Reading the Coca Leaves

If you skip over the first few paragraphs of partisan sniping, John Tierney makes some sense. Our phony drug war continues to sap resources, domestically, and internationally, and doesn't seem to have an end in sight, nor any real success. Plants shouldn't be deemed illegal by governments.

John Tierney: Reading the Coca Leaves ... [Evo Morales of Bolivia] held up a small green coca leaf, and when he talked about international drug policies, he made more sense than anyone in the United States government.

We’ve sacrificed soldiers’ lives and spent billions of dollars trying to stop peasants from growing coca in the Andes and opium in Afghanistan and other countries. But the crops have kept flourishing, and in America the street price of cocaine and heroin has plummeted in the past two decades.

Meanwhile, we’ve been helping terrorists and other enemies abroad. The Senate has voted to send Afghanistan more money for programs to harass opium growers, whose discontent is already being exploited by the resurgent Taliban. In the Andes, American drug policies made Bolivians so mad that they elected Morales, a former leader of the coca growers, who campaigned for president on the kind of anti-American rhetoric he spouted this week.

At the U.N., he denounced “the colonization of the Andean peoples” by imperialists intent on criminalizing coca. “It has been demonstrated that the coca leaf does no harm to human health,” he said, a statement that’s much closer to the truth than Washington’s take on these leaves. The white powder sold on the streets of America is dangerous because it’s such a concentrated form of cocaine, but just about any substance can be perilous at a high enough dose.

South Americans routinely drink coca tea and chew coca leaves. The tiny amount of cocaine in the leaves is a mild stimulant and appetite suppressant that isn’t more frightening than coffee or colas — in fact, it might be less addictive than caffeine, and on balance it might even be good for you. When the World Health Organization asked scientists to investigate coca in the 1990’s, they said it didn’t seem to cause health problems and might yield health benefits.

But American officials fought against the publication of the report and against the loosening of restrictions on coca products, just as they’ve resisted proposals to let Afghan farmers sell opium to pharmaceutical companies instead of to narco-traffickers allied with the Taliban. The American policy is to keep attacking the crops, even if that impoverishes peasants — or, more typically, turns them into criminals.

Drug prohibition in Bolivia and Afghanistan has done exactly what alcohol prohibition did in America: it has financed organized crime.

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The only workable solution is to repeal prohibition. Give Afghan poppy growers a chance to sell opium for legal painkilling medicines; give Andean peasants a legal international market for their crops in products like gum, lozenges, tea and other drinks. As Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance proposes, “Put the coca back in Coca-Cola.”

That’s what Morales wants, too, and he’s right to complain about American imperialists criminalizing a substance that has been used for centuries in the Andes. If gringos are abusing a product made from coca leaves, that’s a problem for America to deal with at home. The most cost-effective way is through drug treatment programs, not through futile efforts to cut off the supply.

America makes plenty of things that are bad for foreigners’ health — fatty Big Macs, sugary Cokes, deadly Marlboros — but we’d never let foreigners tell us what to make and not make. The Saudis can fight alcoholism by forbidding the sale of Jack Daniels, but we’d think they were crazy if they ordered us to eradicate fields of barley in Tennessee.

They’d be even crazier if they tried to wipe out every field of barley in the world, but that’s what our drug policy has come to.

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on September 23, 2006 10:11 AM.

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