A Chance to Change Our Failed War on Drugs in Colombia

By Ryan Rodrick Beiler 11-25-2008

Add this op-ed from yesterday's Washington Post to the list of things we have a reasonable hope can change under the Obama administration:

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office, commissioned by Sen. Joe Biden, has come to an unsurprising conclusion: After more than $6 billion spent, the controversial drug control operation known as Plan Colombia has failed by large margins to meet its targets.

I've been to Colombia and have met the farmers, pastors, and advocates that have suffered from the fallout of the U.S.'s counterproductive drug policy. Its militarized approach of eradication and interdiction has served only to fuel a conflict that has harmed many innocents, while drug production has actually increased and the street price of drugs in the U.S. has fallen:

The goal had been to cut cocaine production in Colombia by 50 percent from 2000 to 2006 through eradication of coca crops and training of anti-narcotics police and military personnel. In fact, cocaine production in Colombia rose 4 percent during that period, the GAO found. ... In 1999 it cost $142 to buy a gram of cocaine on the street in the United States, according to inflation-adjusted figures from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. By 2006 the price had fallen to $94 per gram.

But, as with many common sense solutions, the military-industrial complex stands in the way. Though given the fact that some baby steps in the right direction during the Bush administration have proven themselves effective, we have all the more reason to hope:

Of the first 100,000 drug users benefiting from President Bush's primary demand-side initiative -- the $300 million Access to Recovery program -- 71 percent successfully completed therapy and abstained from illicit drugs, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Of those with criminal histories, 85 percent remained out of the criminal justice system. Other research has shown that drug treatment programs can reduce drug use by over 70 percent and criminal activity by 50 percent.

There is a simple strategy that Obama and his congressional colleagues could take that would save about $6 billion a year: Cut supply-side spending by the Office of National Drug Control Policy and require that two-thirds of its funding be spent on demand-side programs. While that is simple, it won't be easy. Fighting against these basic, common-sense changes are entrenched special interests, including defense and prison contractors and prison guards unions.

So keep praying -- for the sake of those in Colombia suffering from our failed policies, and for our own streets.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web editor for Sojourners.

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