Monocle: Not to be sniffed at

Original for subscribers only at Monocle.

Cocaine consumption in the US is responsible for much of the violence that takes place in its ‘backyard’. But if demand were to suddenly plummet, would the criminal gangs and middlemen simply find another racket?

In 2012, cocaine in all its guises becomes unmarketable in the US after the drug control office treats the country’s water supply with a chemical to make the very thought of the white stuff unpalatable.

If this scenario happened, would it make any difference in the war on drugs? Many Mexicans believe their nation’s violent plight is a geographical accident: the misfortune of being sandwiched between the world’s biggest producers of cocaine and the largest market.

A cure-all may seem like a far-off scenario but cocaine use is already falling in America. It was the only recreational drug that lost users in the US in 2009. In 2008, less than a quarter of drug arrests were for cocaine or heroin. However, the UN estimated that more than six million people in North America used cocaine at least once in 2008. So far the fall in demand hasn’t helped Mexico.

Few savings on health and policing would be likely to materialise if cocaine consumption slumped. Drug users would shift to other products – some of them, such as speed, even more damaging to health. Police forces have lengthy backlogs of other drug offences to work on and would never consider laying off cops. The greatest benefit might be that some recreational users move to less addictive drugs. Currently 46 per cent of rehab clients in the US have a cocaine addiction.

Mexico’s infamously violent drug gangs would not disappear. Fortified with billions of dollars and vast human resources, they would diversify and produce methamphetamines and heroin while boosting their marijuana shipments well beyond the US.

Growers and processors in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia would also start planting more opium poppies, extending a trend that began with Colombian cultivation years earlier. They would search for new customers for their remaining output, pushing coca paste and crack smoking in the fast-growing markets of the Caribbean and West Africa.

The US government might be the surprise loser. The $500m (€352m) a year of mostly military aid it gives to Colombia is marketed as drug war funding, even if some believe the real goals include containing Venezuela’s regional ambitions and maintaining a military foothold in the continent. Without cocaine, planners would be left without a pretext for involvement in the area the US has long called its “backyard”.

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About Steven Bodzin

Steven Bodzin is a reporter. He blogged when he was a freelancer.

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