Several years ago, I visited the coca museum in Bolivia. It’s a small museum with a compelling story, a detailed history of the use of coca by the indigenous peoples, and the impact of the cocaine trade on Bolivian society. It includes recreations of the different stages of cocaine production. The museum effectively strips away any glamor that might be associated with the drug.

Back in 2006, the UK’s metropolitan police chief railed against the hypocrisy of middle class drug users who drink fair trade coffee but buy cocaine. Alex James’ documentary in 2008 tried to deliver the same message. However, 2.4% of adults in Britain reported using cocaine in the past year, and it’s the second most popular (illegal) drug in the UK, after cannabis.

Bruce Parry’s Amazon series on the BBC saw him spending time with cocaine producers as they bleached the coca leaves to extract the paste, pouring bleach and petrol into the rainforest’s rivers in the process. A recent Economist article describes how the violence of the trade in Colombia and Mexico is spreading to the Central American countries sandwiched between them. There are more deaths from violent crime in Guatemala now than there were during the civil war, and the fragile institutions of the police and the courts are struggling to stay functional with the increasing sway of corruption throughout the system.

Clearly, Central America’s problems are exacerbated by the illegality of the trade. The violence, the environmental toxicity, the corruption and the poverty are all a result of  prohibition. A recent study concluded that for every $1 spent on development in Mexico, $10 leaves the country in the form of ‘illicit outflows‘-the cross-border movement of money that is illegally earned, transferred, or utilized.

Some level of exploitation is unavoidable with regards to trade in developing countries. Whether it’s child labor in textile production in India, environmental degradation through  coffee production in Africa, or the toxic working environment for those manufacturing the i phone in China, there are societal costs. But regulation can reduce the harm. With an illegal trade, there is no recourse to regulation.

For the consumer countries, there’s no shift in the official position. Should Bolivia’s amendment to the UN regulations regarding coca leaf be successful, it will right a blatant discrimination, but it won’t address any of the problems that arise from cocaine production itself. The US and the UK offer increased financial and technical assistance to ‘combat’ the trade, and cling doggedly to the idea that more guns, more agents, more resources can eradicate cocaine production*.  Meanwhile factories burrow deeper into the rainforest to evade detection, and trade routes open up on the West African coast as the Caribbean becomes a more hostile trading environment.

While the drug war continues, I think the consumer has to take responsibility. While cocaine remains a drug of choice, maybe users should  off-set their costs, in the way that eco-warriors assuage the guilt of plane travel by planting trees. For every £or $ spent on coke,  a donation to Transform, or Release, or the Drug Policy Alliance or Human Rights Watch. Either that, or quit. Cocaine is not fair trade, and it’s a hypocrisy to ignore the social, economic and environmental costs of a line.



*until they retire, of course