My politicization on the topic of drugs came early. I had an uncle who was arrested for distributing cocaine when I was 4. As a result, his wife, my mother’s sister, was dis-barred. At the age of 4 I didn’t understand all this, and it wasn’t necessarily explained in detail, but it was never hidden from me. It was never a family secret to be swept under the rug. In fact, when I brought my partner home for the first time, late in the evening over vodka tonics my mother told the whole story.
My junior year of high school, in Connie’s speech class, there was a mock congress bill on the legalization of marijuana. I gave a pro speech for the bill—who knows what I said, it probably followed some Lootens-esque logic of legalizing in order to tax. But apparently many of the people in the class that didn’t know me well were surprised by my position. I remember having a number of discussions after class refining my views for the first time.
In the years since, I’ve attended NORML meetings, written letters and signed petitions for the release of non-violent offenders, and been constantly astounded at the ways cocaine and crack are treated differently in the criminal legal justice system.
So there’s my reflexivity…
But this is not just a US problem, as the continuing cartel violence in Latin America reminds us. The “war on drugs” is an imperial and ideological war wearing global peace and prosperity clothing. As they say ‘round here “it’s the same chola in a different pollera.” Specifically in the Andes, the US has pressured for the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to keep its wording which includes coca as a narcotic, ignoring the cultural significance and daily use of coca in the region as a mild stimulant similar to caffeine usage in North Atlantic nations. The USG has then used this international convention as backing for politically-motivated targeting of places like Bolivia as drug-harboring nations leading to all sorts of diplomatic and trade consequences. On the other hand, countries with similar coca production like Perú, who have “cooperative” governments (presidents who do not make bold claims about “de-neoliberalization” or liken the USG to terrorists), remain in the good graces of the USG.
I think this leads to a really interesting divergence in the ways drug economies are perceived by international observers. My examples, as usual, are myself and young international travelers from North Atlantic and South Indian Ocean countries. As I wrote in a previous post, drugs are at times the one thing Bolivia is known for. La Paz, with its Coca Museum and clandestine Route 36, has a reputation for being the place to go for a little cocaine bender. And in my experience, plenty of travelers take advantage of this. From the British gap years to mid-thirties music producers from Seattle, travelers turn up for breakfast at 1pm still red-eyed from the exploits the night before. But it is also quite easy to avoid any interaction with the drug beyond a bit of coca tea to alleviate the altitude.
And yet, on my first day in Cusco, walking around Plaza de Armas with Vijay, I was offered cocaine. In the “big” (sheesh, not if you’ve been to the El Alto market) market in Pisac, Perú, Mark and I were offered in quite loud and straightforward English, “I have weed for sale, you guys.” In all, I’ve been offered marijuana once and cocaine five times over two weeks in Perú. I’ve never—not even in the sketchy bathroom hallway at Blue—been offered drugs of any sort in La Paz (well, unless blood bombs should fall under the UN convention).
So I suppose the point of all this is that the “War on Drugs” contributes not only to perpetuating inequalities among individuals, but also effects representations of entire countries that propagate the inequalities of imperialism. While, yes, it seems coca production in Bolivia has been surpassing regulated levels, I’m not convinced that is directly affecting drug use in the US. Yet, much of the diplomatic tension between the USG and GOB stems from or is exacerbated by disagreements regarding coca. Maybe some of the recent calls for drug policy reform will end up helping to repair diplomatic relations as well.