The commitment, enshrined over four decades of international drug control, to eradicate crops declared illicit and prevent drug trafficking has meant that the frontlines of the war on drugs lie in the drug producing nations of the Global South – Afghanistan, Burma, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. This strategy has not delivered on its promise, instead its implementation came at a huge cost to the most vulnerable communities.

The first step toward meaningful reform is to recognise how counterproductive these policies have been. Since the Mexican government declared war on drug trafficking organisations in 2006, at least 120,000 lives have been lost; almost a decade earlier, around 700 terrorist attacks were conducted by the Colombian cartels, resulting in at least 15,000 fatal victims. Many more have been forcedly disappeared or displaced. 

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Some of the producing countries are leading the way in breaking monolithic eradication and interdiction policies. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales – a coca farmer – established a regulated market for legally-grown coca, a mild stimulant that is chewed, just as has been practiced in the country for centuries. He also proposed industrialising the coca leaf to produce goods such as drinks, soaps and other edibles.

Under this program, farmers get a fair price for the coca they legally grow and most cooperate with the authorities, who work to keep coca out of the cocaine trade. In the past, farmers and police clashed violently as the government sought to eradicate all coca production. According to the UNODC, between 2010 and 2014, the new policy resulted in a 34 per cent reduction in the area of land under coca cultivation. That is less than half the coca grown in Peru and Colombia.

The people who cultivate coca, cannabis or opium crops are mostly poor subsistence farmers who grow as a means of survival. Forced eradication as a precondition to government’s assisted programs has further alienated these communities from integrating into sustainable development programs.

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Progress can be made by halting forced eradication programs, allowing staged drug crops reduction and introducing sustainable development programs as opposed to inefficient alternative development models. Furthermore, a regulated market for these crops, would appropriately offer alternatives to insert these communities into the legal economy, acknowledging their right to grow indigenous crops in accordance with traditional and religious practices.

The people of Colombia had suffered from years of forced eradication policies causing major population displacement and serious environmental and ecological damage in addition to health-related harms. In 2015, the Colombian government stopped spraying coca fields from the air after the World Health Organization ruled that the herbicide glyphosate probably causes cancer. In addition, health data analysed from locally impacted communities confirmed this decision. In an effort to cut production, the country should also encourage farmers to voluntarily and gradually transition to alternative crops. But to work effectively, any transition to legal crops must be centered in a dedicated sustainable development strategy that is carried out independently from crop reduction efforts, which should respects their individual and collective rights as well as the participation of local people and addresses their various immediate needs. 

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Instead of persisting in harmful and violent policies, the global community should tackle baseline poverty that pushes people into cultivating crops declared illicit and the illegal drug trade as a means to support their families. Redirecting some of the world’s $100 billion drug control budget to sustainable development could provide valuable funding for locally created and managed interventions tailored to the needs of individual communities. Funds misspent on destroying crops – polluting surrounding land, and poisoning people in the process – and could be reallocated towards economic investment and health care initiatives. Decentralising drug control could slow drains on these valuable and limited resources.

Drug policy viewed through the prisms of prohibition and punishment destroys lives and communities. Cultivation is an agricultural practice not a crime and security issue and years of enforcement strategies have clearly failed. As evidenced by the new approaches in the Global South, regulated markets and relaxed laws on minor drug offenses can propel communities forward. Sustainable development can elevate these communities and strengthen their ability to counteract years of failed drug controls imposed by the Global North. 

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