The War on Drugs: a War on the poor?

War on Drugs Jun 20, 2016 No Comments

When we think of people who are in the drugs business, images of bling, fast girls and faster cars spring to mind. What few people think of, is poor families, scraping a living from the earth with the only cash crops the can make a profit from: cannabis and coca.

When we consider War on Drugs victims, we think of addicts, jailed because they have allowed themselves to become the victims of addiction, or innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire between law enforcement and wealthy cartels. But the truly vulnerable are often overlooked.

US War on Drugs Causes Untold suffering for Farmers

Picture this: you’re living below the breadline. You could grow maize, but your land is limited, and you’d barely grow enough to feed your family. Even if you could grow a surplus, getting fresh produce to market is beyond your reach. You don’t have trucks to ferry the produce. There may not even be a good road to send it down. You don’t have access to a packing and grading shed to make produce ready to sell. But there’s one thing you know you can grow and get a ‘relatively’ good price for. The only problem is that it’s illegal.

When we say, a ‘relatively’ good price, we’re looking at the bottom of the supply chain. There are no fortunes to be made, no big houses and status symbols within your reach. You’re just scratching out a living and you’re glad when you can put food on the table for your family.

These are the realities that rural coca and marijuana growers face. But they also face risks. Law enforces can uproot and burn their entire crop before it’s ready to market. Drug barons could decide they need more ‘motivation’ to toe the line.

Are you scared yet? But if you live in certain parts of the world, this could be you. The UN reports that over 700,000 families living in South America and Asia produce marijuana, opium poppies and coca. It’s how they survive, and they’re barely doing that. The report says they live “below the poverty line”.

Empowering farmers could make the difference

The UN has concluded that providing “sustainable economic opportunities” could be part of a new. More socially responsible “War on Drugs”. If people can make a living without taking risks, they’d take advantage of the opportunity. And there are success stories. Thailand has already limited its production of opium poppies by helping farmers to find new, more profitable and less dangerous crops to grow.

But it’s not only the crops that matter. It’s access to markets. Roads have to be built and cooperatives that would sell the produce need to be established first. It’s an uphill battle. And then there’s the problem of tradition. People have been growing these crops for centuries. Changing an established tradition is very difficult indeed.

Eradication campaigns have the opposite effect. They can cut off 50% or more of a family’s income by destroying the crop that was meant to sustain them. If you don’t have skills, if you don’t have resources, and your crop has been destroyed, that’s a disaster of the first magnitude.

Uruguay, Paraguay – under-reported disaster areas

The Pulitzer Center says that the impact of the War on Drugs in rural Uruguay and Paraguay has been “under-reported”. Why should that matter in the US? Because our country is the major market that has spawned this industry. Why do farmers continue to grow these illicit crops? Because there’s money in it. Not big money, but money nonetheless. Why is there money in it? Because there’s US demand – and most of the money that comes from that demand isn’t going to the farmers. It goes to the risk-takers – the people who organize and implement distribution. In short, it goes to gangsters, with farmers receiving a pittance for their risky crops.

What’s the solution?

For such a complex problem, it’s clear that no single solution would work. Reducing demand would be great, but no amount of draconian legislation and brutal crackdowns seems to make a difference. If anything, it has merely increased prices and upped demand. Offering alternatives to farmers is a good idea, but where do you find an alternative crop that can outperform an illicit one in terms of its financial yield?

As far as solutions go, legalization and regulation would at least take the power out of the hands of drug kingpins. Addicts could be rehabilitated and return to normal life, and farmers would supply government regulated agencies rather than shady drug barons. Education would also help. If rural youngsters could go in search of a better life and actually find one, growing crops that are transformed into illegal drugs whilst barely scraping a living would seem less attractive.

The war on drugs has taken enough of a toll in human misery already. It’s time to start seeking better solutions.

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