Cocaine was first discovered in 1860 by Albert Niemann, a German chemist who identified it as the active chemical compound in the coca leaf. Before 1914, when cocaine was still legal in the United States, it was consumed primarily as an ingredient in tonics, ointments, wines, and other products. It was the original “Coca” in Coca-Cola. Vin Mariani, a well-known coca wine, had the face of Pope Leo XIII on its label. Leo and his successor, Pope Pius X, were both fans of the drink. During the temperance movement, however, cocaine was banned along with other drugs in the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. Over the next few decades, its use dropped significantly in America as amphetamines started to become more popular.
In the late 1970s, however, the use of cocaine began to rise again. Instead of being an ingredient in various products, though, people were ingesting the drug straight up their noses as a powder, a method that had far more intense effects for the user. Just as alcohol prohibition led to the consumption of alcohol in more dangerous ways, the prohibition of coca eventually led to a trend of ingesting the drug in ways that were baffling to South Americans, where chewing on coca leaves or brewing them in tea has been commonplace for many generations.
As this far more potent way of ingesting cocaine became more widespread, addictions and overdoses continued to grab headlines throughout the 1980s. With the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Congress and the President were given unprecedented leeway to allocate military resources to fight this “epidemic” where they mistakenly believed was its source – South American coca fields.
Nations where coca was being grown, like Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia, initially rejected the idea of allowing the United States to use its military to eradicate it. Coca had cultural value in the regions where it was grown, and had long been a very useful stimulant for people living at high altitudes. But eventually, they found reasons to get on board.
In Colombia, the government had been fighting left-wing radical groups like FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, for decades. As cocaine use grew in the late 1970s, FARC found ways to profit from it – both by providing protection for traffickers and from participating in trafficking directly. It led to an explosion in their fighting capacity and their ability to buy off government officials. FARC and other formerly inconsequential groups became serious threats to Bogota. In Peru, the anti-government group Shining Path also found ways to profit from the illegal trade and gain unprecedented power.
The tentativeness over the unbalanced way America was expecting South American countries to wage the drug war for them subsided, and governments began to make requests for military equipment and other assistance to fight these groups. The ideological battle over how to properly deal with the drug habits of Americans just wasn’t as urgent as stopping their own regimes from being overthrown.
In Central America, where ruling regimes were far more fragile, the battle to disrupt drug trafficking routes often did result in complete government overthrows. The solution from the United States was the same as elsewhere, to use military force to defeat the groups involved in drug trafficking. But the mindsets of those in power who received military aid were often more interested in holding on to their power than in disrupting the flow of cocaine. As a result, we ended up with allies like Manuel Noriega of Panama, who was praised for his cooperation while secretly being on the other side of the drug war. In 1989, President Bush invaded Panama to depose him.
Throughout the 1980s, the CIA became more and more involved with fighting the drug trade, but their role became quite convoluted the deeper they sank into the quagmire. Initially, the legislation introduced during the Reagan years intended for the CIA to assist in drug interdiction, but as they waged it, they realized that most of the people caught transporting drugs were expendable and would be quickly replaced if captured or killed. As a result, they began targeting only those at the very top of the trade. But in order to capture those folks, though, they would often have to become undercover participants in the trade themselves. In the end, they discovered that even the people at the top are quickly replaced or, even worse, they were just pawns – taking out the rivals of corrupt government officials who were also secretly participating in the trade. Clusterfuck accomplished.
The conflicts that South America’s drug war got us entangled in were often battles between a mostly European ruling class and an indigenous underclass. Coca farming had long been a way of life in Bolivia’s indigenous Chapare region. In 1986, the United States conducted Operation Blast Furnace, the first time American troops (along with six Black Hawk helicopters) were used in an eradication effort on the continent. While not as major a cocaine exporter as Colombia, drug traffickers had far more influence in Bolivian politics, taking power once in 1980 and staging another failed coup attempt in 1984.
The battles continued throughout the 90s, sucking up billions of taxpayer dollars and doing nothing to reduce the amount of cocaine coming into the United States. In fact, by the year 2000, Colombian coca production had increased to an area of 163,000 hectares. There was little difference between the Bush and Clinton Administrations when it came to dealing with coca production. As their failures mounted, their tactics simply became more extreme.
By the time the Clinton Administration introduced Plan Colombia in 2000, spraying a glyphosate-based herbicide from airplanes on suspected coca and poppy fields had become the standard tactic for trying to solve America’s drug addiction problems. Peruvian leaders Alan Garcia and Alberto Fujimori complained throughout the 1990s that they couldn’t support America’s drug eradication efforts unless they put more emphasis on helping farmers grow alternate crops. The aerial eradication solution didn’t leave much room for that. America’s unwillingness to budge on how their battle with drug traffickers should be waged started to isolate those who stood by us. A failed policy was about to be shifted into overdrive.
As expected, the $5 billion Plan Colombia did nothing to reduce the amount of cocaine coming into the United States. In fact, while the amount of acreage where eradication took place increased rapidly, coca production stayed steadily above 80,000 hectares every year, which doesn’t even take into account how farmers have adapted to produce more with less land. To emphasize the magnitude of the failure, the price of cocaine in the United States continued its decades-long decrease, even as the prices of many of our basic needs – from health care to energy costs to food – had been going up. The failure of Plan Colombia has been so stark that a Republican, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, strongly chastised the Drug Czar’s office recently for trying to claim otherwise.
Despite this record, the Colombian government of Alvaro Uribe remains one of the few remaining defenders of American drug policy in the region, and it’s no surprise why. Our military assistance over the years has allowed for FARC to be greatly minimized in their influence, even if there’s been no impact on the amount of drugs being grown there and being sent to the United States. There’s also mounting evidence that pro-Uribe right-wing paramilitaries are now profiting from drug trafficking.
The recently proposed trade agreement with Colombia had been pushed by President Bush as a reward to an ally. They’ve often pointed to the battle against cocaine trafficking as justification for this close alliance, even attempting to paint Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as a supporter of drug trafficking, but there’s been no evidence to support such an accusation. Amazingly, though, the agreement’s terms were highly counterproductive to reducing cocaine production because the reduction of tariffs on imported American agricultural products will just make it even harder for Colombian farmers to find crops other than coca that they can profit from.
Outside of Colombia, though, support for how we’re waging the drug war is much worse. In Bolivia, an indigenous coca farmer from the Chapare region named Evo Morales was elected President in 2005. He was the first-ever Bolivian President with indigenous roots, and he ran on a platform that strongly rejected Bolivian cooperation with America’s drug war. His opposition continued in the face of numerous threats from the United States. In November of last year, he expelled the DEA and accused it of taking part in drug trafficking. The DEA rejects the allegations.
In Peru, a longstanding policy that allowed for the Peruvian military to shoot down suspected drug planes was ended in 2001 after a plane carrying missionaries from Michigan was shot down by a Peruvian jet. Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra, a man who no one could possibly mistake for a bleeding-heart liberal, has railed against the CIA’s attempts to operate outside of the law and for their blatant obstructionism.
This is where our South American anti-drug efforts were always bound to end up. Not only were we choosing a flawed strategy, but we also made it part of the mandate of the agency overseeing the effort not to consider alternatives. It was only a matter of time before it descended into unhinged extremism.
American demand for a drug that heightens your senses, makes you more sociable, and allows you to stay awake throughout Saturday night is never going to fade away. The right way to deal with it is to go back to where we were before 1914, where you could purchase coca tonics and other concoctions where the amount and purity of the ingredients are regulated and safe. Instead of unleashing a wave of addictions, we’ll much more likely find that Pope Pius liked his coca wine for the same reason that we like to drink Red Bull mixed with vodka these days, and that the two drinks aren’t too much different. By allowing the demand for cocaine’s effects to be satisfied in a safe and regulated manner, we can undercut the flow of money that has led to bloody conflict in South America.
Will people go overboard and drink way too many coca drinks? Certainly. Will there still be people who are addicted to cocaine in its powder form and have no interest in consuming it in far less potent forms? Absolutely. But what we’ve learned from harm reduction efforts in places like Zurich, Sydney, and Vancouver is that treating these problems as health problems is still far more effective than trying to enforce prohibitions on their use. The idea that the drug war is some giant firewall against mass addiction has long been shown to be a myth. One need only look at drug addiction rates from the late 19th century when cocaine products were legal and easily available to everyone. They are no different than they are now.
But common sense is still not allowed in the drug debate. The answer to this failed strategy is always to be more enthusiastic in implementing it. In 2005, Joe Biden pushed his latest attempt to eliminate South American coca. It was a bill that allowed for research into mycoherbicides, toxic fungi that could be deployed in coca growing areas to make it impossible to grow anything.
Despite evidence that coca and poppy plants would simply become resistant to mycoherbicides over time, and that the use of this biological weapon in the drug war could very easily lead to human casualties in the areas it was deployed, Biden worked with Utah Senator Orrin Hatch to get it passed through the Senate. Thankfully, the bill was restricted to allow for research to only be done within the United States, as the State Department, the CIA, and even the DEA thought it would be a terrible idea to use WMD’s in the drug war.