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June 17, 2008 -- New Statesman (UK)

Editorial: The Failing War On Drugs

By Hugh O'Shaughnessy

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

US presidents rarely attack the really dangerous drugs of alcohol and tobacco and meanwhile efforts to reduce Colombia's drugs harvest are making little difference

Failure continues to dog President Bush as he finishes his disappointing European tour and returns home to watch his second term in office agonisingly dragging to its tragic conclusion.

Failure to improve the lot of the ordinary man in his own increasingly divided country; failure in his relations with his allies; failure in Iraq and Afghanistan; failure to master his adversities from Cuba to North Korea; failure to control Israeli aggression against their neighbours; and what surely must be the impending failure of his party to win the US presidential election. Now it's a big US failure in Colombia, the predictable -- and long predicted -- failure of the unwinnable "war on drugs" that Bush has pursued so sedulously. The details, says the Reuters news agency, will come out from the United Nations tomorrow, June 18.

One must here hastily remind unwary readers that the phrase "war on drugs" is a choice bit of politician's mumbo-jumbo. The three words don't, of course, mean what they say. What successive United States presidents, and other gullible or scheming leaders who imitate them, have been attacking is not the major drugs, the really dangerous drugs which reduce the lives of millions to misery.

No. The alcohol and tobacco which hospitalise people around the world, eat away at the vital organs, such as the livers and lungs of otherwise healthy men and women and eventually kill them are not attacked with the ferocity which they deserve. There is no move against the vineyards of the Napa Valley and the tobacco fields of Virginia, no suggestion by Bush in Paris this month that the French government that it order the grapes growing around Chateau Petrus or for the Widow Clicquot in Champagne to be ploughed in.

But the US goes on struggling to get the coca bushes which produce cocaine ripped up in Colombia. And this despite the fact that the best guesses of the United Nations suggest that about half humankind -- including me -- consumes alcohol and at least one in five uses tobacco. (In the slippery twilight world of drugs best guesses are all you have got to help you.)

But hardworking US taxpayers, whose government refuses to give them the health care which is seen as a right in countries rich and poor from Scotland to Cuba, have been financing a futile effort to eliminate the production of narcotics which are indulged in by a relatively small, even tiny, proportion of our fellow human beings. Only something between 3.3 to 4.1 per cent of us use illicit drugs and the overwhelming majority who do resort to them use cannabis.

Figures to be published in Bogota, the Colombian capital, will show that after years of effort to root out Colombia's cocaine production (and incidentally to militarise the country) is also a failure. After the "Plan Colombia" was launched by his predecessor President Clinton in January 2000 at a cost so far of $5 billion which the US budget can ill afford, the area under coca bushes in that country last year went UP very sharply indeed. From 78,000 hectares in 2006 it rose by no less than 25 per cent - yes, 25 - per cent last year to 98,000 hectares.

After all the dangerous aerial spraying of glyphosate poisons on 219,000 hectares of the Colombian countryside (and, oops, swathes of neighbouring Ecuador) with the consequent damage to the health of the peasants, their children, their beasts and the crops below there remains almost the same number of bushes as there were in 2000. Then there were 102,000 hectares; so last year's total was a bare 4,000 hectares less. Plan Colombia has been a costly exercise in dangerous futility. Its military component has also been the principal cause of no less than 3 million Colombians, the current world record in one country, being uprooted from their homes.

The leading Colombian news magazine Semana reports that, in an insulting reference to the love for chemical warfare that he shared with Saddam Hussein's cousin known as "Chemical Ali", the Colombians gave Bush's representative in Bogota, Ambassador William Wood, a special nickname. Washington's chief overseer of Plan Colombia was known behind his back as "Chemical Bill".

Chemical Bill meet Calamity George.

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