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Fanning the flames of Colombia's war

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United States drug policies in South America and US cities like Washington, D.C. - where I work as a drug counselor - are contributing directly to the violent narco-guerrilla conflict now escalating in Colombia. In a very real way, the US is arming both sides in the Colombian civil war while encouraging a rate of addiction to crack and heroin in the US that makes the Colombian war inevitable.

That's my observation after 10 years of working with homeless crack and heroin addicts and following US efforts to eliminate the source of drugs my clients consume. So I take special interest in the first-ever Washington summit of Western Hemisphere drug czars Nov. 2-4. It's doubtful, though, that the visitors from 34 nations, large and small, each dependent on US antinarcotics aid, will admit the full hemispheric failings of US drug policies.

US drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who is hosting the summit at the Omni-Shoreham Hotel near where many of my clients score drugs, will almost certainly promote continued military aid to the Colombian government, according to observers.

But doing so will only make matters worse. True, the US has recently succeeded in temporarily shutting down coca cultivation in Bolivia and Peru. But since demand for cocaine remains high among the addicts I work with and others across the US, cultivation has simply shifted to Colombia, with prices climbing thanks to the reduction in neighboring supply. This shift has poured millions more dollars into Colombia's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which largely controls the drug trade there.

With increasing funds, the rebels are coming closer to toppling the Colombian government. To prevent this, the US now provides almost $300 million annually in antidrug assistance to the government, including reconnaissance equipment and more than 200 military advisers.

Our policy, then, is to further militarize the Colombian government in order to combat rebel operations, which are expanding because of our antinarcotics policies. We're arming both sides.

Now, switch to the streets of D.C., where the same policy phenomena play out in slightly different fashion. I've seen this firsthand. The dealers at 14th and Park Road, for example, are local suppliers. They offer a product desired by users but deemed illegal and targeted by US government enforcement - the police and their increasingly militarized special narcotics units.


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