Drug Czar Claims Cocaine Victory, but the Numbers are Weak

By Dirk Hanson 06/23/11

Colombia is “holding the line against coca cultivation.”

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Coca planters step up production.
Photo via dalje

The ever-optimistic ONDCP—the Drug Czar’s Office of National Drug Control Policy—has announced yet another reduction in cocaine supplies, stating that the “cocaine market remains under significant stress.” But they don’t have any appreciable drop in overall drug use to show for it in recent years. And the best they can say for this year is that Colombia is “holding the line against coca cultivation,” despite growing evidence that coca cultivation is being disseminated throughout Latin America by transnational drug cartels.

Here’s what actually happened over the past few years, by the ONDCP’s own admission: “Between 2009 and 2010, the change in coca cultivation was not statistically significant.” However, there were some decreases back in 2007 and 2008. So handshakes all around, team. We’ll even skip the footnote indicating that “potential production capacity for pure cocaine in Colombia increased slightly from 290 metric tons in 2009 to 300 metric tons in 2010 (3%).”

But none of that look very impressive, to be honest, so the Drug Czar’s office reached back to 2001 for a favorable comparison— a 57% drop in cocaine production, from 700 metric tons in 2001 down to 300 metrics tons in 2010. How’s that for some drug war meat? However, it’s unclear just how much of this decrease represents shifts in drug preference worldwide, rather than direct results of American drug policy. In fact, it’s impossible to know.

But as an old uncle of ours used to tell us: If you ain’t got nothing to say, go ahead and say it. The Drug Czar’s office seems to have taken this to heart: “Unprecedented decreases in the U.S. availability of cocaine are occurring at the same time use of the drug in the U.S. is declining. Data from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health—the largest U.S. survey on drug use—show the number of Americans aged 12 and older who are current users of cocaine has dropped by 21 percent since 2007.” It’s not news that overall cocaine use is down—or that some of that slack has undoubtedly been absorbed by the methamphetamine and prescription painkiller markets. And while we are heartened to hear that there has been “a 37 percent decline in the percentage of 10th graders who used cocaine in the past year,” the same survey shows that 10th grade use of drugs other than cocaine has been on the rise lately.

We do feel some sympathy for Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske, who is called upon relentlessly to make lemonade out of this kind of data. In this case, the ONDCP has decided that dropping back and throwing the long ball is best: “Overall drug use in the United States has dropped substantially over the past thirty years.” Even if we knew what that meant, exactly, it’s not something that Kerlikowske, after barely two years in office, can claim as an achievement that took place on his watch. The former Seattle police chief is a big improvement over his predecessors, by any conceivable yardstick, but it is still a thankless job, and even Kerlikowkse can’t manage much mileage out of this new report. How much longer will he be willing to run that huge rock back up the hill?

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]