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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Not Winning the War on Drugs

According to the White House, this country is scoring big wins in the war on drugs, especially against the cocaine cartels. Officials celebrate that cocaine seizures are up — leading to higher prices on American streets. Cocaine use by teenagers is down, and, officials say, workplace tests suggest adult use is falling. John Walters, the White House drug czar, declared earlier this year that “courageous and effective” counternarcotics efforts in Colombia and Mexico “are disrupting the production and flow of cocaine.”

This enthusiasm rests on a very selective reading of the data. Another look suggests that despite the billions of dollars the United States has spent battling the cartels, it has hardly made a dent in the cocaine trade.

While seizures are up, so are shipments. According to United States government figures, 1,421 metric tons of cocaine were shipped through Latin America to the United States and Europe last year — 39 percent more than in 2006. And despite massive efforts at eradication, the United Nations estimates that the area devoted to growing coca leaf in the Andes expanded 16 percent last year. The administration disputes that number.

The drug cartels are not running for cover.

Mexico and parts of Central America are being swept up in drug-related violence. Latin Americans are becoming heavy consumers of cocaine, and traffickers are opening new routes to Europe through fragile West African countries. Some experts argue that the rising price of cocaine on American streets is mostly the result of a strong euro and fast-growing demand in Europe.

Workplace drug tests notwithstanding, cocaine use in the United States is not falling. About 2.5 percent of Americans used cocaine at least once in 2006, the same percentage as in 2002, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

While cocaine use has fallen among younger teenagers, 12th graders are using more: 5.2 percent used cocaine last year — up from 4.8 percent in 2001 and 3.1 percent at the low point in 1992, says a Monitoring the Future survey done by the University of Michigan.

All this suggests serious problems with a strategy that focuses overwhelmingly on disrupting the supply of drugs while doing far too little to curb domestic demand. [Mark Godsey]

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