A conversation with the governor of Putumayo Plan Colombia rolls cocaine prices back to 2004 levels. Hooray?
Nov 142005

While on a visit to Colombia last week, Drug Czar John Walters said that his office will soon announce data indicating that supplies of cocaine in the United States are going down. He did not indicate whether that means that prices have gone up and purities have dropped, or whether he is using some other measure.

This may be the case. The question will be: have prices risen above the levels they had attained in 1999, before Plan Colombia and massive aerial herbicide fumigation began? Or have we merely crawled back to where things stood when Plan Colombia started?

Here’s what I mean – the average price of a gram of cocaine on U.S. streets, according to figures compiled by the Drug Czar’s office (the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, or ONDCP), fell steadily from 1999 to 2003, even while fumigation was expanding rapidly. (Eradication presumably should make the product scarcer, and thus more expensive.)

Average price of a gram of cocaine in

1998: $132.09
1999: $135.51
2000: $161.28
2001: $168.39
2002: $124.54
2003: $106.54

That sharp drop in 2002 and 2003, quite frankly, doesn’t make sense. It’s never been clear why the price of cocaine might have dropped so sharply – to all-time record lows – in the midst of a stepped-up anti-drug effort. It’s reasonable to expect some correction in the market – a rise in price back to a level somewhere between 1999 ($135) 2000 ($160). If the Drug Czar’s figures do not show an increase beyond what we saw five or six years ago, then he has not proven that fumigation has had any effect on supply.

Drug Czar Walters said something else remarkable, though, that deserves comment. According to Agénce France Presse, while giving a joint press conference with Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos, Walters offered a defense of the U.S. policy of fumigating hundreds of thousands of acres each year with herbicides sprayed from aircraft. “Round-Up” – the mixture of the herbicide glyphosate with other chemicals to make it adhere to leaves – “is the safest herbicide in use worldwide,” Walters said. He added: 

There are two reasons why people are opposed to its use. First, because they are ignorant about this fact. The other reason why they say that glyphosate is dangerous is because they support terrorism and narcotraffickers.

Yes indeed: another gratuitious use of the terrorist threat to attack one’s political enemies. It’s not only offensive, it’s getting boring. But wait – was Walters referring to people like us?

CIP Colombia Program staff have spent years following the research on the health and environmental effects of Round-Up, including several visits to areas where people have been sprayed. So we can’t be ignorant. That must make us, according to the U.S. Drug Czar, supporters of terrorism and narcotrafficking. Mr. Walters didn’t allow for any third choice.

If only the picture were as clear as the Drug Czar makes it out to be. Since the spring, U.S. officials have been pointing to a U.S.-funded study carried out by the OAS counter-drug agency, CICAD, which mostly gives the fumigation program a clean bill of health. Never mind that Colombia’s National University and others immediately came out with strong critiques of the OAS methodology. Never mind that other recent science points to glyphosate doing great harm to amphibians. The message from the White House is: if you don’t believe the CICAD findings, you’re either a dupe or a willing accomplice of narco-terrorists.

My own estimation? I’m no scientist, but I have traveled to several fumigated areas (in Guaviare, Putumayo and Nariño), I’ve talked to people who have been fumigated, leaders of the communities they belong to (both elected and religious), and local doctors and health officials. From that experience, I’m at least convinced that fumigation is giving people severe gastrointestinal, respiratory and skin-irritation illnesses that last for a week or two.

Another unscientific reason why I suspect there may be something to the locals’ health claims can be found in your neighborhood garden store. This is a scan of a label from a bottle of Roundup I bought at my neighborhood Home Depot back in 2003. (It did a great job killing weeds that had sprouted in between bricks near the roof of our very old Washington rowhouse.) Note the parts highlighted in yellow.

Wash hands thoroughly after handling? Keep people and pets out of the area until the spray has dried? These are not anything like the conditions under which small farmers and their homes are sprayed in Colombia, where the herbicide mixture is several times more potent than what you can buy in a U.S. retail store. The planes come, and you had better get out of the way, if you can. The parts about avoiding drift and keeping the spray from water are also interesting. Even the OAS-CICAD study cites harm done by spraying the herbicide over shallow standing water.

But don’t take our word against Drug Czar Walters’. Instead, read some of the many reports questioning the program’s health and environmental effects that have been produced over the last few years. A big sample of reports that can be found online is listed below.

If the Drug Czar’s best response to these experts is to dismiss them as narco-terrorist supporters, then he has lost the argument, by a landslide. Unfortunately there appears to be quite a time lag between losing the argument and actually seeing a change in policy.

3 Responses to “Drug Czar: fumigation opponents support narcoterrorists”

  1. jcg Says:

    That’s simply impressive, in detail at least, though as is known, the point’s long been made by many different people in many different ways.

    Unfortunately, it’s been made usually without much practical success, given the truth in the last phrase above.

  2. Paquita Says:

    I want to tell the Czar that I had a wonderful friend in Colombia. He was so ignorant that he entered at university when he was 13 years old, he was a veterinary at 18. He was against fumigations because he saw the damages in his everyday life, on animals, biodiversity, human health, poverty and forced displacement. He was killed by the AUC, the biggest narcotraffickers.
    Maybe there are more alternatives…

  3. Paquita Says:

    I want to tell the Czar that I had a wonderful friend in Colombia. He was so ignorant that he entered at university when he was 13 years old, he was a veterinary at 18. He was against fumigations because he saw the damages in his everyday life, on animals, biodiversity, human health, poverty and forced displacement. He was killed by the AUC, the biggest narcotraffickers.
    Maybe there are more alternatives…

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