render the whole illegal trade redundant. Ah but that would mean the end of so many lucrative treaties like Plan Colombia, which makes SO much money for the armament industry in the USA.

Let's start at the beginning though. Coca. Coca is the root of cocaine (and Coca-Cola and Novocaine, but you know that). Coca is also a plant with many traditional religious and nonreligious uses all over the Andes, to which it is native. The altitudes and the hardship of life made it a useful leaf, employed by native Americans for decades before the advent of Europeans. The Spanish arrived and declared it Devil's weed, thereby banning it. Eventually they accepted the importance of its traditional role and settled for levying a 10% tax.

Along came a German, Friedrich Gaedcke, who proceeded to isolate the cocaine alkaloid in 1855. Albert Neimann, another German scientist, improved the purification process in his PhD and published the thesis in 1860. Richard Willstätter synthesised it in five steps first in 1898. An Italian doctor, Paolo Mantegazza, was the first recorded person to experiment with the alkaloid. A chemist Angelo Marani, became the first person to market it in Vin Marani in 1863. In 1885 USAmerican company Parke-Davis was selling cocaine in all sorts of products. (Wikipedia zindabaad!) Once its addictive properties were revealed steps were taken to control it, and it was officially listed as a Controlled Substance in 1970. In the contemporary world it is an illegal recreational drug, whose usage is second to marijuana.

To recap, cocaine was first isolated by a German. The purification process was developed by a German. An Italian began experimenting with cocaine, and another Italian began marketing it in wine. A USAmerican manufacturer began selling the drug in various forms. And finally the United States declared it illegal. Notice the entire cycle was started, sustained and then panicked about by Western Europeans and USAmericans, who probably make up the majority of the contemporary market.** Coca growth spiralled because of the foreign demand for the processed drug. Because of this demand many more people began to cultivate it, much like coffee export becomes an incentive to move away from food crops towards coffee cultivation.


Moving on to the mechanism of the War on Drugs. In my not so very intensive internet research and one and a half years of listening in class, I have gathered that the main prongs of the war are:

  • Eradication of Coca
  • Military assistance to Colombia, to control growing, processing and trafficking
  • Zero tolerance of drugs inside the USA
  • Extreme pressure on Andean nations to involve themselves in the eradication of coca

The observed effects have been an increase in coca growing, an increase in the drug trade, increased civil war in Colombia, the spread of cultivation to other parts of existing coca-growing countries as well as non-coca growing countries, ridiculously escalating violence inside and outside the drug producing and consuming countries, increase in entry points and routes to the USA and a ridiculous number of people in jail in the USA on charges of possession of marijuana.

Eradication of coca is a ludicrous strategy because, firstly, it kills all plant life, including food and cash crops, without affecting coca itself too much, since coca was originally a weed. It has also been noticed that new strains of the plant are emerging that are resistant to the herbicides being used. The destruction of plant life then causes erosion in the delicately balanced areas of the Andes where the eradication programs are in force. Viable agricultural alternatives don't really exist because [a] nothing will grow after fumigation, [b] most alternative crops can't match the money, [c] even if [a] and [b] were surmounted, there is no infrastructure to ensure that farmers have secured transport of perishable products to markets far away, and [d] there is no guarantee that once they reach the market they won't be priced out by agriculturally subsidised USAmerican and EU products!

In the hypothetical Utopia where these things are all surmounted, there remains the issue of the violence. Agreed Colombia has had its civil conflict since about 1964, and while there are enough conspiracy theories that believe that the war on drugs began as a war on communists and las FARC, we shall set them aside and believe the US assertion of its motive being the eradication of drugs. However, thanks to the illegality that raises profits to an almost silly number, everyone, the Colombian military, las FARC, the paramilitaries and the (sing choirs of angels) US army are now involved in the drug trade. The paramilitaries were originally created to protect from the military who were ostensibly around to fight the guerrillas. The USAmericans were there to "aid", "train" and "assist" the military.

Firstly, the average campesino in this situation is basically shot. You don’t cooperate with the military, they shoot because you're a guerrilla; you don’t cooperate with the guerrillas, they shoot you because you're a spy. You don’t cooperate with the narcos, you're a problem and they shoot you; you don’t cooperate with the anti-narcos, you're a narco and they shoot you. It is inevitable that they are sucked into one of the sides in this kaleidescope of a conflict.

Secondly, everyone is in the drug trade! This is the most incredible story ever, of the wife of a US Army Colonel, posted to Colombia as part of the war on drugs initiative, who trafficked using US Diplomatic Mail. Of course the amazing part is how neatly it was ignored and everyone is still yelling about how it is the producing countries who cause the problem.

The self-interest of the "enlightened" "developed" world never ceases to amaze me. Despite the costs to themselves, their own population languising in jail, dying of overdoses, lives destroyed by drugs, they cannot begin to admit that perhaps a significant part of the problem comes from themselves, and take healthy steps to address it, because those steps might actually have more benefit for "developing" nations than themselves. I hate to make such emotional and frankly excessive accusations, but I can think of no other reason for the persistent destructive belief in the rightness of their stand of the part these nations in the face of lives lost and years of evidence to the contrary.

Coming soon, Neoliberalism is Evil!

*Evo Morales - The coca plant is not cocaine.

**Somebody find me some statistics that show what percentage of the population of various countries are hard drug users. I tried and got lost in anger along the way. I'm willing to BET it will bear me out. From what I know Spain has the highest percentage with 3.0% of adults.

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