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close this bookIllicit Drugs: Social Impacts and Policy Responses (UNRISD, 1994, 19 p.)
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View the documentUNRISD
View the documentSUMMARY
View the documentINTRODUCTION
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPRODUCTION
View the documentTRAFFICKING
View the documentCONSUMPTION
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View the documentCONCLUSIONS


This question encompasses some of the world’s most hotly debated policy issues. Should stronger interdiction campaigns be undertaken against drug producers and traffickers? Should economic incentives, educational campaigns and other activities be undertaken to encourage people to change their behaviour as consumers or producers? Should the “war on drugs” be declared to have been misconceived, and expanded discussions be undertaken about some controlled form of decriminalization and legalization?

Responses vary according to people’s values and views. The primary focus of drug control policies in most parts of the world has heretofore been on supply suppression through drug crop eradication and disruption of trafficking channels. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that North America, Western Europe and other net consuming regions are unlikely to solve their illicit drug consumption problems through the continuation of current supply suppression strategies. Despite the expenditure of billions of dollars on controlling supplies, the successful capture of major traffickers and dismantling of their drug empires, and the weaning of peasant growers away from coca and opium via alternative crop incentives, the global supply and consumption of drugs has continued to grow.

The reasons for the failure of current drug control policies are numerous: the lack of alternative income-earning possibilities among rural people in net producing countries is too substantial, the price differential between licit and illicit crops is too great, the huge profits acquired by traffickers in illegal business are too enticing, and traffickers are too skilled at eluding law enforcement efforts. If supply suppression is successful in one area, crop production or drug refining activities quickly move elsewhere.

Moreover, even if supply suppression policies are successful in increasing the costs of supplying drugs, and reducing the amount of drugs on the market, consumption will only be reduced under certain conditions. Assuming consumption to be price responsive (a condition that does not always hold), prices can be driven up beyond people’s willingness or ability to pay only if true scarcity relative to demand is created. A well-known study undertaken by the Rand Corporation has suggested that, because the price of the coca leaf accounts for less than 1 per cent of the retail price of cocaine, even a crop eradication programmeable to triple the cost of production to the growers would raise cocaine prices in the United States by no more than 1 per cent. The same study indicates that, even if interdiction programmes were to become vastly more successful, and were able to intercept 50 per cent of the cocaine arriving from Colombia, US street prices would rise less than 3 per cent.

In most cases where supply control strategies have been implemented, grower and trafficker counter-strategies have been more than sufficient to maintain supplies on the market. In the United States, for example, in spite of the large tonnage of illicit drugs confiscated every year, drugs are as plentiful now as ever, and are sold at more affordable prices. In Colombia, despite the destruction of the Medellsyndicate, drug production continues as usual. Medells markets, resources, stocks and many of its personnel have been incorporated into the rival Cali syndicate, making it now the world’s leading cocaine trafficker.

Crop suppression strategies have been no more effective than efforts to control drug trafficking. Experience shows that pressure placed on growers is not sufficient to reduce drug crop production significantly. In Bolivia, interdiction efforts against processors and traffickers have brought down the price of coca leaves, leading to a slight drop in the amount of coca produced since 1989. In Peru, however, coca production increased between 1989 and 1992 by an amount equivalent to 73 per cent of Bolivia’s reduction. It is likely that one country’s success in reducing production will simply be another’s problem as traffickers, refiners and intermediaries migrate to places of least resistance and most opportunity, creating a demand for drug crop production. This phenomenon is referred to as the “balloon effect”: what is pushed down in one place simply springs up in another.

In some countries, cash rewards have been paid to growers who voluntarily eradicate their crops, in order to compensate them for their loss of income. However, in Bolivia for example, many of these growers simply moved to new areas and planted new drug crops in more remote areas, or eradicated only those crops that were old and unproductive. This has led many experts to argue that crop eradication should be rewarded not with monetary compensation, but with other crops or income-generating opportunities, or with social infrastructure such as better roads and services.

Another obstacle to successful crop eradication is lack of sufficient funds. National governments often argue that they cannot implement eradication programmes unless they have strong financial backing from international organizations and governments in the developed world. They frequently complain that the amount of money needed to replace drug-based economic activities is not forthcoming. But the funding agencies are reluctant to release large sums of money unless they are convinced that national governments are serious about implementing drug suppression programmes.

The fact that supply suppression, both absolutely and as a surrogate for consumption control, seems to be a general failure at present levels of investment in drug control indicates a need to re-examine drug control policies. The following sections examine the main types of strategies that have been proposed: (a) the intensification of crop suppression and interdiction efforts through greater militarization of the “war on drugs”; (b) greater implementation of “alternative development” strategies meant to wean growers away from drug crops; and (c) demand or harm reduction in consuming countries, including controlled legalization or decriminalization.