plants are not rational actors

for decades we have been waging a war against an enemy that is quite literally incapable of surrendering

Sanho Tree*



This is a panel which we could have done years ago. It would have been the same set of subjects; the fine-tuning may have been a little bit different but the problem remains the same.  For decades now we have waged an international war on drugs that has produced very little positive results and much of it has to do with three basic factors that the drug warriors don't take into account.  So just to give a little framework of why this has not been such a great success, there are at least three factors that the drug warriors must solve if current strategies are to succeed.


The first factor is extreme poverty in drug-producing regions, and indeed throughout the world. According to the United Nations Development Program, there are 1.2 billion people who live on less than 1 dollar a day.  In Colombia, two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line, on roughly 2 dollars a day. So imagine paying for your food, your housing, your transportation, clothing, fertilizers, seeds, raising children on a dollar a day, which is roughly about 40 percent of the population in the countryside is surviving on.  Imagine being able to put illicit seed into the ground and coming up with a crop which is going to be able to make the difference between simple poverty or hunger.  There's really not much of a choice for these people.


The second factor we have to take into account is high demand, particularly in industrialized countries that have the hard currency −the dollars, the euro's− to backup this local economy. There’s also the fact that we have very limited treatment facilities, especially in places like the United States, where often the only way to get drug treatment is to get arrested.  There is such a backlog of waiting lists for people who want to public treatment; unless you have a private health insurance it is very difficult to get help. Also health prevention and education programs are designed very often to fit political agendas and are often so exaggerated and distorted that they only increase cynicism among the targeted audience, particularly youth. So in many ways they backfire.  This is the luxury of the man-driven problem: the war-drug warriors −particularly on the issues we will be talking about today− have tried to internationalize the problem, to blame producing countries for our −the United States' and other industrialized countries'− inability to control our seemingly insatiable appetite for these substances.


The third factor that has to be take into account or solved, is the artificial escalation of the value of these essentially relatively worthless weeds.  Things like marijuana, coca, poppy these are not things that are worth much money, should not be. But our policies of Prohibition create great wealth where there shouldn't be any. To put it another way, the alchemists back in the Middle Ages tried for centuries to find a formula to turn lead the into gold and they never did find that formula.  It took the drug warriors to figure out how to do that. We have policies that turn relatively worthless weeds literally into their equivalent worth in solid gold. So for example, marihuana, which is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States, is now literally worth its weight in solid gold, ounce for ounce; 320 dollars an ounce is the price for gold and for marihuana. And for higher potency marihuana, it can be two or three times as much. So when you combine these three factors −extreme poverty, high demand and the artificial escalation profits− associated with Prohibition, we have a dynamics that is very very difficult to stop. I would say that it is almost impossible, given the amount of land there is to cultivate these crops, given the willingness of people to purchase these things, and the almost inexhaustible reservoir of poor people willing to take the risk to grow these crops. So the best we have been able to do is to push drug cultivation from area to area, and country to country, from continent to continent. This has been called the balloon effect, when you squeeze at one end of the balloon it expands on the other end.


And finally, we have applied a war paragon to this problem. The issue of drugs and drug abuse and addiction should be primarily public health problems, ones that have social and economic impact. Instead, our drug warriors declared a war on these plants and, speaking as a former military and diplomatic historian, I can tell you that wars are about applying brute force against a rational state actor to achieve a capitulation, a surrender.  And we have been applying this paragon against a plant. Plants are not rational actors.  The coca seed does not sit in the ground and ask itself: Should I stay dormant for another six months while I fetch a better price on the market? What's the latest threat coming from the United States Congress? Plants obey the laws of nature and the laws of the market. And so, because our policies of Prohibition give these things so much value, millions individuals around the world have attached themselves to this economy, either out of greed, or poverty, or addiction. But when we talk about all these individual actors −from the consumer to the trafficker to the grower−  to all these different people in urban areas, rural areas, you will never get a coherent surrender, an organized capitulation from all the these individual actors. So for decades we have been waging a war against an enemy that is quite literally incapable of surrendering. There is no international drug conspiracy that says "Okay all you farmers , all you users, all you traffickers, we've finally had enough; let's stop this altogether." So this is what we're stuck with:  an endless war on drugs, a war without end.


Our first panelist today is Ricardo Soberón, who will be speaking on the international war on terrorism, Plan Colombia, and the Andean-Amazon Region. Ricardo is a lawyer and coordinator of the Boundary Program of the Project Counseling Services in Bogota.


Transcribed by MamaCoca

MM Moreno


* Director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC


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