BOGOTA, COLUMBIA. 11 May, 2015 — Flops keep piling up in the War on Drugs. The announcement on Saturday by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos calling for an end to his country’s U.S.-backed aerial herbicide spraying delivered a body blow to the costly, ineffectual program.
Crop dusters have sprayed chemicals on at least four million acres of Columbian coca over the last two decades, trying to eradicate illegal plantations (coca is the raw material used to make cocaine). Columbia is virtually the only that country that uses aerial eradication to control illegal drug growing. Afghanistan gave up trying to spray opium poppies out of existence in 2007. Nigeria, a top cannabis producer in Africa, has flirted with crop dusting cannabis. In Swaziland, police use South African helicopters to spray “dagga” fields hidden in remote mountainous areas. These grow operations are controlled mostly by Columbian drug cartels, according to local news sources. Aerial chemical spraying has not made much of a dent on the supplies of ‘Swazi gold’ which ship through South Africa to Europe, connoisseurs pay top dollar for its combination of mellow flavor and powerful high.
All the aerial programs rely on glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Round-Up herbicide which is widely used by the global agro-industry. The chemical was found to be “probably carcinogenic to humans” in a recent study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organization agency. The study found limited evidence that people working with glyphosate are at greater risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prompting President Santos to urge the National Narcotics Council to phase out aerial spraying within a few months.
Columbia’s program uses a higher concentration of glyphosate than typical agricultural spraying would involve, and releases the chemical over populated zones. The WHO report is not the first to raise concerns about health impacts. In a nationwide study of hospital visits, the Drug and Security Research Center at the University of the Andes in Bogota found a higher incidence of skin rashes, respiratory problems, hormonal irregularities, and miscarriages in coca-growing regions sprayed with glyphosate between 2003 and 2007.
Additionally, the chemical has been blamed for collateral damage to legal crops and livestock. While coca is a resilient plant, food crops such as yucca, rice and bananas are not. Critics of the eradication program say spraying glyphosate has serious ramifications for soil fertility and the long-term food security of people living in targeting areas. Many communities potentially affected by spraying also lack clean drinking water and have a generally poor environment for health – very little of the drug trade revenue ends up in the hands of these communities or the farmers who handle an array of toxic chemicals when growing coca and processing the plants into cocaine.
While President Santos is citing the WHO report as the basis for his decision, crop-spraying operations seems to have been on borrowed time for a while, for political and financial reasons. Neighboring countries have long complained about Columbia’s chemical bombardment. In 2013, Colombia had to fork out a $15 million settlement after Ecuador filed a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice claiming that the herbicide drifted across the border, causing environmental damage, livestock deaths and health problems in humans. In October the same year an American pilot was dusting Colombian coca fields when FARC guerrillas opened fire on his plane, forcing him to land in a cow pasture. He survived. Three weeks earlier, another American pilot was not so lucky.
The Marxist group FARC relies heavily on cocaine to fund its operations, and Santos has sought to disarm the guerrillas ever since he took office. The two sides are in negotiations to end the 51-year-old guerilla war and if a peace treaty is signed, the government has agreed to halt aerial eradication while FARC has promised to get out of the illegal drug trade. FARC guerrillas often protect illegal coca fields with land mines and snipers. Colombia opted for aerial chemicals to avoid sustaining more casualties.
Two decades in, Columbia’s president seems to have decided that the cost/benefits of the unpopular program don’t add up sufficiently to justify the potential risks to health and political stability, and poor relations with neighboring countries. A 2012 report by Colombia’s independent advisory commission on drug policy found that glyphosate spraying only produced a 15-20 percent reduction in the coca crop for every hectare sprayed. An MIT study found that to eliminate a hectare of coca, 30 hectares must be sprayed with glyphosate, at a financial cost of $72,000 per hectare. A 2011 study estimated that keeping one kilogram of cocaine out of the United States costs $163,000 in coca eradication efforts. By contrast, that cost dropped to $3,600 per kilo if efforts focused on catching smugglers bringing the drugs into the U.S.
Despite billions of American dollars poured into trying to contain cocaine supplies, for the first time since 2007, data from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy shows a big jump in coca cultivation, almost 40% in Columbia. Officials have suggested that since national parks and Indigenous reserves were placed off limits to aerial eradication, coca growers have stepped in to take advantage. The jump in coca cultivation will likely increase cocaine supplies, officials say, thus lowering street prices.
While politicians and bureaucrats continue to defend America’s policy, over 80 percent of Americans consider the War on Drugs a dismal failure, according to Pew and Rasmussen polls conducted during the past twelve months. The global community has spent some $2 trillion on the “war” since President Nixon declared it in 1971. Vast police, criminal justice and military resources have been brought to the problem, and people have been incarcerated on a scale unprecedented in history. Organized crime and drug violence have destroyed communities and brought countries to the brink of chaos, killing over 100,000 people in Mexico since 2006.
More than 1.5 million people are arrested in the U.S. every year for a drug law violation. More than 80 percent are arrested for possession only. On any given night half-a-million Americans are behind bars for a drug law violation, including 55,000 serving time in state prisons for simple drug possession.
In January 2004, yet-to-be-president Barack Obama said, “The War on Drugs has been an utter failure.” He has had plenty of opportunity to take meaningful action to change that, yet the same comment could be made today, more than ten years later. The 2016 presidential candidates have not weighed in explicitly on the topic as yet, although recent remarks and actions can provide some clues.
American voters have not yet made failed drugs policy a hot election issue. PAC dollars from the cannabis industry could change that in 2016.