Our Right to Poison: Lessons from the Failed War on Drugs
Part 2: From Leaf to Powder
Rarely is regulated legalization seen as what experts and even presidents imagine it could be, namely, as a more effective tool in the fight against drugs. For them, it could be a tool that doesn't just address consumers, but also destroys the supply chain that makes the cultivating, processing, smuggling and selling of drugs into a business worth billions. The goal is to disrupt a system: the economy of drugs.
The rainforest of Putumayo, in southwestern Colombia, is to cocaine what New Orleans is to jazz or Maranello, the home of Ferrari, is to fast cars -- a legendary place. Coca has been grown in Putumayo since 1974. It's the first region of Colombia that began cultivation and, as local residents say, the last that will abandon it.
Carlos Sánchez, a thin man with an unruly moustache, is standing in front of his coca bush, an inconspicuous, shoulder-high plant with a reddish bark and green leaves. "My coca," says Sánchez with a farmer's pride. There are hundreds more bushes in a clearing in front of him, a plantation covering about one hectare (2.5 acres).
Coca can be harvested up to six times a year. A coca leaf contains 0.5 percent cocaine. Any idiot can grow the shrub, says Sánchez, as he walks over to his horse and unbuckles two canisters of gasoline. He needs them in the laboratory. Someone from the city is coming tomorrow to buy a kilogram of coca paste. The word "laboratory" is a stretch for what Sánchez has cobbled together: a wooden shed that reeks of gasoline, where 200 kilos of coca leaves are ready for processing.
Two steps are needed to turn them into cocaine. First, coca paste is made from the leaves, and then the paste is transformed into pure cocaine.
Sánchez takes a trimmer and moves it through the coca leaves. Then he sprinkles a mixture of cement and fertilizer onto the leaves, shovels them into large vats and pours gasoline into the containers to dissolve the cocaine out. After a while, Sánchez removes the leaves and presses out a brown pulp, which is then treated with sodium bicarbonate and dried. Coca paste has a cocaine content of about 35 percent.
The second step takes place in a different, heavily guarded lab that Sánchez will never enter, but it's only slightly more complicated. The process requires hydrochloric acid, alcohol, ammonia, acetone and simple equipment. None of it is expensive or hard to obtain. Probably the most sophisticated piece of equipment is the microwave oven in which the chemical pulp is dried. The end product is cocaine hydrochloride, or pure cocaine. A good laboratory with a well-trained team can produce 500 kilograms (1,100 lbs.) a day.
Everyone in Putumayo knows that money isn't the only form of payment in the drug business. "I lost two brothers," says Sánchez. "One was shot to death by the local guerillas, and the other one by a drug dealer." Despite the risks, money remains the main incentive. "I receive 1.5 million pesos per kilo," says Sánchez.
A Pointless War?
That's about 630 ($830), a good income but only the beginning of an unparalleled price trajectory. Pure cocaine costs 1,300 a kilo in Putumayo, more than 4,000 at the Colombian border and, in nearby Jamaica, the price already approaches 6,000. The drug gets really expensive when it reaches Europe or the United States, where dealers make about 30,000 a kilo, depending on market conditions.
The European drug user, who only receives cocaine in diluted ("cut") form, doesn't pay a fixed price. Coke is cheaper in Spain than in Germany, for example, and it's cheaper in Berlin than in Munich. The going rate in Germany is about 100 for a gram of impure cocaine, while a kilo of pure cocaine can cost up to 400,000.
"No product on earth has profit margins as large as cocaine or heroin. Why? Because of prohibition."
These are the words of Ethan Nadelmann, the 55-year-old son of a New York rabbi. He studied at Harvard, has taught at Princeton and is considered one of the top drug experts in the United States. Nadelmann is currently the head of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that is fighting for a new drug policy. Its principal sponsor is George Soros, the business magnate and investor whose net worth of some $20 billion makes him one of the richest men in the world.
Nadelmann's office, on the 15th floor of a building in Manhattan, is filled with books with titles like "Alcohol in America" and "Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography." For the last 25 years, Nadelmann has been giving lectures, writing books and appearing as an expert on programs of major channels, such as NBC, Fox and CNN. "The business with drugs is capitalism," says Nadelmann. "As long as there is a demand, there's a supply. We can, of course, eliminate the demand. All we have to do is convince the 200 million drug users to stop buying dope. But does that sound at all realistic?"
The United Nations used to think it was realistic. Until 2008, the organization's goal was to "eradicate or substantially reduce" drug cultivation and the drug trade." The slogan of the UN drug campaign read: "A drug free world: We can do it!" Today, in 2013, the world is still about as drug-free as a so-called Fixerstube (fixer room) in Frankfurt's train station district.
For 25 years, Nadelmann has been convinced that the drug war is pointless. For 25 years, he has been calling for the controlled legalization of drug. And, for 25 years, his efforts have been completely unsuccessful. But now it seems as if things were finally about to change. "Boom!" says Nadelmann.
On the Front Lines of the War
Carlos Sánchez, the coca farmer from Putumayo, spent the entire night making his coca paste. The man who comes to pick it up will take it to Ecuador, to a guarded laboratory in the jungle where the paste will be refined into pure cocaine.
If everything goes smoothly, the cocaine will begin its journey after leaving the laboratory. There is probably no road -- or harbor, river or runway, for that matter -- in the northern part of South America that hasn't been used to smuggle drugs in the last 40 years.
The classic route to the United States passes through Mexico. Reaching Europe is a bit more complicated. A route through West Africa has become established in recent years, but much of the traffic still follows the traditional route, passing through the Caribbean or by plane from Brazil, Colombia and Argentina. Large shipments are sent by sea. Spain and the Netherlands are often the destination countries, although eight tons of cocaine, worth half a billion euros, were recently discovered in a container full of bananas in Antwerp, Belgium.
If things don't go smoothly, the drugs end up in the possession of a short, stocky man who, in his green coveralls, looks like a gardener.
General Luis Alberto Pérez, 53, is the head of the Colombian anti-narcotics police. He is in a very good mood because his men have just seized 1.8 tons of cocaine in a village on the Atlantic coast. After flying from Bogotá to northern Colombia in the morning, Pérez is now standing on a stage in the courtyard of police headquarters in Riohacha.
"That was a heavy blow against this plague that has infected our country," Pérez says into the microphone before a group of journalists.
Pérez's men tear open a few of the cocaine packets. "Top quality," says a police officer, smiling as he discovers the symbol on the compressed powder.
Each cocaine laboratory has a symbol, or label, to identify its product. This is important in case something isn't right with the product. "They apparently like German cars," says General Pérez. The Audi logo is displayed on each of the 1,500 packets of cocaine.
Pérez took more than 72 tons of cocaine out of circulation in 2012, or about 9 percent of global production. He also busted 1,200 cocaine laboratories, seized 400 boats and 150 small aircraft, destroyed 22 runways and arrested 76,000 people.
Of course, Pérez and his men aren't cheap. Colombia spends about 15 percent of its national budget on security, which includes the police and military. General Pérez has tanks and Black Hawk helicopters at his disposal. Narcotics agents in Colombia are equipped like warlords. "We are making progress," says Pérez.
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