A war of error? Losing the drug war at home

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Bolivia, along with Burma and Venezuela, received a little diplomatic hand-slapping from the Obama administration on September 15 as countries which had "failed demonstrably" in their obligations to curtail the illegal drug trade originating in or transiting through their borders.

Nothing too new about that. Bolivia is the world's third largest coca and cocaine producer-behind Colombia and Peru-and has been criticized by the U.S. for allowing coca production to increase. What was different this time is that following this predictable scolding, Bolivia slapped back.

Bolivian President Evo Morales said at a press conference soon after the State Department smackdown that the United States "doesn't have the authority or moral standing to question" his country's battle against drug trafficking. Morales, who began his political life as the head of an indigenous coca-growers union, urged Washington to offer an accounting of its own anti-drug efforts.

According to Morales, 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, and Bolivia's interior ministry says that police have also destroyed 3,709 drug laboratories so far in 2009.

All of those operations were carried out without any help from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which Morales expelled from Bolivia in 2008. He ridiculed the U.S. certification program as politicized theater, rewarding perceived friends, further distancing perceived enemies.

Morales then posed a question which gets right to the insurmountable contradiction at the failing heart of the U.S.'s 40 year transnational war on drugs. He asked why there is no 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.

He repeated a proposal for a coordinated regional anti-drug policy and suggested that the 12-member Union of South American Nations could "certify or decertify the United States."

We can keep bullying our neighbors in Latin America or maintain the facade that we are fighting the opium growers in Afghanistan even as they penetrate ever higher in the Karzai administration and funnel more money to the Taliban. We can watch slackjawed as drug-fueled and crazed violence spills over our border from Mexico and we can keep pumping cash into Colombia on the off-chance that stability will emerge there, but as long as the United States continues to prosecute this endless, unimaginative losing war of attrition--mostly ours--against the drug growers and traffickers and the "respectable" politicians they buy off or sponsor, 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 killing will continue.

Drug abuse is an illness and a family catastrophe, an individual tragedy and a civic disaster, but treating it unequivocally as a crime, in fact the same crime, only propels this endless war and the destabilizing impact it has on countries the world over. The only people who clearly benefit from the way this war has been conducted 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.