US Catholic Faith in Real Life

This is your country on drugs

By Kevin Clarke | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Justice
Countries who live in glass houses should take care when criticizing others’ anti-drug efforts.

Bolivia received a little diplomatic scolding from the Obama administration in September as a nation that had "failed demonstrably" in the global war on drugs. Bolivia joined a handful of other nations that did not receive a U.S. certification that they were properly engaged in preventing drug production or intercepting drug transit within their borders.

There's nothing too new or surprising about that. Bolivia is the world's third largest coca and cocaine producer-behind Colombia and Peru-and has been criticized by the United States for allowing coca production to increase. What was different this time is that following this predictable hand-slap, Bolivia slapped back.

The United States "doesn't have the authority or moral standing to question" Bolivia's battle against drug trafficking, an angry Bolivian President Evo Morales said at a press conference soon after the State Department smackdown.

According to Morales, who began his political life as the head of an indigenous coca-growers union, Bolivia is committed to an "all-out battle" with the drug trade, even as it allows limited cultivation of coca for traditional medicines and rituals.

Bolivian authorities have seized 19.4 tons of cocaine and coca paste so far in 2009, compared with 11 tons during all of 2005, the year before he took office.

He ridiculed the U.S. certification program as politicized theater, rewarding perceived friends and further distancing perceived enemies. Morales said the United States needs to focus on removing the plank from its own bloodshot eyes before seeking the speck in Bolivia's, posing a question that gets right to the contradiction at the heart of the U.S.'s 40-year transnational war on drugs: Why is there no parallel certification program for determining how well the United States is reducing its internal demand for illegal drugs?

"As long as there is a market for cocaine, however much we reduce coca leaf, part will always be diverted [to cocaine production]. That is our reality," Morales said. With 23 million users in the United States keeping the illegal drug trade growing, it's easy to see his point.

Morales proposes a coordinated regional anti-drug policy and suggested that the 12-member Union of South American Nations could start a certification program of its own to "certify or decertify the United States" based on how well it was confronting illegal drug demand within its borders.

We can keep bullying our neighbors in Latin America and maintain the charade that we are halting the opium trade in Afghanistan even as poppy processors there penetrate higher into the Karzai administration and funnel more money to the Taliban.

We can watch slackjawed as drug-fueled violence spills over our border from Mexico, and we can keep pumping cash into Colombia on the off-chance that stability will emerge, but as long as the United States continues to prosecute this endless and losing war of attrition, nothing will change.

Perhaps some of the names of the nations on the president's list of drug delinquents will periodically shuffle, but the addiction and the dying, the occasional interdiction and sporadic killing will continue.

Drug abuse is an illness, and treating it as a crime only propels this endless war and the destabilizing impact it has on countries the world over. How we extract ourselves from this war and the collateral damage it generates will be a challenge, but we can begin by decriminalizing drug use and more thoroughly treating addiction in our clinics and hospitals, not our jails.

We can ask if all drugs are created equal. A nation that tolerates substance abuse such as smoking and drinking, which claims the lives of thousands each year, really needs to rethink its priorities and strategies in dealing with drugs like marijuana.

The people who are winning the war on drugs are not the growers or the users or the nations too poor to export anything else, but the gangsters and the terrorists and the miscellaneous criminals and corrupt politicians who use the drug trade to enrich themselves or their death-dealing militancy. We need to outflank them. We need to medicalize, not militarize this war on drugs.

This article appeared in the December 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 12, page 39).