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Colombia's Drug Problem: Us

By William Raspberry
Friday, September 1, 2000

I won't be surprised if by the time you read this, Andres Pastrana has explained away much of what he told the New York Times on Tuesday. After all, the Colombian president was just hours away from welcoming the American president, who was on his way with $1.3 billion in Colombian aid--largely anti-drug aid--in his pocket.

But the gist of what Pastrana said seems beyond dispute: There's not much use putting economic and military pressure on drug-producing countries such as his unless the drug-using countries such as the United States take care of their problem.

"Colombia can put a stop to drugs here at some point," Pastrana told the Times' Clifford Krauss in Cartagena, "but if the demand continues, somebody else somewhere else in the world is going to produce them." He said he'd already heard reports of possible plantings in Africa.

"What we are talking about is the most lucrative business in the world--unless the recent spike in oil prices has made it the second-most-lucrative business in the world."

One reason it is so lucrative, of course, is that rich Europeans and especially Americans have money to spend on it. Another is that our attempts to disrupt the market here--our ill-named war on drugs--make heroin and cocaine artificially scarce, thus keeping up the prices.

Pastrana, whether by inadvertence, apolitical candor or devious design, blurted out the truth: The only sure way America can solve its drug problem is by reducing demand. The only irreplaceable player in the drug-racket chain--from peasant producer and armed exporter to middleman, money launderer, distributor, street pusher and user--is the last one. Take away the user and the whole thing collapses.

How to do that is, of course, the question. The answers are more likely to include some combination of punishment for casual users and treatment for addicts than the things we've been focusing on in recent years: mandatory sentences and pressure on countries where the stuff is produced.

The first has filled our prisons to overflowing with nonviolent offenders, and the second has produced more political instability than measurable benefits.

Indeed, the aid package Clinton delivered to Colombia this week is, at least in part, an attempt to immunize the Colombian government against massively armed drug traffickers who have the money to subvert government officials and the muscle to intimidate those they can't buy.

Much of the aid package is to be used to strengthen the Colombian military's drug eradication efforts. But isn't it likely that before long more and more of the money will be used to strengthen the military against the drug gangsters and less and less of it to eradicate drugs? After all, enlisting other governments in a military assault against our problem tends to destabilize those governments, giving them a claim on more American aid to prevent or reverse the destabilization.

I don't know how firmly Pastrana will stick to his candor; after all he is trying to sell his $7.5 billion Plan Columbia (of which the current U.S. aid package is a part) as his home-grown solution to drug trafficking, armed thuggery and economic hard times.

But we in the United States ought to understand the truth of what he said the other day. If we keep producing millions of drug users and addicts, someone--whether in Latin America, the Golden Triangle or domestic laboratories--will be there to supply them.

If we can find a way to reduce that demand--through sanction, education and treatment--we won't need to pressure foreign governments into restricting supply.

And don't tell me it can't be done. We've done it with cigarettes. We've even managed it with teen pregnancy. Shouldn't we at least try it with drugs?

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