By Alex Kingsbury
U-WIRE Washington Bureau
April 6, 2001
“We are losing the drug war. If, as they say, we were winning the drug war why are they increasing the budget for it?” said Kevin Zees, a GW Law School graduate and president of Common Sense for Drug Policy, as he sat on a panel of expert on the subject Wednesday night at the George Washington University.
The GW International Affairs Society sponsored the panel that included representatives from the White House Drug Control Policy Office, Common Sense for Drug Policy, Amnesty International, and a George Washington University professor of Latin American Studies. The four-member panel spoke on the issue and took questions from the more than 40 students packed into the small conference room.
“There are not problems with the drug war,” Richard J. Baum, a Senior Policy Analyst at the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, told U-WIRE. “There may be mistakes with the plan but there are no problems.”
Baum defended the government’s policy against a barrage of arguments from the other three panelists and the crowd.
The “war on drug” officially began in 1989 when, then President, Bush, delivered his first prime time televised address. Following on the heels of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, the program enjoyed initial public support.
Since then the drug war has seen various changes and incarnations, however, it still remains true to its original blueprint. The major focus of the drug war is to stop the international importing of drugs from countries such as Mexico and Columbia, in addition to providing treatment and prevention programs at home. The drug war has been blamed for the overcrowding of prisons, human rights abuses in other countries including Columbia University and a variety of other complaints.
The drug war has also come under increasing criticism including the movie “Traffic” which portrays the war as futile and wasteful. One issue raised by the panel was the Colombian policy of spraying coca fields with poison spray.
“There is incredible biodiversity in the Amazon region,” said Zees. “The spraying and activities that they are doing down there is illegal in America.”
James Jones, professor of Latin American Studies at GW, said spraying causes small farmers to loose their crops and migrate, burdening surrounding regions and adding further stress to the already volatile situation.
He said the spraying destroys many legitimate staple crops. Having traveled extensively in the region, Jones added personal testimony to the tragic situation.
But Baum said opponents that misrepresented the spraying situation frequently muddied the issue.
“It (spraying) is a mistake,” Baum told U-WIRE. “Frequently legitimate crops are killed with the spraying.”
He explained that is because farmers will mix their crops, planting rows of legitimate crops among the verboten coca plants. He said that the pessimism amongst an increasing number of academics and the public was dangerous.
“It is almost like laziness,” Baum said.
“The civilian population down there is caught between armed actors,” said Andrew Miller, from Amnesty International. “Anyone who speaks out against the violence is targeted, journalists, teachers, activists. They are either kidnapped or killed or just disappear. And all sides are engaged in human rights violations.”
A student asked Baum what the exit strategy was for the current drug war, a question raised by a plethora of critics of the anti-drug strategy.
“The goal is a 50 percent reduction in cocaine in five years,” Baum said. “There are signs that things are working. We know what we want our country to look like. No one wants to see more drugs readily available.”
Debate between the panelists was intense as each produced a myriad of statistics to reinforce their positions.
“Economists have realized that you can’t stop the law of supply and demand,” Zees said. “Where there is a demand for drugs there will be a supply.”
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