A Familiar Pattern of Futility in the International Drug War

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime announced last week that the production of coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, has shifted away from Colombia toward Peru.  Observers of the war on drugs are not surprised by that development. During the early and mid-1990s, drug warriors hailed the decline of coca production in Peru and neighboring Bolivia, thanks to a crackdown that Washington heavily funded through aid programs to Lima and La Paz, as a great victory in the crusade against illegal drugs.  They ignored the inconvenient fact that cultivation and production had merely moved from Peru and Bolivia into Colombia–and to a lesser extent into nearby countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil.

That phenomenon is known as the “balloon” or “push down, pop up” effect.  Strenuous efforts to dampen the supply of illicit drugs in one locale simply cause traffickers to move their production to other locations where the pressure is weaker for the moment.  When Washington and Bogotá launched Plan Colombia in 2000, the multi-billion-dollar, multi-year program to attack the coca industry in that country, cultivation and production gradually began to shift back to Peru and Bolivia.  The latest UN report confirms that trend.  As Ricardo Soberón, the former heard of Peru’s drug policy office, put it: “The carousel has come full circle.”  Adam Isacson, an expert on Latin American drug issues with the Washington Office on Latin America, noted that the new map of coca production “looks an awful lot like the old” map from the early 1990s.

The latest development underscores how proclamations of victory in the international war on drugs invariably prove to be ephemeral.  Trying to suppress the supply of a product that is in high demand is a classic case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  The illegal drug trade is conservatively estimated to be a $350 billion per year industry, and global consumer demand is growing.  Even if a new crackdown in Peru causes a temporary disruption of the supply coming out of that country, all that we will see is a new “balloon” episode in neighboring states.  Indeed, there are indications that Brazil and Argentina already are becoming far more prominent participants in drug trafficking, in part because they are convenient transshipment points for sending drugs to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, where consumption is on the rise.

We have ample evidence over the course of many decades that drug prohibition does not work; a prohibition policy merely guarantees that violent criminal elements instead of legitimate business enterprises will control the trade.  Focusing on which countries are supplying most of the drugs at a particular moment, and cheering about a temporary victory in one arena, is an exercise in futility.