The photo on the screen showed a small, barely clothed man, face hidden by a large straw farmer’s hat, hunched over with his arms held out, elbows bent, showing off the bright-red splotchy rash that covered them.As the next slide was shown (this one of a woman with the same rash) the speaker, Sanho Tree, stood beside the podium telling the audience that the rash was caused by a chemical herbicide that was dropped by U.S. helicopters in countries like Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia in an attempt to eradicate plots of coca leaves, the plant used to make cocaine.
Tree, a Fellow and director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., then cycled through more pictures of destroyed farms and ailing farmers during his presentation at Herrick Auditorium.
The presentation, put on by the History department and titled “Addicted to Failure”, outlined the many problems that Tree and the institute have with America’s drug policies, policies that Tree said are far from suited to the problem. With close to $40 billion a year being spent on combating an epidemic that shows no signs of stopping, people are continuing to question just how well the country’s current policies are working.
“The war on drugs has been a failure,” said Tree, speaking to a full-capacity crowd, “Many of you, though you might not know it, are probably one phone call away from getting what you want. Two at the most.”
Carrie Waara, a history professor who required her Roots: History Behind the Headlines class to attend the presentation, thought the talk was a good one for her students.
“I was really impressed with how much information Sanho had at his fingertips. He answered every question with a wealth of understanding, and showed how research can support compelling and significant work,” she said.
Like many “solutions” used in the war on drugs, the spraying of coca leaves causes more problems than it solves.
The widespread spraying (the U.S.’s biggest plan to halt the production of cocaine) is a plan far too faulty to work and one that routinely hits rural farmers, not drug smugglers, the hardest. Young people, seeing what the U.S. planes are doing to their countrymen and the loss of hope they cause, either become drug traffickers/growers themselves, or go to the jungles to join the guerilla fighters battling against the Colombian government.
For many Colombians, their first real interaction with the U.S. is through the destruction of innocent, rural farmers and their farmland.
“We are driving the people (the next generation of Colombians) away from the central government.” Tree said. He cites extreme poverty in the places where coca leaves and other drugs are grown, along with a “high, undiminished demand” for those drugs as reasons why the war is failing.
According to Tree, the dealers who usually get caught by police are the “dumb” ones, dealer’s who either do the drugs they sell or aren’t smart enough to stay out of trouble. When these dealer’s are caught, it’s effectively taking the bottom-rung dealers out of the loop, leaving only the best and most successful on the streets. Not only do the smart ones continue to sell drugs, they’re able to raise their prices because of high risk involved. All it takes is a “So, you hear Johnny down the street was busted last night?” to put some extra money in the pockets of the ones still left.
“We’re actually doing them a favor,” said Tree. ‘We’ve been breeding super-traffickers.”
The number of offenders in prison for non-violent drug offenses is staggeringly large. Of the 2.7 million people in U.S. prisons presently (almost a third of the world’s nine million prisoners), just over half a million of them are in prison for non-violent drug offenses. Its treatment like this that gets under Tree’s skin.
“Drugs are not a criminal issue,” said Tree “they’re a social issue.”
“The best way to deal with the problem is to give people a reason to look forward to tomorrow,” Tree said.
One of the biggest reasons for drug users to take drugs is that they have nothing to do and nothing to look forward to. The government is basically telling addicts that “No, you need to be sober and depressed” without really giving them anything to help with their problem.
“It’s interesting because I’ve always thought that,” said Trevor Parks, a student who attended the presentation. “I think to really solve a problem like this you have to help people, not lock them up.”
Marijuana, especially, is a drug that Tree feels should be legalized and regulated like alcohol or tobacco. As it stands now, marijuana is up there with much stronger, more dangerous drugs, when comparing penalties.
Using Holland as an example, Tree cites the low usage rates of marijuana in Amsterdam, a city where marijuana is legal, and Holland itself as reasons to believe that if it were legalized marijuana may actually become less of a problem.
“What they’ve done,” said Tree with a knowing smile, “is make marijuana boring.”
To Tree, people in Washington who are responsible for making the polices consider the Drug War a “Third Rail Issue”, an issue that, like the electrified third rail on a city’s tram system, isn’t to be touched.
In order for a better drug policy to take affect, Tree says three things in Washington need to be changed: Ignorance of lawmakers (a better education in terms of societal problems with drugs and learning that the best way to stop them isn’t by putting people in prison), cowardice of lawmakers (many are afraid if they touch the issue, politically, they’ll be dead) and opportunism (a few members of congress feel it is “their” issue and keep hounding after the same tried-and-failed policies).
“Being tough isn’t the same as being effective, and oftentimes you get the opposite result,” said Tree.
The basic problem, Tree concluded, is that we, as a country, can’t deal with the difficult issues at hand.
“We don’t have the language to discuss complex problems,” he said. When voting, the people have basically two choices: Republican or Democrat. In a world where there is an enormous spectrum of different types of government – all the way from Anarchism on one end to totalitarian fascism on the other – and our country only has two choices, both very similar to each other when it gets down to the nitty-gritty. Without a wider spectrum of choices, drugs will continue to be a problem.
“Drugs don’t surrender, terrorists don’t surrender, at what point does it end?” Tree asked, drawing parallels to the War on Drugs and the war in Iraq. “I think its an unwinnable war,” he said.
Toward the end of the presentation, a student raised his hand and asked Tree the question that many people in the auditorium wanted to ask: Do you think that legalizing all drugs would help?
“Well,” Tree started, “I think there would be problems that would be less harmful than the problems we have now.” After a pause, Tree laughed and said, “We’d have a whole different set of problems.