Friday, March 19, 2010

Source Suppression: Part II

Source Suppression: Part II

Opium’s universality makes it hard to suppress. Attempts to limit the sources of other drugs add additional problems to that approach. Cocaine, marijuana, and amphetamines provide examples of these complexities.


Coca leaves have been used as a stimulant and appetite suppressant by the inhabitants of the Andes for hundreds of years, but cocaine was not separated from those leaves until about one hundred fifty years ago. Cocaine hit the world as a miracle drug in the 1880s. Doctors quickly became disenchanted with it, and it was displaced by safer synthetics like Procaine and Novocain for most – but not all – medical uses by 1900. The social world continued to be smitten by it until the 1920s when it faded from the scene. When cocaine resurfaced as a recreational drug in the 1970s, the American government was taken by surprise.

The government’s primary reaction was to try to eradicate the Andean coca bushes. Hundreds of millions were spent in the effort. The result? According to both the United Nations’ studies and satellite images, the acreage planted in coca remains about the same; and the growers have improved their plants and methods so that yield per plant is up over ten per cent.

By 2000, cocaine prices in the U. S. had fallen sharply and purity was much higher than it had been. Colombian cocainieros were diverting much larger shares of their product to Europe, where prices were still high and demand growing. These trends are evidence that the American market was saturated, not that the supply had been curtailed in any way.

The irony of the failed attempt to suppress coca is that, contrary to popular belief, the plant is not limited to the Andes. Shortly after 1900, the Dutch established coca plantations in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia). From 1910 until the outbreak of World War II all of the world’s cocaine was manufactured by labs in the Netherlands, Germany, and Japan using East Indies coca leaves. The British also established successful coca plantings in the imperial territories in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). But the Empire was having political problems shutting down Indian opium plantations as it voluntarily withdrew from the Chinese opium trade, and the Raj decided against commercial coca growing. Coca-Cola experimented with coca growing in Hawaii as well. The plants flourished, but governmental security requirements were so onerous that Coke abandoned its efforts and continued to rely on leaves imported from South America. Cocaine may not be as ubiquitous as the opium poppy, but if it were banished from the Andes, it could find a home in many other places.


Marijuana came to the U. S. with Mexican nationals fleeing the revolution of 1910. Until marijuana use ballooned in the 1960s, most of it still came from Mexico. After the failure of Nixon’s Operation Intercept, mentioned in the first part of this article, Gerald Ford convinced the Mexican government to cooperate with a program using U. S. planes and chemicals to spray large parts of the growing Mexican marijuana with herbicide. However, the growers merely speeded up their harvest and flooded the American market with paraquat-soaked weed. When the news leaked out, the Ford administration was accused of trying to poison American teenagers, and the program was cancelled.

But by the 1970s, American troops were returning from Viet Nam with samples of high quality marijuana from Thailand and Burma, and Colombian growers began exporting their cannabis to the north. In fact, most of the later cocaine smuggling routes were first pioneered by the marijuana traffickers.

U. S. efforts were primarily directed at tightening the southern borders, but Californians discovered that they could grow much better marijuana than they were getting from Mexico. Marijuana growing became a major industry in the rural areas of Northern California.

The DEA countered by staging major raids to uproot the crop just before harvesting season. These have become an annual ritual. Each fall the police confiscate hundreds of thousands of plants, generating headlines, but the majority of the crop continues to satisfy the market.

This Darwinian competition between Narc and grower had two other results. The competing growers developed cross strains that were more powerful and tasty and that grew into smaller plants. They also moved to indoor cultivation, pushing horticultural technologies to new highs.

Today marijuana cultivation is widespread across the United States. In some Californian communities, it has become the economic mainstay of entire towns. Jon Gettman’s studies claim that marijuana is one of the top four cash crops in the U. S., and is the leading crop in California and Kentucky. High technology indoor growing operations appear in every section of the country.

The growing demand has even increased international trafficking. British Columbia, Canada, now exports over $5 billion of high quality marijuana to the U. S. each year. While Mexico is no longer the most important source of American pot, about half of Mexico’s $30 billion in drug sales still consists of marijuana.

The cannabis plant is as universal as the opium poppy and easier to grow and harvest. But while attempts to eradicate the poppy encouraged growth around the world, attempts to suppress marijuana have created a major domestic industry. The U. S. had fewer than 100,000 total users according to government estimates when marijuana was first banned in 1937. Today government estimates show over 100 million adults who have used it at least once and over 15 million who currently use it more than once a month.

The government has also tried to suppress the supply of stimulants, especially methamphetamines. While the legal prescription supply of these drugs is somewhat limited, the sources for the street markets still exist. Most of the illegal methamphetamine now comes from factories in Mexico. A small, but significant, amount comes from small individual “cookers” in the U. S., whose careless methods present dangers of fire, explosion, and toxic chemicals in residential neighborhoods across the country.

Source suppression for drugs has never worked. Even the British Gin Acts of the 1730s were dismal failures. Parallels to all of the events described here were part of the attempts to prohibit alcohol in the 1920s. Drug control policy directed at suppressing the source will always fail.

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