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The failure of the « War on Drugs »

Sanho Tree (Institute for Policy Studies) comments on the way out of the War on Drugs and the hypocrisy of US politicians


01 / 2009

Sanho Tree is a Fellow and Director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. The project works to end the domestic and international “War on Drugs” and replace it with policies that promote public health and safety as well as economic alternatives to the prohibition drug economy.

What do the growers of illicit plantations have in common?

The thing that they have in common is that the plants they are growing happened to be declared illicit by people who don’t understand the plants, or who come from a culture that does not value them, or has incredible hypocritical policies in terms of the way they perceive danger. For example, coca in its natural state is a perfectly fine plant, you can’t abuse it, while coffee is a greater stimulant. And coffee takes a lot of vitamins and minerals out of your body while coca has a lot of nutrient. So we see that there’s a problem of double standards and global hypocrisy. Originally, when Columbus sailed across the ocean, he wasn’t just looking for gold but for spices and aphrodisiacs also. And as soon as the New World is colonized, the first thing they were producing were: sugar and rum, tobacco, coffee, chocolate - all of them drugs. The history of capitalism and colonialism is linked with drugs trade.

And prohibition is a very effective form of price support; it is a unintended crop subsidy. When we are talking about coca, poppy or cannabis, we are talking about plants that have grown wildly for million of years. They are of better quality if you cultivate them, but still there is no reason that they should be as expensive as they are in the black market: a few years ago the price of one ounce of marijuana was the same as one ounce of gold.

Mr. Costa, the Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), has said this week that the illicit economy from drug money is keeping the world banking system alive. He didn’t present any data, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was true.

How is the War on Drugs doing today?

If you look at the decisions coming from Washington, it seems as there is a consensus on the War on Drugs, but that’s wrong. This policy is not backed by the population. The American people generally don’t believe that the War on Drugs will ever work. The problem is they don’t know what to replace it with, so the drug warriors are able to exploit that fear. The great myth about prohibition is that it allows you to control those substances more efficiently. It’s not true; you actually decide not to regulate them, therefore the criminal elements regulate the market. We need more control on those substances, tax and quality control, honest education. Right now, the most popular education method on drugs is based on scare tactics, but kids are smart enough to discover the truth, and so they don’t listen when they are advised on more dangerous substances like methamphetamine.

I think there will be change, probably not soon, but Obama has the kind of experience to understand the drug issues as a community organizer in a poor part of Chicago.

In California, in the last ten years, it has become easier and easier to get marijuana, it’s almost a joke. And we have seen that the general public understand that and simply don’t care. It’s a very important state: it’s the 8th economy in the world, and the world has followed their example on a lot of things already.

Today in the USA, there are 2.3 million people in jail, 25% of the world prisoners, and one quarter of them is convicted for non-violent drug offenses. It’s an embarrassment to people who know this statistics, and a very expensive system to keep running if you have a sick economy. Today people will have to think about whether it’s really worth it.

Is there a way out of the War on Drugs?

It’s very difficult to explain why the drug war should end, because the solution to these problems are counter-intuitive. That is to say that the answer is the opposite of the obvious answer. Being tough on drugs can be counter-effective because you have all those unintended consequences: you are creating a price support that drives more people and criminal elements into the economy, for one thing. So a lot of members of the United States Congress understand this issue. A lot of them would privately agree with me, but publicly they are afraid because it could cost their election. The solution to this stalemate is suggested by a line from Oscar Wilde: “If you give a man a mask, he will tell you the truth”. If you had a non-binding secret vote, a “straw poll”, we could have a good indication on what the honest sentiment in the room is. The party leadership would not know how each congressman has voted, people who elected him would not know, the people who give him the money for the campaign would not either, no one. So he could be honest and cast the vote according to his conscience, decide what’s best for the country and the next generation, and the generations down the line who never get representation. I call it the “theory of distributed responsibility”.

So if it comes out that three quarter of Congress thinks that fumigation in Colombia is stupid, or that ban on needle exchange is wrong, it would become easy for any member of Congress to speak out publicly against it. That’s how you cut the gordian knot: you can use a straw poll to start a stampede, because politicians are like herd animals, like buffalo; they run in group. You could use that in the UN, specially in those votes where countries are afraid of reprisal from the USA or other countries. As the election of the Secretary General is a secret ballot or the election of the Pope. There is a good reason to keep some things secret. It’s very counter-intuitive that you get more effective and better policies if you have less accountability in Congress. But it’s just a temporary mask.


geopolítica da drogra, guerra e economia, agricultura ilícita

, Estados Unidos da América


Fórum Mundial dos Produtores de Culturas Declaradas Ilegais


This interview was realised during the Ist Global Congress of Producers of Crops Declared Illegal, 29-31 January, 2009, Barcelona.



Interview with Sanho Tree, Drug Policy Project, Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

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