WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
15 Oct 2009 | News

Congress to Take Up New Drug Policy Commission: Time to Re-Examine Decades-Old Drug Control Policies

Today a bill that represents a significant step toward a serious – and overdue – reconsideration of U.S. drug control policy will be marked-up at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

The bill– H.R. 2134— introduced with bi-partisan support by Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) in April, would create an independent "Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission" to recommend how to improve U.S. domestic and international drug control policies, an implicit recognition that the current drug-control strategy is not working. The bill would also assess the impact of Plan Colombia and the Merida Iniciative.

WOLA's Senior Associate for Drug Policy, John Walsh, will be testifying at a hearing on "Assessing U.S. Drug Policy in the Americas" at the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere following the mark-up of the bill.  During his testimony, Walsh will highlight the fact that "we are farther than ever from achieving the War on Drugs' goals: coca cultivation is apparently at an all-time high, while U.S. cocaine and heroin prices are at or near their all-time lows."

"Over the past three decades, our aggressive expansion of drug enforcement to reduce supply has come at great cost but achieved very little," says WOLA's John Walsh.

The goal of U.S. policy has been to drive up the street price of drugs by attacking production, but the latest estimates released by the White House in early 2009, show that cocaine's U.S. retail price per pure gram in 2007 was the lowest figure on record – nearly 22 percent lower than in 1999, the year before Plan Colombia was launched. This, while household and school-based surveys conclude that the percentage of Americans who use cocaine has remained basically stable since 2000. For more information on these figures, see John Walsh's testimony.

In addition, the U.S. estimates of the land area under coca cultivation each year in the Andean region have hovered near 200,000 hectares for nearly two decades. From 1987-2007, the average annual estimate was about 200,400 hectares, ranging from a low of 166,200 hectares (in 2004) to a high of 232,500 hectares (in 2007, the most recent year for which U.S. estimates are available). The 2007 figure was about 15 percent higher than both the 21-year average and the average for the most recent 5-year period (2003-2007).

"A more useful approach begins with the recognition that a smarter combination of demand and supply strategies can hopefully contain and perhaps even reduce the size of illicit drug markets, but will not eliminate them," says Walsh. "The challenge, then, is to minimize the damage caused by drug production, distribution, and use – but also to minimize the damage caused by our drug control policies."

Some of the damage is caused directly by implementation of policy, as when a farmer's key cash crop is destroyed with nothing to take its place. The eradication of crops upon which farmers and their families depend pushes people deeper into poverty, and thereby reinforces their reliance on illicit crops. Other damage occurs as a consequence of policy "success," as when crop eradication pushes growers to new zones, or when interdiction compels traffickers to forge new routes. Such displacement of drug production and trafficking – known as the "balloon effect" – tends to spread the damage associated with drug production and trafficking (environmental destruction, corruption, violence), without any appreciable impact on the overall market. Decades of forced eradication efforts in Latin America have left a trail of social conflict, political unrest, violence, and human rights violations.

"These negative consequences of our enforcement-led strategies may be unintended," said Walsh, "but they can no longer be considered unpredictable, and therefore, urgently need to be changed. This bill is a step toward that direction."

For more information contact:
Kristel Mucino, WOLA, Communications Coordinator
617-584-1713, kmucino@wola.org