Commentary: State Department Offers More of the Same on Latin America Drug Policy 1/25/02

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Phillip S. Smith, Week Online Editor, [email protected], 1/24/02

Some people never learn, and if a recent speech by a high level State Department official is any indication, the denizens of Foggy Bottom are among them. In a January 18 speech to the World Affairs Council of America, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs William Brownfield signaled the Bush administration's intent to continue merrily down the same anti-drug path in Latin America that for the past 30 years has failed to stop drug production in the area or its smuggling to insatiable markets in the US and elsewhere. That policy, on the other hand, has succeeded in creating increases in militarization, political violence, instability, and corruption across the hemisphere.

A close reading of Brownfield's speech reveals a dogmatic commitment to current policy, combined with some comments veering dangerously close to class and race prejudice.

Brownfield told his audience that instead of plying them with a bunch of statistics, "we need to ask six questions -- first, why do we care? Second, what is the threat to the Western Hemisphere? Third, What was the response? Fourth, has it worked? Fifth, where do we go from here? And sixth, is legalization the solution? (Readers will have to hold their breath until article's end to find the answer to this one.)

The first question was easy, said Brownfield. No country can afford to be indifferent to the "scourge of illegal drugs," he said, because the drug trade is a breeding ground for corruption. Brownfield did not mention to his audience that many experts consider corruption to be a function of prohibition and black market economics, not intrinsic to the commodities in question.

Also, Brownfield noted, the drug trade distorts regional economies. "The impact of drugs, even a small amount of production, completely distorts their way of life," he said, referring to subsistence farmers. If by "distorting their way of life" Brownfield means that they are now able to feed their families, he is correct. But such remarks from a well-fed, well-placed, wealthy white man in Washington directed at poor, politically impotent, brown-skinned peasants throughout the hemisphere reek of condescension at best.

Brownfield also complained about the "lawlessness fostered by drug trafficking," which, he said, "gives rise to insurgencies from both the left and the right." Again, it is prohibition and black market economics -- in other words, US drug policy -- that turns fields of plants into booty fueling armed groups around the world.

Brownfield pointed out the impact of drugs on the US by noting the 1.5 million drug arrests annually. He failed to note that these arrests for acts that are not crimes in and of themselves are a matter of deliberate choice by policymakers. In other words, the costs associated with enforcing the drug laws in the US are self-imposed.

Focusing on Colombia, Brownfield said that country was paying the price for the "success" of coca eradication in Bolivia and Peru. "In essence, Colombia was the victim of the success of US anti-drug policies" elsewhere in the Andes, he claimed. "When we dramatically reduced illicit production in Bolivia and Peru, drug manufacturers moved their operations to Colombia." But, as DRCNet has reported, coca and opium production is returning to Peru ( and the Bolivian "success story" has had as its latest installment bloody clashes between coca-growing peasants and security forces. Brownfield has apparently not heard of the balloon effect, whereby if production is pushed down in one area, it pops up in another. Again, US anti-drug policy bumps up against the iron laws of economics. At least, Brownfield noted that events in Peru and Bolivia now "give cause for concern, if not for alarm."

Regarding Plan Colombia, Brownfield argued that "it's in the process of working." Well, yes, if you mean it has succeeded in increasing the level of political violence, but no if you mean it actually reduced coca production or increased interdiction of Colombian cocaine.

So what's next? Brownfield told his audience that the US wants to "reinforce the success of Bolivia and Peru," while preventing the spread of drug trafficking into neighboring countries. Much like the way attempting to suppress coca in Bolivia and Peru led to a huge expansion in Colombian coca production?

And let's not forget those terrorists. "After September 11, we can no longer draw distinctions between various issues affecting our national security," he said. "These issues blend together. That lesson was graphically illustrated by the events of September 11 in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania." Many terrorist cells are financed by drug trafficking, he claimed. Well, maybe, but not the ones who hit the US on September 11, as DRCNet reported (

Brownfield may have been referring to the Colombian FARC and the smaller ELN, designated by the State Department as terrorist organizations, and a major target of the government's "Plan Colombia." But the FARC, for all its kidnappings and other misdeeds, is in reality a guerrilla force involved in a long-running civil war, not a terrorist organization. The right-wing AUC paramilitaries, who field the notorious "death squads," have more properly been designated as terrorists. Yet our government has yet to come to terms with the extent to which Colombia's armed forces -- funded by the United States -- aid and abet the AUC's vile works.

"How about legalization?" Brownfield asked rhetorically. "Is that a solution? It will not surprise you to learn that my answer is no. (Readers can exhale now.) I will not bore you with a lot of moral arguments, although I think we could have a valid discussion in that context," he claimed. "But pragmatically speaking we cannot legalize drugs if we want to have a civilized society." For example, he said, no society can tolerate drug-addled bus drivers or airline pilots. Here Brownfield is guilty of a non sequitur. It simply does not follow that if drug use were legal, then driving or flying under the influence would be legal.

"Of course," Brownfield continued, "there will always be a market for illicit drugs, particularly among the inner-city underclass. The poor, who are often badly educated, and unemployed or working in low-paid jobs, who may come from broken families and have little in the way of a safety net, are the most victimized" by the drug traffic, he said.

Again, Brownfield is making ugly class and race appeals in the guise of social science pontificating. In fact, drug use levels among the inner city poor and the suburban rich or middle class are approximately equal, according to research by the federal Substance Abuse and Health Services Administration. It is true that the harms of drugs and drug trafficking do have more severe effects on poor urban environments than on wealthy suburbs. But much of that harm results from prohibition itself -- damaging as alcoholism is to some poor inner city dwellers (or wealthy suburbanites), there are no drive-by shootings over the alcohol trade in Harlem, Anacostia or anywhere else -- not since we repealed Alcohol Prohibition in the 1930s.

So, Brownfield concluded, given the success of US drug policy in Latin America so far, what is needed is more of the same. With a "long-term, integrated, and balanced approach that brings together national and international drug policies" and stresses both "law enforcement and security, and treatment for addicts," success is just around the corner -- oops, no it's not, it's a long, long, way away. Americans might not "like the concept of a war that will take 25 years to win, but I suspect that will be the case," Brownfield predicted.

It must be assumed that Brownfield was articulating the State Department position on drug policy, and what a depressing assumption that is. After leading us on one quarter-century of fruitless conflict, Brownfield and company are eager to spend another quarter-century trying to clean up the mess US drug policy helped create. These people must never have seen the movie "Traffic" or heard the phrase "thinking outside the box."

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Issue #221, 1/25/02 Editorial: Different Ways to Lie | New Afghan Government Reinstates Ban on Poppy Cultivation, Opium Dealers Cheer | Budget Woes Possible Wedge for Drug Reform, Some States Already Cutting Sentences, Prisons | Chills, Inc. Paraphernalia Bust Puts Big Chill on Industry, Pipe Makers Caught in Legal Netherworld | From Bad to Worse in Bolivia: Peasants Kill Soldiers, Government Sets Sights on Cocalero Leader Evo Morales | Two More European Voices Call for Reconsideration of Marijuana Laws | Electronic Music Organization Creating Anti-Rave Law Database | Commentary: State Department Offers More of the Same on Latin America Drug Policy | Alerts: HEA Drug Provision, Bolivia, DEA Hemp Ban, Ecstasy, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana | The Reformer's Calendar

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