Change drug war targets

August 17, 2000|By Mike Tidwell

WASHINGTON -- An air of hypocrisy surrounds President Clinton's decision to visit Colombia later this month to show his personal concern for that nation's increasingly bloody -- and expensive -- war against narco-guerrillas.

The guerrillas now control more than a third of that South American nation because of improved weaponry and a strategy of brazen terrorist attacks. Mr. Clinton's scheduled visit, in turn, is meant to underscore the importance of America's $1.3 billion aid package to the embattled Colombian government, a package approved by Congress in July and freighted mostly with military aid.

But as Mr. Clinton now reiterates America's commitment to stopping the hemispheric drug trade and its violence, his words ring increasingly hollow. That's because U.S. drug policies in South America and on the streets of U.S. cities like Baltimore and Washington -- I've worked in the nation's capital for the past 10 years as a drug counselor -- have led directly to the mess in Colombia.

In a very real way, the United States is arming both sides in the Colombian conflict while simultaneously encouraging a rate of addiction to crack and heroin in America that makes the Colombian war inevitable.

Here's how: In recent years, the United States has largely succeeded in shutting down coca cultivation in Bolivia and Peru. But as demand for cocaine remains high on the United States, cultivation has simply shifted to Colombia, with prices climbing because of the reduction in supply.

This has poured millions of additional dollars into the pockets of Colombia's biggest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which largely controls the drug trade there. With more money, the rebels are coming closer and closer to toppling the Colombian government.

To prevent this, the new U.S. aid package provides nearly $1 billion in anti-drug support to Colombia in 2001, including nearly 1,000 U.S. troops and advisers and 60 helicopters to help deploy U.S.-trained battalions of Colombian soldiers.

Our policy, then, is to further militarize the Colombian government in order to combat rebel operations which are expanding as a direct result of our policies. We're arming both sides.

Now, switch to the inner-city streets of America.

The same policies tearing South America apart play themselves out in only slightly different fashion here. I've seen this working with homeless crack and heroin addicts in drug-ridden Washington neighborhoods.

The dealers at 14th Street and Park Road NW, to choose just one market, are local suppliers. They form a sort of miniature Peru, offering a product desired by users but declared illegal and the target of enforcement by the U.S. government -- in this case the local police and their increasingly militarized special narcotics units.

Targeting petty users and street dealers is the centerpiece of our national war on drugs, so officers raid, badger, arrest and jail the dealers at 14th and Park Road until the market collapses.

But attacking local supply without addressing demand guarantees that drug markets and drug sales won't cease. They simply move to another block momentarily untargeted by police raids. With more raids and arrests, this new market will collapse too and move again, and again and again. It's a mobile supply base just like the one in South America -- Peru to Bolivia to Colombia -- made possible by unchanging demand.

Unfortunately, the relocation of American street markets frequently means a market enters a previously unaffected neighborhood, bringing with it all the attendant violence and mayhem of the drug trade.

Here's the bottom line: Virtually every inner-city neighborhood in America is guaranteed, sooner or later, to have a drug market on its sidewalks, just as every Andean nation seems destined, sooner or later, to be the hemisphere's prime coca producer. Ecuador and Venezuela now wait terrified while American-supplied planes spray pesticides on Colombia's newly productive coca fields.

The war on U.S. streets also increases the risk of addiction by casting a wider net than would otherwise be spread, reeling in child addicts who stood a better chance staying drug-free until police -- however inadvertently -- pushed a market onto their block, hyper-exposing him to crack.

Again, I've seen this phenomenon by working in many of Washington's worst affected neighborhoods. Every new addict, in turn, creates more pressure for more supply from South America, wreaking havoc here and there. It's all interconnected.

In the end, demand -- whether casual use or outright addiction -- is the fundamental issue from which all other ills evolve, from the thug shootings 10 blocks from the White House to the kidnappings and mass executions in Colombia's Putamayo jungle.

Unless and until we address demand at home with adequate treatment and a response strategy that treats drug use as a public health issue instead of a criminal justice issue, we will continue to do much more harm than good in the war on drugs.

Our options are simple: Decriminalize drugs as a first step toward complete legalization or continue our national policy of blaming all our troubles on nonviolent drug addicts in our midst and peasant coca growers 3,000 miles away.

Mike Tidwell is a writer for the DKT Liberty Project in Washington and author of "In the Shadow of the White House: Death, Drugs, and Redemption on the Streets of the Nation's Capital" (Prima Publishing, 1992).

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