A good week for hard-liners More slime thrown at human-rights NGOs
Sep 162008

Trying to make the U.S. “war on drugs” appear to be successful has always required its proponents to perform some serious massaging of the numbers.

Statistics about drug production, supply and demand consistently bring bad news – or at least reasons for strong concern. Yet U.S. officials insist on parsing the results, looking for the silver lining in the big gray stormclouds: pieces of data that can at least give the impression that some progress is being made, when it clearly is not.

The latest example comes from two recent press releases from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP, the office of the “drug czar”), in which some very troubling data undergoes some very serious shiatsu.

In the first, the ONDCP makes an announcement that used to occur in June or July: the amount of coca estimated to have been under cultivation in Colombia during the previous year. The press release finds that coca-growing in Colombia increased in 2007, to 167,000 hectares (from 157,200 in 2006; a hectare is about 2 1/2 acres). That is just 2,800 hectares shy of the most coca ever detected in a single country (169,800 hectares in Colombia in 2001).

This increase in coca-growing is higher than the UN estimate of 99,000 hectares, announced in June. But both entities, the U.S. government and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, found an increase – or in the best of cases, a failure to decrease – last year.

You would have to read the ONDCP press release carefully to detect this troubling data, however, because its headline is all sunny good news. Through a calculation whose methodology is not revealed, the release determines that this higher amount of coca yielded significantly less cocaine. The current estimate is 535 tons of cocaine produced last year, far less than the UN estimate of 600.

How the tonnage estimate is derived is a mystery, especially since the ONDCP release takes pains to emphasize how fuzzy its land-area estimates are (”The actual survey area changes from year to year and cannot be directly compared.”)

It is quite possible, though, that cocaine production is reduced despite the greater land area under cultivation. The UN, which found a 25% increase in coca-growing last year, also estimated a decrease in cocaine derived from that coca (from 610 tons in 2006 to 600 last year).

The reason appears to be that, in response to eradication, growers are replanting so much and so frequently that their coca fields are newer and thus lower-yielding. Much credit goes to manual eradication, which destroys plants completely and forces growers to start over.

The problem is, there are more of those coca fields than ever before. Recall that the coca cultivation estimate reflects what the U.S. government believes to be left over after all eradication takes place. To find out how much coca Colombian growers tried to cultivate, then, one must add the coca estimate to the eradication statistic. Looking at attempted coca growing yields a very disturbing picture:

The U.S. coca statistics tell us that not only was there more coca in Colombia in 2007 than at almost any time before, there was far, far more Colombian land planted with coca. Throughout the country, coca-growers – most of them impoverished rural-dwellers at the margins of the legal economy – planted almost exactly twice as much coca as they had in 2000, the year “Plan Colombia” began.

This is an environmental catastrophe, as virgin rainforests are felled and chemical fertilizers introduced at escalating rates. It also shows the perverse results of a set of incentives created by massive forced eradication combined with insufficient development aid and food security. When Plan Colombia began, officials initially thought that this punitive mix of strategies would discourage poor Colombians from trying to grow coca. It most emphatically has not.

The new data show how far this problem is from resolution. The fields may have yielded less last year, but Colombian campesinos continue to respond to forced eradication by planting even more of the crop – and they are likely to catch up again. As long as drug policy fails to address the poverty and statelessness of vast areas in rural Colombia, we can expect this result to continue. There is nothing to celebrate here.

The second press release claims that progress is also being made at home. It cites an annual survey indicating that “cocaine use among 18-25 year-olds dropped 23 percent (to 1.7 percent [of all those surveyed])” from 2006 to 2007.

This is great news. But a look at the actual survey data should convince us to put away the champagne bottles.

When other age groups are added to the survey data mix, it turns out that the amount of the U.S. population admitting to having used cocaine in the past year was 2.3% in 2007, down from 2.5% in 2006. This is not a significant decline – it is more of a normal fluctuation in a usage rate that this survey has shown to be in the 2-3 percent range since the early 1990s. The survey also indicates that the percentage of Americans admitting to having used crack cocaine did not change between 2006 and 2007: it stayed the same at 0.6%.

The same report in fact shows a dramatic increase in cocaine use among baby boomers: the number of those aged 45-59 who admitted using cocaine in past year increased by 68 percent.

The survey data indicates that cocaine may just be going in and out of style, or simply preferred by addicts of a particular age group. Again, this leaves nothing to celebrate.

We need to believe that our government is making policies based on honest assessments of the data and unflinching analysis of their results. Policies based on distortions or cherry-picking will fail, because such behavior reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the challenges the policy faces. By insisting on celebrating dubious achievements illustrated by heavily massaged numbers, the U.S. government casts doubt on the whole enterprise.

9 Responses to “Massaging the drug-war numbers”

  1. Kyle Says:

    Adam, manual eradication only forces people to completely start over when the coca is killed very early. In some places (I’ve seen quite mature coca to be eradicated and not-so-mature harvested before eradication) a complete loss is avoidable; a smaller harvest is possible though. Still reduces production but not as much nor consistently.

  2. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Excellent analysis. Statistics have been used now for many decades (if not centuries) for driving people’s opinions favorable to the gain of the men behind. The most worrying thing is what to do when you realize that half of the sources of your field work are being tampered with by associations of people who are supposedly infallible and the humbug product remains the most honest documentation available to the serious forecaster?

  3. Adam Isacson Says:

    One more point – it always amazes me how bold the statements of success are when we know so little about what is really going on.

    The UN in June found that Colombia produced 600 tons of cocaine from 99,000 hectares of coca. That’s 6.06 kilograms of cocaine per hectare.

    The U.S. just announced 535 tons of cocaine from 167,000 hectares of coca. That’s 3.20 kilograms of cocaine per hectare.

    3.20 vs. 6.06: the U.S. now estimates that Colombia produces about half as much cocaine per hectare as the UN estimates.

    Feeling confused? You should be, even if ONDCP apparently isn’t.

  4. AMS Says:

    While I don’t dispute the disparity between UNODC and ONDCP statistics on cocaine production per hectare, I’m not sure your assertion regarding total area under cultivation is correct. My understanding is that the ONDCP’s ‘area under cultivation’ estimate is the total area under cultivation — not just land untouched by eradication.

    You have to keep in mind that coca is harvested 3-4 times a year and eradication only destroys one crop at a time.

  5. Adam Isacson Says:

    AMS, adding the coca + eradication to get total area under cultivation is indeed correct.

    The State Department used to provide this very same figure in its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports. See the 2005 report here, scroll down to the Colombia table, and note the row labeled “Estimated Cultivation.”

    Why State stopped including this statistic in its annual report is not clear (I’ve never asked the report’s authors about this detail). But it’s easy enough to derive by adding the coca estimate to the eradication amount.

  6. Chris Says:

    Off topic…

    Russia reasserting itself as a geopolitical force: (www.stratfor.com)

    In the new conflict, Russia can be expected to reach out to some of its old radical contacts across the world. Many of these contacts, like Ahmed Jabril and Sabri al-Bana (aka Abu Nidal), are now dead, and many other radicals from the 1970s and 1980s, such as Carlos the Jackal and the core members of groups ranging from the Japanese Red Army to the Greek group November 17, have been caught and imprisoned. Additionally, most of the KGB’s old contacts who remain alive and out of prison are getting on in years. This means any current Russian efforts will not focus on convincing geriatric former militants to pick up their arms once more, but instead will focus on using them to reach younger militants cut from the same cloth — militants who likely remain under the radar of Western intelligence.

    The Soviet collapse and the end of its patronage system hit Marxist insurgent and militant groups very hard. Many of these groups were forced to search for alternative forms of funding and became engaged in kidnapping, narcotics trafficking and extortion. Other groups simply folded under the strain. While many of these groups were left high and dry by the demise of the Soviet Union, and while the Russians are no longer the ideological vanguard of the international Marxist movement, many remaining Marxist groups —such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the New People’s Army (NPA) in the Philippines — would certainly welcome funding, training and weapons.

    In Latin America, this undoubtedly will be coordinated with the Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, who along with Bolivia appear to be replacing Cuba as Russia’s footholds in the region. In addition to reactivating contacts with the FARC and remnants of other Marxist groups in South America, we anticipate that the Russians will also step up activities with Marxist groups in Mexico. Elsewhere in North America, they could resume their support of the radical left in the United States and with radical elements of the Quebecois separatist movement in Canada.

  7. Will Says:

    Chris,

    In no time they will be at the border of Texas, in position to drive across the border and perhaps move on California, New Mexico or even Texas itself!!! I bethca the Russians are also behind the biggest financial crisis to hit the U.S. since the Great Depression, those bastards!

    Best,

    Will

  8. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Whatever happened to tha MINGA COC’s libelous entry????? :?

  9. Más cifras inconvenientes para la coca « Drogas y conflicto en Colombia Says:

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