Saturday, May 6, 2023
By Steven L. Taylor

A post by Steve Bainbridge earlier in the week criticizing US drug war policy reminded to me to go back to an LAT story that I meant to read earlier in the week: GOP Senator Questions White House Data on Coca Growth in Colombia.

The story deals with an issue I first blogged about in mid-April, the fact that despite initial positive reports on coca eradication in Colombia, a new report shows increased cultivation.

The news has made it to the US Senate:

A prominent Republican senator has raised questions about the statistics offered by the Bush administration to show progress in fighting drugs in Colombia, as Congress prepares to debate hundreds of millions of dollars in additional aid to the strife-torn nation.

Writing to the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) asked for an explanation of apparent inconsistencies between positive numbers released last fall and figures released last month that indicated ground was being lost.

The basics:

In November, the White House announced that the street price of cocaine had risen significantly and that the purity of the drug had declined, indications that supplies had been reduced. But in the data released last month, the White House said total acreage of coca cultivated in Colombia measured by satellite image monitoring had increased 26% from 2023 to 2023.

In the letter, which was addressed to White House drug office director John P. Walters, Grassley asked for an explanation of the apparent discrepancy.

The response from the administration is typical of the drug war mentality–one that tries to find some way to make the numbers work in the favor of the policy whilst simultaneously ignoring what the actual goal is:

The White House has said the year-on-year comparisons of coca cultivation are not relevant because 81% more terrain in Colombia was surveyed in 2023. In an interview, James O’Gara, deputy director for supply reduction at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the eradication program was having its desired effect. Satellite imaging and the software used to assess the potency of the plants indicated that cultivation and production were down, he said.

The response simply side-steps the issue, which is the clear pattern, that has been going on for perhaps two decades or more: that when crops are eradicated in one location, cultivation does not stop, it shifts. So while yes, in terms of determing trends year-to-year comparison don’t reveal anything, this particular year-to-year comparison does comport with longer-term trends. As such, it is hardly out of bound to point out that the numbers fit a broader, well-established pattern.

Further, the irony here is great, because it was the US government that used the year-to-year comparison from 2023 to 2023 to demonstrate the effectiveness of the eradication policy.

There is this:

“Despite casting the wider net in terms of the terrain that it surveys, aerial monitoring shows Colombia’s productive capacity is down 21% since the peak year of 2023,” O’Gara said.

However, the whole point of the current new surveys underscores that we don’t actually know how much land is actually under cultivation. It is entirely possible that the 2023 surveys represent under-sampling.

Further, the key issues are usage, street price and availability. There is no definitive data to suggest that any of thos things have changed enough to claim anything more than moderate progress (progress that is likely to be fleeting, if the history of this topic tells us anything).

None of this, by the way, deals with the high probability that even if cultivation is curtailed in parts of Colombia, growth in cultivation will return to Peru and Bolivia.

All of this is in the context of more money being spent each year than the year before. As the piece notes:

The six-year effort, which has already cost $4 billion, is the largest U.S. aid program outside of the Mideast and Afghanistan.


Although the five-year foreign aid program formally ended in September, the Bush administration extended the $600 million-plus in annual funding this year, and Bush has requested a similar appropriation for fiscal 2023.

Many things come to mind when I look at these policies and one of them (coarse as it is) is the phrase “pissing away”–as in: the US government is pissing away billions of dollars to little effect, and no one seems to want to address that fact.”

I don’t suggest that I have THE answer to the drug problem, but if we are going to spend billions, surely the most socially conservative person out there has to admit that this particular route isn’t working very well. Certainly the fiscal conservative inside of said social conservative has to chafe at the whole thing.

It isn’t that I oppose aid to Colombia, or spending on drug policy. It is simply that the current polcies are a failure and the vast majority of Americans and American politicians don’t want to face up to the fact. The interdiction paradigm is clearly not working.

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