Volume 5, Number 129
15 August 2005

A Visit to the War on Drugs

Dear Friends,

I have recently returned home from a foray into the tropical lowlands of Bolivia, with some new perspectives on how the US "War on Drugs" is affecting that nation. Over the past eight years, I have visited Bolivia 25 times, initially to support training exercises for UN peacekeeping operations, and more recently to support NationLab seminars. In all these trips I have only visited the cities of La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, and Sucre, and ventured out into the countryside only in the high altiplano region, so this trip to the lowlands was a completely new experience for me. I don't claim to understand all the forces at work in this large and complex country, but I can at least convey some impressions of what I think is going on. What follows is an excerpt from my journal.

It takes 28 hours just to get from Denver to Cochabamba by air, including an exhausting overnight flight from Miami to Santa Cruz. Cochabamba is a friendly little city, tucked into a bowl in the mountains at about 2500 meters altitude. The weather seems always to be clear and very dry, similar to Albuquerque or El Paso. After crashing for the night in a hotel, I take a taxicab back to the airport (total fare: $2), where a little twin-engine Beechcraft belonging to the US Embassy awaits. For the rest of the day I will be a guest of the embassy, visiting counter-drug operations sponsored primarily by US taxpayers.

We spiral upwards several times to gain enough altitude to clear the jagged black granite peaks that separate the city of Cochabamba from the lowlands. As we climb over the enormous foothills of the Andes, I can see hundreds of tiny potato farms seemingly etched into the surface of the mountains. Part of the true biological wealth of Bolivia is maintained by these farms: well over 200 distinct varieties of potatoes are grown here. We clear the ridge, and then lazily descend down towards the intense green-green-green of the jungle on the far valley floor.

El Trópico de Cochabamba

We land on a little military airstrip, and taxi up to a group of elderly but functional helicopters whose vintage dates back at least to the Vietnam War. What with the jungle, the remote airstrip, and the helicopters, I can't help wondering for a moment if I have flown through a time warp, back into that dreadful war on the other side of the world.

A Briefing

We are met by the Bolivian commander of the task force charged with eradicating coca from the region known as El Trópico de Cochabamba. For those unfamiliar with coca, it is the plant from which cocaine is made, and has nothing whatsoever to do with cocoa. This region of Bolivia is the ultimate source of about as much cocaine as is consumed every year in the entire United States, though these days most of the local crop is actually processed and consumed in countries closer to Bolivia.

The Bolivian colonel delivers a crisp military briefing, with charts and graphs showing progress in coca eradication. On the surface it looks quite successful, but it is easy to read between the lines to understand what is not being said: despite all of the extensive eradication of coca fields, the Bolivian coca eradication program, a key element of the US government's "War on Drugs," is barely making a dent in the local coca crop.

No surprise here, I think, especially for those like me who are parents of high school and college kids. We have learned the hard way that our schools are flooded with cocaine and indeed an entire cornucopia of illegal drugs. This is a sad and bitter truth for my friends in a dozen agencies who daily put their lives on the line in the continuing attempt to protect our nation's youth by reducing the influx of illegal drugs.

Strategic Follies

Making war on a supply chain makes perfect sense in the context of military combat, but when the supply chain feeds an underground market, and when the demand for these goods is insensitive to price, then the war becomes self-defeating. Here's why, in brief: using the military to reduce the supply causes the price to increase, which encourages farmers to grow more coca, wherever the military is not operating. Three factors greatly complicate the task of the military and police:

  • Coca is so easily grown that it is better described as a weed than a crop, and it grows well in extremely isolated parts of the world. Illegal coca plantings tend to be small, widely dispersed, and expensive to find.
  • Coca leaf is a traditional and effective Andean remedy for altitude sickness, so it cannot be fully criminalized. In effect, the only serious penalty for growing illegal coca in Bolivia is destruction of the coca plants. Possession of harvested coca leaf is legal in Bolivia.
  • The street demand for cocaine is not very sensitive to price — even when the price goes up dramatically, cocaine addicts only slowly curtail their usage.

The increased price that results from eradication of coca not only roughly compensates farmers for their losses, in aggregate, but it also results in more coca plantings elsewhere. This is why I and so many others say that the "War on Drugs" is self-defeating.

The logic driving our efforts seems still to be based on a simple-minded kind of moral reasoning, roughly as follows: "Drugs are Evil, so we must make war on those who manufacture and distribute them."

From an economic point of view this attempt to guide strategy by good-vs-evil morality is worse than silly, it is just dead wrong. The good folks here in Bolivia know this, I know it, the US military has learned it, American think-tanks like RAND Corporation have confirmed it, and a lot of politicians in Washington now know it too. Yet few if any of our political leaders are brave enough to explain this to the American people.


Many people have come to believe that the only viable alternative to a campaign against the supply of narcotics is an equal-sized effort to reduce the demand. How to do this is subject to debate, but at the very least it will require public support for spending billions on an approach based on public health, addict rehabilitation, prison reform, and some degree of decriminalization. A change in strategy along these lines has already begun in some countries of Europe, but what are the chances of this happening in the USA and other consumer nations? Zero to none, in the present political climate. However, back to my story.

We eat lunch in an open-air pavilion on the grounds of a beautiful hotel, with river and mountain views. The owner of the hotel tells me that she is part of a local effort to attract tourists to the area. I am surprised, but it looks like they might be succeeding. There are actual tourists roaming around, right here at ground zero of the "War on Drugs," literally in the middle of a desultory low-intensity conflict. They are Bolivians and Brazilians and Chileans, attracted by the ecological wonderland and friendly people. If El Trópico de Cochabamba can attract tourists even while a conflict is going on, maybe it has a future after all!

My last visit of the day is to a large open-air structure, built (so says the decaying sign) by the European Union as a gift to the people of El Trópico de Cochabamba. It is a market place where locals can sell non-coca produce, like oranges, mangos, and pineapples. Frankly, I don't think that it is succeeding. It appears to be an example that confirms the cold statistics that anyone can pull down from the internet. Alternative crop substitution — the darling concept of any number of well-meaning foreign aid programs — is just not working, and for obvious economic reasons. Imposed solutions rarely work in this business, especially when their profits are pathetic when compared to illegal coca.

Related Letters
#3: The Drug War

There is little conversation on the return flight, back over the rocky ridge and down into the city of Cochabamba.


In letters to come over the following months I intend to return to the "War on Drugs" repeatedly, to ponder each facet of this complex issue. It is at once social, political, economic, cultural, medical, and psychological — just the kind of problem I like best. To those who wish their problems to be nicely packaged with instant plans of action, I urge patience. Above all, I urge restraint in jumping to conclusions. The Quaker Economist will examine this issue from many different angles, slowly and deliberately, before proposing a concrete plan of action. This letter is the first step.

Sincerely your friend,

Loren Cobb


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I think this is only one among many places where the Good vs Evil mentality is failing. I spent many years teaching adolescent sex education and the basics of both "the plumbing" (as we called it), and pregnancy prevention. The efforts of my locally recruited, native-born and highly motivated staff were rewarded with (according to Johns Hopkins, who was partially funding and monitoring the program) a very high success rate — better than a 30% reduction in teen pregnancies, teen abortions and sexually transmitted diseases in the teen-aged population of the area where we were located (the Eastern Shore of Maryland). But the local evangelical Christian community saw to it that we were defunded by the State Health Department, our primary sponsor, because we were corrupting young people with "information they didn't need."

— Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasville, Georgia.

I hope you will look hard at the ramifications of decriminalization. When I worked in India at the Friends Centre in Old Delhi, 1960-62, our cook, Jacquin, was a heroin addict. He got his regular allotment from the government, wasn't involved in crime, rarely missed a day of work, and supported his family.

Secondly, it's somewhat ironic that the US "saved Afghanistan" in a crusade of good vs. evil, and consequently allowed the poppy growers back in business to produce what is now 3/4 of the world's supply, with the US being a major market.

— Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.

It's great that you're thinking/writing about drugs. It seems like an enormous issue: probably a huge tax on society (the thought of society having to spend about $70,000 per year to jail each drug offender, and the thought of all the money that must be spent on police work related to illegal drugs cross my mind), an awful drag on poor inner-city people — lives lost, lives hurt by felony convictions (I think I read that about one-third of black males between about age 16 and 45 have spent some time in prison), lives hurt/wasted/wrecked by drug use, etc. BIG TOPIC!

— John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.

Loren: thanks for your fine reporting. Even though we "know" these truths it is good to hear from someone who has been there and shares our outlook. It is a terrible thing to learn all the things that are killing our society, and to know there is possibly little we can do to turn the tide.

— Maurice Boyd, Friends Meeting of Washington.

Reply: I appreciate the support and kind words, but the "War on Drugs" is hardly killing our society. Just as Prohibition ended, after many years of corrosive effects, so too will this modern version. The situation is far from hopeless, and there is much that can be done to hasten the day. The opinion leaders in this matter are the so-called "law-and-order" conservatives: persuade them, and the rest of the country will follow. — Loren

Good for you for taking on the drug war issue. I cannot for the life of me, as a longtime Republican, understand why my free-markets party seems not to recognize that markets always work their way — underground in the informal economy if not in the open in the formal economy.

The more government tries to interdict on the supply side, the greater the risk and cost for the suppliers and the higher the market price becomes — with higher and higher profits for those smart enough to outwit the system, encouraging, as you point out, more and more production to compensate for some of the supply that is interdicted. Higher profit margins allow more R&D on new products and new ways to outwit the feds.

Taxing a legal supply of drugs, would seem to be far preferable to the present system — then take the revenues generated by the tax to focus on reducing demand here at home. Demand reduction is vital. It is not fair for us in the rich world to insist that those in the poor world bear the cost and burden of trying to save ourselves from ourselves. Remember those great TV and radio ads from the Advertising Council when media were required to give equal time on cigarette smoking? We still have cigarette smokers, but they are not the hazard they used to be. We still have too many deaths on the highway caused by drunk drivers, and broken families due to alcoholism, but we're far better off and less corrupt than if the Volstead Act were still in place.

I look forward to more of your letters on this touchy subject — and hope your readers will stick with you!

— Gordon Johnson.

A hearty thanks to Loren Cobb for some field observations of what Libertarians frequently refer to as "The Insane War on Drugs." It brought to mind a conversation I had some twenty years ago with the US Attorney in Cincinnati, OH. In private conversation, the US Attorney told me that if drugs were legalized for adults in the United States, he did not think drug usage would increase significantly. He was confident, however, that with sufficient effort, of which vigorous law enforcement was an integral part, we could greatly reduce illegal drug use. Well, he has had his "War on Drugs," and I think even he would have to admit that it has not enjoyed success by the standard he set. But the pernicious effects of the "War on Drugs" continue unabated.

— Larry Sherwood, Wilmington (DE) Monthly Meeting.


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting, Editor.
  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2005 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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