Like Afghan War, The U.S. War On Drugs Must End

The United States has long dictated policy regarding narcotics, and Colombia, in particular, has paid a heavy price. The current presidential race is an opportunity to shift course and prioritize the welfare of everyday people.

Like Afghan War, The U.S. War On Drugs Must End

With a growing market, the medical cannabis industry is making its way in Colombia

Daniel García-Peña


More than 20 years ago, I read a headline in the satirical U.S. newspaper The Onion declaring "Drugs Win Drug War." It would be an appropriate headline for this item too, but not as a joke. As the years have shown, it's an accurate description of reality.

U.S. anti-narcotic laws date from the prohibition period that produced the 1919 constitutional amendment banning the production and consumption of alcohol, which later included marijuana, cocaine and opium. The amendment was repealed in 1933 as alcohol consumption increased and criminal gangs flourished, but the ban on other substances remained in force.

After World War II, the United States pushed for a ban on such drugs internationally, which led the UN to adopt the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Ten years later, the then president of the United States Richard Nixon coined the term "war on drugs," as part of his policy at home against youth movements protesting racism and the Vietnam war.

In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan raised the issue to foreign-policy level, publicly declaring illicit drugs to be a matter of national security. And in 1986, he signed the Directive 221 wherein he instructed the armed forces to treat drug trafficking as a threat to the nation.

With the end of the Cold War, the anti-narcotics logic replaced anti-communism as a crucial foreign policy axis with several countries.

In Colombia's case, all governments have since then stated their intention to "denarcotize" relations with the United States, some even promoting the idea of shared responsibility over drugs. Nevertheless, narcotics continue to dominate the bilateral agenda. This has cost us thousands of lives, corrupted the state, and gravely harmed social values.

Workers take care of cannabis plants in the nursery of the Clever Leaves company in Colombia — Photo: Mauricio Duenas Castaneda/EFE/ZUMA

Fifty years since Nixon declared the war on drugs, the only thing we can see is failure. In 2020, an independent, bipartisan committee of the U.S. Congress admitted there had been a collective failure to rein in consumption and trafficking. The drug industry, they acknowledged, was always a step ahead of authorities.

Others would concur, including the former Colombian foreign minister María Emma Mejía, an extract of whose memoirs was published in this paper. Likewise, researcher Juan Gabriel Tokatlian noted that the U.S. military debacle in Afghanistan was also a failure in the war on drugs.

Ironically, the country that once championed prohibition is now going in a different direction. Recreational cannabis is legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia, while its medicinal use is legalized in another 16 states. The state of Oregon recently legislated to partly allow hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. Today, worldwide, the hard line on drugs is led by Arab and African states, Russia and China, which executes drug traffickers.

The sad reality is that Colombia has never had a national drugs policy. In practice it restricts itself to the slavish implementation of U.S. directives on militarization, extradition and fumigation. Isolated signs of independence, like the Constitutional Court decriminalizing possession of a "personal dose" of marijuana or parliament legalizing its medicinal use, are significant, but unrelated. Point Four of the 2016 Peace Accord, urging a rethink of anti-narcotics policies, has yet to be enacted.

Now, some presidential candidates are bringing up the narcotics issue as well. While any change to the international regime in this respect is complex and would take time, Colombia has the moral authority to lead debates on the effects of interdiction, precisely because of the costs it has borne.

Above all, the presidential race currently underway here is a great opportunity to define a national policy that would envisage alternatives such as legalization and decriminalization, and differentiate between levels of involvement. It would offer developmental solutions for coca farmers, and treat drug consumption as a public health issue. It must be a policy that defends, first and foremost, the needs and interests of all Colombians.

*García-Peña is a professor in Colombia's National University.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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