It is not coca growing per se that fuels the conflict in Colombia, but the fact that cocaine is illegal - a point lost on most policymakersEmily Crick 7.00am May 22, 2008
Home Office minister Vernon Coaker announced a new anti-cocaine initiative yesterday. Coaker and the Colombian vice president, Francisco Santos, along with former Blur bassist Alex James, were in Trafalgar Square to attend an exhibition that aims to highlight the environmental and social destruction that cocaine causes.
Coaker's new initiative, backed with a £1m Frank campaign aimed at 15-18 year olds, is running in conjunction with the Colombian government's "shared responsibility" project that attempts to link consumption in the west with the carnage created by illicit markets in producer countries. The idea is to appeal to consumers' ethical conscience, rather than the more familiar health concerns. Alex James, the former blur drummer and bon viveur who once claimed he had personally spent a £1m on cocaine, has been recruited to the cause after visiting Colombia to see the problems with illicit cocaine firsthand.
Earlier this year Antonio Costa, head of the UN office on drugs and crime (UNODC), also got in on the act when he wrote an article in the Observer entitled "Every line of cocaine means a little part of Africa dies", highlighting the chaos caused by western consumption in emerging transit countries like Guinea Bissau, specifically pointing the finger at those "fashionistas", including Amy Winehouse and Kate Moss, who he accused of glamorising cocaine use.
This rather ludicrous argument ignores the general consensus that Amy Winehouse is at her least cool and sexy stumbling out of hotels in blood-stained slippers. More significantly what Costa, Coaker and Santos fail to make clear is that it is not actually the coca growing per se that fuels the conflict in Colombia but the fact that cocaine is illegal.
It is the massive untaxed profits on offer, created by the policy of prohibition, that attract the violent unregulated gangsters and are the real cause of the devastation that affects Colombia. The cocaine trade is estimated to be worth $56bn-$70bn globally and the UNODC estimates that 14 million people worldwide take it.
Furthermore, whilst use is falling in the US, it is still on the rise in Europe - particularly Britain and Spain. It has been suggested that the profit margin in cocaine is between 2,000%-3,000%. With profits like these, is it any wonder that the illegal drug trade attracts insurgents and paramilitaries, eager to find new ways the fund their war?
In 2001 Jaime Ruiz, senior advisor to the then president of Colombia, Andrés Pastrana said, "From a Colombian point of view ... just legalise it [cocaine] and we won't have any more problems. Probably in five years we wouldn't even have guerrillas." This may be somewhat simplistic but with depleted economic resources there would be more incentive for those involved in armed combat to negotiate for peace.
It is this fundamental issue that Coaker and his cohorts are failing to address when they call for a "boycott" on cocaine. It is their shared irresponsibility that gifts the cocaine trade to organised crime and those involved in violent conflict from Bogota to Brixton.Add comments on the Guardian CIF website here (closes after 3 days)
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Other news (maybe the debate isn't as closed as some suggest?)
Colombian vice-president calls for debate on cocaine