Sunday, January 09, 2005

Cocaine. The Economics.

Thanks to Tim Worstall for a link to this article by a documentary film maker who bothered to find out the scary details of the war against drugs. Conclusion; it's the same lesson we should have learned from Al Capone, the perfect is the enemy of the good:

I now believe that the tragedy we witnessed in Latin America has little to do with the damage the drugs do to people's heads. The tragedy is a result of the drugs being illegal. People will do a lot for a £34,000-per-kilo profit.

My journey begins in the spring of 2003 in the impossibly beautiful valley of Monzon in the Peruvian Andes. ....

Monzon is in the badlands where the police have not had a presence in 10 years. ....

The valley is a major target of the campaign, run by the Peruvian anti-drugs police, and financed by the United States as part of their attempt to wipe out drug production in Peru and Colombia.

....Edgar chews his coca: 'The government has not thought through the consequences of this campaign. If things go on as they are, the peasants will be forced into the arms of the guerrillas to protect themselves.' The guerrillas are the Shining Path, who terrorised Peru in the 1980s, but almost disappeared when their leader was captured 10 years ago. Now there is talk of their return to defend the coca farmers. Edgar should know. He used to be a local guerrilla commander. This is exactly what has happened in Colombia - there the FARC guerrillas have become deeply involved in cocaine, in the guise of defending the peasants. Edgar predicted, the Shining Path guerrillas did re-emerge. For the first time in years they launched a full-scale attack on a town just outside the valley. They drove out the police and raised the red flag, all the while claiming to defend the coca farmers. A cocaine-financed conflict looms - just like in Colombia - and the victims will again be the peasants.

....the nightmare that is government in Colombia. You can trust no one. The traffickers have people everywhere from the very top to the very bottom. Their money can bribe almost anyone. And if they cannot buy, they kill - a habit which has turned Colombia into one of the most dangerous places on earth. An assassin can be hired for £60 a hit.

....Once again at the heart of the battle with cocaine is US dollars.
Plan Colombia, the biggest US aid package to any country outside the Middle East, has seen almost $3 billion poured into largely military resources over the past five years. ....

We are crouching in a house in the slum of Santa Marta in Rio [Brazil]. Just below is the beautiful city, its beaches full of beautiful people. Inside the house, a group of adolescent boys have covered their heads in balaclavas. They are stuffing little plastic bags with white powder from a metal tray, all the while lovingly describing their 'pieces', which run from a magnum to rocket launchers and home-made bombs. Their leader, barely out of his teens, makes clear: 'Without the white stuff there is no crime. This is where the real money is. We are the parallel power.' There is no question of the power these crazy young men wield over the thousands who live in Rio's slums. ....

This journey has left me thinking the politically unthinkable. With an election looming, the Blair government has made the war on drugs a populist law-and-order priority, once again conflating the taking of drugs with the crime and violence that surrounds them. But it is the war itself that is the problem. The politicians rightly warn that demand will go up if it is legalised. Not good but not the nightmare they summon up. Neither cocaine or heroin is a cancer. In quantities it destroys your nose and is bad for your brain, but it very rarely kills - unlike that other addictive plant we can use legally: tobacco. Nor is it a direct cause of violence, like alcohol.

Let's be honest. People try drugs, whether in the form of alcohol or pills, because they are fun.

Tens of thousands of UK citizens regularly consume cocaine; hundreds of thousands more use other illegal drugs, completely discrediting the law. In his book Cocaine, Dominic Streatfield quotes the monetarist Milton Friedman: 'I do not think you can eradicate demand. The lesson we have failed to learn is that prohibition never works. It makes things worse not better.'

Streatfield quotes the extraordinary statistics involved in fighting cocaine and drugs. Here are a couple: over the past 15 years, the US has spent £150 billion trying to stop its people getting hold of drugs. In Britain and the US almost 20 per cent of the prison population is inside for drugs offences. So what is left? We can muddle on or we can legalise cocaine - and indeed all drugs.

....Yes, more people will try these drugs and there will be tragedies. But 30 years of the war on drugs have achieved almost nothing except to make a few people fantastically rich, to arm our inner cities, to criminalise a generation of users, and to leave tens of thousands of Latin Americans dead. As our cocaine maker in Peru happily told us: 'People want our cocaine because it is good and, for a while at least, makes them happy.'

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