Sunday, March 31, 2013

Why I decided to Boycott Illegal Drugs

I grew up in Colombia, hearing about cartel members and drug lords who were killing each other, and innocent people, in order to gain power and new routes for the drugs that they shipped to the United States and Europe. I also grew up hearing about the police trying to “catch and kill the bad guys” with the generous assistance of the US government. 

I would watch the news with my family and hear about car bombs, kidnappings, murders, US military trainings, and DEA intelligence. At my school, in addition to earthquake drills, we were taught what to do if a bomb exploded on campus. By the age of fifteen, I had already seen two people get kidnapped. Many Colombian families had relatives who had been killed, kidnapped, extorted, extradited, or were in jail. People were killing each other in an internal war. Violence was normal. Impunity and fear were part of everyday life.

In 1999, part of my family and I moved to the United States. The drug war seemed like something distant that could not touch me. I was wrong. While working as an organizer, I learned about US gangs and their relationship to the same drugs that had torn my country apart.

Low-income youth, usually people of color, are often caught up in the gang violence related to wars over drug turf. Shootouts are incredibly common in some parts of the United States and almost nobody, outside of these communities, knows or cares much about it. Police brutality and harassment, under the pretense of fighting drugs and crime, are a daily occurrence for residents of  low-income neighborhoods. Like Colombia, many families have relatives who are dead or in jail because of drug-related incidents. Many families have relatives involved with gangs. Violence is normal. Impunity and fear are part of everyday life.

Now I live in Mexico, where the Mexican and US governments have decided to wage a war against drugs, the cartels, and organized crime. This war has resulted in thousands of casualties and human rights abuses. I have heard stories of migrants who were forced to transport drugs to the United States. I have met people who have lost children, parents, partners, and siblings to this war. Mexicans are scared of the police and military, who are responsible for many of these human rights abuses. Many families have relatives who have been disappeared, murdered, kidnapped, extorted, or involved with the cartels. Violence is normal. Impunity and fear are part of everyday life.

Based on my experiences and the realities of these three countries, I have decided to abstain from using drugs until they are legalized and until the drug war is over. 

Below are nine reasons why I am boycotting drugs:

1. It's a war against the poor: The war against drugs is mainly a war against low-income people from marginalized communities, who do not have access to jobs or education. Many of them end up working for cartels or gangs. These victims of circumstance can be: farmers who can only make ends meet by growing coca or marihuana plants; parents who decide to transport drugs across borders in order to feed their families; or teenagers who start selling drugs because of lack of opportunity. The criminalization of drugs is a method of social cleansing, where oppressed people are punished for taking advantage of opportunities that exist outside of the society that oppresses them.

Instead of addressing the root causes that force people to join cartels or gangs, the current approach has been murder and incarceration. These deaths and harsh punishments are justified by the idea that criminals get what they deserve. Few question why so many people join these groups in the first place. What kind of support do people need in order to be integrated into society? Is the punitive infrastructure that punishes drug-related activities fair?

2. A war against the youth: Many of the people who get involved with gangs and cartels are young and come from a violent environment where families have already been broken by poverty, oppression, and violence. In these types of environments, youth do not expect to live long. Feelings of powerlessness make youth an easy target for gangs and cartels.

Cartels and gangs recruit minors to transport drugs and to commit crimes. They are less suspicious to authorities and when they are caught, they receive lower sentences than adults. Minors are more susceptible to manipulation from adults, and may be used to commit violent acts at the behest of leaders. In many cases, cartels and gangs have been known to traffic and enslave minors. 

3. A war against the environment: The drug war in Colombia includes efforts to eradicate coca crops. With the assistance of the United States, airplanes spray herbicides on forests and in rural areas. The most commonly used herbicide is Monsanto’s Roundup, which kills any plant exposed to it. The aerial spraying of herbicides has had a huge impact on the environment, destroying Colombia’s biodiversity, and negatively affecting human health.

In addition, aerial spraying destroys farmers’ legitimate crops and causes soil infertility. This causes a loss of income and food sovereignty, and eventually, the displacement of many farm worker families. Indigenous people are also criminalized for growing their sacred and ancestral crops. According to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an average of 10,000 to 20,000 indigenous people are displaced each year in Colombia due to crop eradication. 

4. Modern day slavery: Mexican drug cartels kidnap people and force them to work. Children, migrants, or young professionals may be trafficked or used as mules to transport drugs. Their relatives are left with uncertainty, never knowing if their loved ones are alive or dead.

Mexican security forces are often involved with and seldom investigate disappearances. According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, more than 25,000 people have disappeared or have been reported missing since 2006. Almost none of these abuses have been adequately investigated.

5. Criminalization and imprisonment: The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, and many people are behind bars for drug-related offenses. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the Department of Justice, in 2011, 48% of the inmates in federal prisons (94,600 people) and 17.4% of the inmates in state prisons (237,000 people) were serving time for drug-related offenses. 

According to the FBI, of the 1,531,251 arrests for drug law violations in 2011, 81.8% were for possession of a controlled substance and 18.2% were for the sale or manufacturing of a drug.

Arrest and imprisonment overwhelmingly affect people of color. According to HRW, whites and African Americans have comparable rates of drug use, but African American men are arrested for drug offenses at three times the rate of white men. African Americans represent 28.4% of all arrests, but account for only 13% of the US population.

After a drug conviction, families may be separated and life can be hard. When someone is incarcerated, many families will not have financial stability, relying on the income of only one parent. In some circumstances children will be placed in foster care. Individuals who have finished a jail sentence can lose access to government programs (including federal college financial aid), voting rights, and be restricted from applying to certain jobs.

For information about drug-related incarceration in Colombia and Mexico, read this WOLA study.

6. Violence: The violence perpetrated to control the illegal drug trade is devastating. Cartels and drug trafficking organizations have their own security forces to fight the government and rival groups. Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries use the profits from their drug business to finance their military operations. Governments spend millions of taxpayer dollars on weapons used against their own citizens.

In Mexico, violence has skyrocketed since the beginning of the drug war. According to statistics from the Mexican government,  more than 47,000 people have died as a result of the conflict since 2006. Victims include people from all walks of life, who may or may not have been involved with the drug trade. Perpetrators include cartels, organized crime, and Mexican security forces.

It is hard to get accurate information about the number of drug-related murders in the United States. A study by the Center for Disease Control says that 5% to 25% of gang homicides in US cities are drug-related. Most of the victims are young males of color and most homicides take place during shootouts when gangs are settling their disputes, enforcing drug debts, or defending turf. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, gangs are increasingly becoming more involved with large-scale drug trafficking, resulting in an increase of kidnappings, assaults, robberies, and homicides along the US Southwest border.

Drug-related violence in Colombia involves the internal conflict between the government, cartels, organized crime, guerrillas, and paramilitaries. Drug trafficking has helped to provide earnings for the guerrillas and paramilitaries. All of these groups are responsible for the murder, disappearance, torture, and human rights violations of thousands of people.

According to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 5 million Colombians have been internally displaced because of the violence associated with coca cultivation and processing, and the war between drug traffickers and security forces. Colombia is one of the countries with the highest number of internally displaced people in the world.

7. Prohibition doesn't work: The United States is the number one consumer of illegal drugs in the world. According to Vox, the United States makes up 5% of the global population, yet accounts for over 25% of global demand for illicit drugs. The US government’s campaign to combat drugs has focused on prohibition and unsuccessful programs that try to discourage people from using drugs. The United States needs campaigns that prioritize safety and education for drug users, not criminalization and incarceration. Drug addictions need to be treated as a health issue.

8. Wasted resources:  According to the Alternative World Drug Report, the United States has spent more than 1 trillion dollars enforcing drug laws over the past 40 years. Annually, the United States spends at least 15 billion dollars a year on drug law enforcement. Meanwhile, the cost of incarcerating one inmate in the fiscal year of 2010 was 31,307 dollars, according to a report by the organization A Price of Prisons.

Since the beginning of the US government's War on Drugs, drug use has increased steadily. People have not stopped using drugs, even when doing so is against the law. The criminalization of drugs has had devastating consequences for US families.

Plan Colombia is an initiative led by the US and Colombian governments with the purpose of combating drug manufacturing and smuggling to the United States. The plan includes US military initiatives to train, strengthen, and aid Colombia's military, increasing their power to fight drug cartels and left-wing guerrilla groups.

Since the year 2000, the United States has spent more than 7 billion dollars on Plan Colombia. According to a study by HRW, in 2012 the United States provided Colombia with approximately 482 million dollars in aid, 58% of which went to the military and police.

Plan Colombia has resulted in a disgraceful increase of state violence and environmental degradation. There has not been a decrease in the number of drugs entering the United States. Cocaine is still a profitable business that has moved many of its operations from Colombia to Mexico. As long as there is a demand, production will take place whether in Colombia or in another country.

The Merida Initiative is an effort led by the US and Mexican governments. Its objective is to combat organized crime and drug cartels. For this purpose, the United States has allocated 2 billion dollars for military aid and the training of the Mexican security forces. The country has seen an increasing militarization of its territory. The results of this initiative have devastated Mexico with thousands of victims of violence at the hands of Mexican security forces. Corruption and lack of oversight have resulted in violence and impunity. According to HRW’s 2013 World Report, almost none of these abuses have been adequately investigated. Despite the Merida Initiative, drugs continue to enter the United States. 

9. Corporations are the only winners: The only winners of the drug war are corporations. The war industry profits every time that the United States grants other countries military aid such as weapons and helicopters.  Multinational corporations profit every time that campesinos and indigenous people are displaced from their lands, which may become available for concessions or for purchase. Commercial media outlets profit when they sensationalize violence and make soap operas about the war. Companies like Monsanto profit from the destructive aerial fumigations in Colombia. Private detention facilities profit when high numbers of people are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. 

For corporations, the drug war is a way to make money. Human casualties and environmental degradation are merely collateral damage. 

Not using illegal drugs is a political act

Drug-related violence would definitely decrease if drug manufacturing and production were regulated and taxed. Cartels would no longer exist nor would they violently compete for a market. Drugs could be sold in stores at set prices. Without the drug war, governments and their security forces would no longer threaten the life and safety of their own citizens. Without criminalization, governments could use their resources for social programs. 

The effects of the drug wars of Colombia, Mexico, and the United States have left me with no other option than to boycott drugs. Buying them is condoning the impunity and violence that affects the lives of so many people in the Americas. Until drugs are legalized and regulated, and the cycle of fear and violence is broken, I will never buy. 

Yet, merely boycotting drugs is not enough. In addition to being ethical consumers, we must organize our communities to legalize drugs and to end the drug war. Our communities and the communities of our brothers and sisters in the South will be grateful. 

With the current state of the drug industry, the criminalization of drugs, and the drug war, how could I possibly make the ethical decision to buy drugs? The situations described above seem like a high price to pay for my entertainment.


  1. I think this type of boycott has already been going on for decades. For example, in California, you often have a choice to buy Mexican weed (generally of lower quality and cheaper) or locally grown Cali weed (much better quality and more expensive). And its because people have chosen the latter, often because they do not want to support the cartels, that the California growing industry has blossomed into a such a huge industry.

    Of course, if weed was legal, then it could be labeled based on its origin and consumers could make a more informed choice. The same could go for other drugs.

    A generalized boycott of illegal drugs is never going to work because the boycott has no moral force behind it; you are, in effect, obeying a horrible law.