As this film from the Lonely planet travel channel demonstrates, its surprisingly easy*. Not the high tech bond-villain underground laboratory many seem to imagine, nor even the bandana wearing terrorist types with AK47's in a jungle fortress, no - it's an old bloke in a hut with a bag of leaves and a few buckets of chemicals from the local hardware store.
Cocaine powder can be nasty stuff, and I'm fine with people telling others, especially young people, that it's potentially very bad for you and you shouldn't use it. Id actually say that maybe we should do a bit more of that given that use has at least doubled in the UK in the last decade (note: its always been Class A - so what happened to the deterrent effect of Home Office mythology?).
But watching this short film it struck me how preposterous it is that the lion's share of the our 'anti-drugs' budget goes on supply side enforcement instead of public health based interventions (be they prevention/education, treatment or harm reduction of one form or another). Our collective primary response to, what is most commonly, lets face it, peasants in a jungle stirring some leaves in a bucket, is to spend billions deploying high-tech military resources with all guns blazing, black hawks, heavily armed storm troopers, satellite surveillance and all the rest. Quite aside from the fact that crop eradication has been one of the most ridiculous policy disasters of the 50 years (untold billions spent, millions of acres of land, and not a few peasants, sprayed with toxic chemicals - yet cocaine production trebling) you have to look at these impoverished people struggling to survive and wonder if, just maybe, we've picked the wrong enemy here.
Supply side controls have never, and will never, prevent the production or supply of plant based drugs if huge number's of people demand them at a level that they are willing - in substantial numbers - to buy them from gangsters and street dealers for ridiculously inflated prices - with no information or guarantee of strength and purity. People are weird like that.
But this is no 'counsel of despair', its simply the reality of economics in a completely unregulated illegal market controlled by criminal profiteers. If a kilo of cocaine costs £200 from a peasant in Colombia, and sells for £100,000 on the streets of London, you tell me how you think we are going to prevent it getting from A to B? But don't take my word for it;
What about George Bush (just about still US president) who said in 2002: 'As long as there is a demand for drugs in this country, some crook is gonna figure out how to get 'em here...'
Or indeed former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in January 2001 'If demand [for drugs] persists, it's going to find ways to get what it wants. And if it isn't from Colombia it's going to be from someplace else.'
Or Antonio Maria Costa, Director of the Unite Nations Office for Drugs and Crime who noted in 2008 that prohibition was responsible for creating a 'huge criminal black market that thrives in order to get prohibited substances from producers to consumers, whether driven by a 'supply push’ or a 'demand pull', the financial incentives to enter this market are enormous. There is no shortage of criminals competing to claw out a share of a market in which hundred fold increases in price from production to retail are not uncommon”.
The UN's drug head honcho also observed - with his economist's hat on- (in 2007) that: "I invite you all to imagine that this year, all drugs produced and trafficked around the world, were seized: the dream of law enforcement agencies. Well, when we wake up having had this dream, we would realize that the same amount of drugs - hundreds of tons of heroin, cocaine and cannabis - would be produced again next year. In other words, this first dream shows that, while law enforcement is necessary for drug control, it is not sufficient. New supply would keep coming on stream, year after year."
Tony Blair's 10 Downing Street Strategy Unit report in to the illegal drug phenomenon , in 2003, concluded that: “Over the past 10-15 years, despite interventions at every point in the supply chain, cocaine and heroin consumption has been rising, prices falling and drugs have continued to reach users. Government interventions against the drug business are a cost of business, rather than a substantive threat to the industry's viability.”
I could go on, but why bother? The politicians making the decisions and committing the money know full well that supply side controls are pointless (if not actively counterproductive) and evidently don't even make much of an effort to conceal the fact anymore. The truth is that these enterprises stopped being about preventing drug production a long time ago - if they ever were about that. Today, whether in Colombia, Afghanistan or anywhere else, these military policing efforts are part of a vast and complex array of interconnected political agendas, military interests and geopolitical strategies, for which the drug war is merely a convenient front.
* Cocaine production remains thoroughly illegal. Do not try this at home, or anywhere else for that matter, even if you can get hold of a tonne of coca leaves.