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July 2, 2008 -- New York Times (NY)

Editorial: Not Winning The War On Drugs

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According to the White House, this country is scoring big wins in the war on drugs, especially against the cocaine cartels. Officials celebrate that cocaine seizures are up -- leading to higher prices on American streets. Cocaine use by teenagers is down, and, officials say, workplace tests suggest adult use is falling.

John Walters, the White House drug czar, declared earlier this year that "courageous and effective" counternarcotics efforts in Colombia and Mexico "are disrupting the production and flow of cocaine."

This enthusiasm rests on a very selective reading of the data. Another look suggests that despite the billions of dollars the United States has spent battling the cartels, it has hardly made a dent in the cocaine trade.

While seizures are up, so are shipments. According to United States government figures, 1,421 metric tons of cocaine were shipped through Latin America to the United States and Europe last year -- 39 percent more than in 2006. And despite massive efforts at eradication, the United Nations estimates that the area devoted to growing coca leaf in the Andes expanded 16 percent last year. The administration disputes that number.

The drug cartels are not running for cover.

Mexico and parts of Central America are being swept up in drug-related violence. Latin Americans are becoming heavy consumers of cocaine, and traffickers are opening new routes to Europe through fragile West African countries. Some experts argue that the rising price of cocaine on American streets is mostly the result of a strong euro and fast-growing demand in Europe.

Workplace drug tests notwithstanding, cocaine use in the United States is not falling. About 2.5 percent of Americans used cocaine at least once in 2006, the same percentage as in 2002, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

While cocaine use has fallen among younger teenagers, 12th graders are using more: 5.2 percent used cocaine last year -- up from 4.8 percent in 2001 and 3.1 percent at the low point in 1992, says a Monitoring the Future survey done by the University of Michigan.

All this suggests serious problems with a strategy that focuses overwhelmingly on disrupting the supply of drugs while doing far too little to curb domestic demand.

Washington spent $1.4 billion on drug-related foreign assistance last year -- mostly to equip Colombia's security forces and spray coca crops in the Andes. It spent another $7 billion on drug-related law enforcement and interdiction efforts at home and abroad. It spent less than $5 billion on education, prevention and treatment programs at home to curtail substance abuse.

The counternarcotics effort has produced some successes. Marijuana use in the United States has declined since 2002, the earliest year for which the government has comparable data. Teenage use of other drugs, like methamphetamine, has fallen sharply. With American aid, Colombia's armed forces have severely weakened the FARC guerrillas, a major player in the drug trade.

The next administration should continue to help Latin American governments take on the traffickers. But it must learn from the current strategy's shortcomings.

Eradication efforts are most likely to have more success if more money is spent on programs to wean coca growers from the business and improve the lives of their families and communities. Mexico, in particular, is in deep trouble, and the next American president should build on the Bush administration's plans to provide counternarcotics aid. There needs to be a different mix: less money for equipment for security forces and more for economic development and programs to reform and strengthen Mexico's judicial system.

Above all, the next administration must put much more effort into curbing demand -- spending more on treating drug addicts and less on putting them in jail. Drug courts, which sentence users to treatment, still deal only with a small minority of drug cases and should be vastly expanded. Drug-treatment programs for imprisoned drug abusers, especially juvenile offenders, must also be expanded.

Over all, drug abuse must be seen more as a public health concern and not primarily a law enforcement problem. Until demand is curbed at home, there is no chance of winning the war on drugs.

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