Crop-Control Policies (Drugs)

views updated


Eliminating drug crops at the source through crop eradication and/or crop substitution has been a central, or at least an integral, part of U.S. international narcotics-control policy for the past twenty years. U.S. government policy officials maintain that eradication of illicit narcotics closest to the source of the raw material represents the most cost-effective and efficient approach to narcotics control within the overall supply-reduction strategy. The source of the illicit crop is believed to be the most commercially vulnerable point in the chain from grower to user. Since 1990, however, U.S. government policy officials have shifted away from crop control in favor of enhanced interdiction and targeting major trafficking organizations. Despite the best efforts of the United States and cooperating drug-Source Countries, controlling the crop has been a difficult, if not impossible, task. Several Heroin and Marijuana crop-control successes have occurred, most notably in Mexico and Colombia, but these programs had their problems. To date, notwithstanding minor, short-term successes in Bolivia, coca crop-control has remained an elusive goal in the Andes. Undertaking a drug crop-control program involves political as well as economic costs for both the source country and the United States.


For more than a decade, the U.S. government has estimated the total acreage under illicit-drug cultivation at home and abroad, applying proven methods similar to those used to estimate the size of legal crops. The government knows with less certainty, however, actual crop yields (the amount of coca leaf or Opium gum produced per acre). Soil fertility, weather, farming techniques, and plant diseases can produce wide variations in crop yields. Given the clandestine nature of the drug business and variations from year to year and place to place, the government cannot estimate accurately the quantities harvested and available for processing. Furthermore, wide variations in processing efficiencies (depending on the orgin and quality of raw material, technical processing method, size and sophistication of laboratories, and the skill and experience of workers and chemists) make cocaine and heroin production estimates extremely complicated. Using commonly believed processing efficiencies, the government estimates a range for Cocaine and heroin production. Estimating the amount of this production that enters the United States poses still more difficult challenges.

The government uses two principal methods of estimating illicit-drug acreage under cultivation: (1) photographic-based aerial surveys: and, (2) remote sensing from satellite surveillance. Both methods have validity and reliability problems, but aerial surveys matched by ground truth (the verification of cultivation in the areas photographed) produce the best estimates. Satellite surveillance data are problematic because of weather, instrument calibration, cultivation under foliage, the small size of fields, false positives and negatives that result from color spectrum (signature) inaccuracies, and lack of ground truth.


Many believe the illicit-drug trade is most susceptible to disruption at the organizational center of gravitythe traffickers' home country of production. Once the product leaves the production area and enters the distribution networks, it becomes more difficult to locate and control. Consequently, the U.S. government's drug-supply reduction programs have historically focused major attention on the drug source, which represents the smallest, most localized point in the grower-to-user chain.

International supply-reduction efforts close to the source of the drug also complement domestic supply-and-demand reduction efforts and give them a better chance of success. The U.S. 1991 National Drug Control Strategy states that when it is judged to be feasible politically, particularly when the market price of the raw product has been depressed below the cost of production, cooperative efforts can and should be taken to reduce the net cultivation of the Narcotic crops. Such crop control, or eradication, would then occur through manual or herbicidal means, crop substitution, income replacement, and area-development projects that provide income and raise the standard of living. Additionally, efforts would be made to convince the cultivators to plough under or cut down their drug crops voluntarily or not to plant them in the first place.

Crop-control strategies are important for cocaine, heroin, and marijuana reduction, although neither the United States nor the source governments have much control over, or much access to, the largest opium-producing reigons of Southwest Asia (the Middle East) and Southeast Asia (especially Myanmar [formerly Burma] and Afghanistan, the world's largest producers of illicit opium). The Peruvian government has exercised only limited sovereignty over the world's largest area of coca cultivation (for cocaine), the insurgent-controlled Upper Huallaga Valley (UHV). When government commitment and ability exists for controlling the source of the illicit product, crop eradication and/or income substitution can be effective ways to achieve a net reduction in the production of the illegal crop.


Both a legal and an illegal commodity, the Coca Plant is mainly grown in Andean South Americain Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia; it belongs to the genus Erythroxylon within the family Erythroxylaceae. Most cocaine comes from the leaves of 2 of the 250 identified species: E. coca Lam and E. novograntense. Each of these species, in turn, has two varieties. Agriculturally speaking, coca is a hardy, relatively labor-free, subtropical perennial plant that thrives at high to somewhat lower elevations and in dry to slightly humid climates, depending on variety. Coca plants are shallow-rooted, broad-leaved woody shrubs that grow to heights of 3 to 10 feet (1 to 3 m) and live about 30 years (White, 1989; LaBattAnderson, 1990). It takes 30 to 36 months before the coca bush is mature enough to produce leaves that can be used in the production of cocaine. Once the plant is mature, three to four crops of coca leaves may be harvested per year for an estimated yield of 1 to 3 tons per acre (0.8 to 2.7 metric tons [MT] per hectare) of dry coca leaf cultivated per year. Actual yield depends on microclimate, plant maturity, and species. After harvesting and drying, the leaves are soaked in a mixture of solvents, and the resulting Coca Paste is precipitated, further refined to coca base, and finally refined to cocaine hydrochloride (HCl), the salt or white powder form of cocaine. Leaves weighing 1.1 tons (1MT) produce approximately 6.6 pounds (3 kg) of paste. These 6.6 pounds (3 kg) of paste, called pasta, are then converted to about 3.3 pounds (1.5 kg) of coca base, which is equivalent to 3.3 pounds (1.5 kg) of cocaine HCl. The U.S. government estimates that the Andean countries produced approximately 900 tons (816 MT) of cocaine for world consumption in 1991 (INCSR, 1992).


Unlike the perennial coca bush, the opium poppy flower is an annual that requires the planting of seeds for each crop. Poppies of many species grow throughout the world, but only Papaver somniferum yields opium and its derivativesthe medicinal analgesics Codeine and Morphine as well as the now illicit addictive heroin. Once planted, the life cycle of the labor-intensive poppy lasts for 120 to 150 days, from planting until the petals fall off. Day and night, certain nitrogen-containing compounds, alkaloids, are produced by the plant and stored in its cells. After the petals fall, the seed capsule swells and is incised while still green. A milky alkaloid-rich sap seeps from tiny tubes in the capsule wall, which dries, darkens, and turns gummybecoming a substance called opium gum. Raw opium gum is converted by crude refineries into morphine base; a few pots, simple chemicals, and a source of fresh water are all that is needed to create the morphine base from which illicit heroin is made. About 22 pounds (10 kg) of opium make 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of morphine base; treating the base with acetic anhydride creates heroin. Papaver somniferum is cultivated in dozens of varieties adapted to do well in various soils and climates, ranging from southern Sweden to the Equator. Depending on the soil and climatic conditions, the growers can harvest at least two crops per year (White, 1985). Although the opium poppy seems to flourish at about 3,000 feet (915 m) in low humidity, it also grows and survives in humid lowlands, under foliage, or in full sunlight. With the aid of irrigation and pesticides, the poppy growers have expanded the conditions and acreage in which the plant will produce. The U.S. government estimated that 4,187 tons (3,800 MT) of opium, or approximately 418 tons (380 MT) of heroinif the total were convertedwere produced throughout the source countries of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia.


Marijuana, a by-product of the plant Cannabis sativa, remains the most commonly used illicit substance in the United States, although its use has been decreasing steadily for the past several years. Both the plant and its psychoactive ingredient Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are controlled substances. The U.S. government estimates that Mexico still supplies the majority of the marijuana available in the United States, perhaps as much as 63 percent. Domestic supply accounts for another 18 percent, Colombia for 5 percent, Jamaica for 3 percent, and the remaining 11 percent comes form Belize, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Brazil and Paraguay also cultivate cannabis, but the majority is consumed locally or exported to neighboring countries, with very little, if any, finding its way to the United States (NNICC, 1990).

The flowering tops and the leaves of the marijuana plant are collected, dried, and used for psychoactive effectusually smoked as a cigarette or in a pipe but also ingested as an ingredient of food. The plant is an annual; it is planted from seed and harvested traditionally in two seasons of five- to six-month cycles each year. Cannabis can grow almost anywhere outside of the ice-bound frigid zones, if provided with adequate sunshine and water. As a chlorophyll-based green plant, it requires photosynthesis to grow and mature. Coating the plant's leaves with a contact herbicide such as paraquat or glyphosate has been very effective in killing the plant in Mexico, Belize, and Colombia. Unlike the coca plant, which has a perennial root system, most types of marijuana can be destroyed easily by digging, spraying, or cutting.


Illicit crops probably constitute the least expense in the narcotics chain. Producers devote few economic resources to prevent detection, although it is easier to locate and destroy crops in the field than to locate the processed drugs once they enter the smuggling routes or on U.S. city streets. Despite this belief, however, few effective crop-control policies have been implemented, and crop control remained a secondary approach, at best, in the U.S. government's 1991 and 1992 National Drug Control Strategy. It was easier for U.S. agencies to function at the border or within the United States than to get compliance on command from source countries. Drug Interdiction and immobilizing the trafficking organizations were the preferred policy approaches.

Crop eradication can be effected forcibly or voluntarily (1) by manual plant removal, (2) by biological control through the use of pathogens or predators, or (3) by the use of herbicides. Of the three methods, herbicidal eradication has been the most effective and efficient, though not the most neutral politically. Payment to the growers for the labor of uprooting the plants voluntarily is an important short-term element, while development assistance is a longer-term component of the successful implementation of any eradication effort that invites voluntary reduction.

Because the coca bush is a perennial, destroying the plant can have a devastating effect on the productive capacity of the trafficking organizations. After the plant dies, it would take nearly three years for the grower to be reemployed on that land productively. For the most part, the coca fields of Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia are remote relatively small plots. There is little or no intercropping, where the grower mixes his coca fields with yucca or other agricultural produce, therefore, aerial herbicidal eradication is an efficient optionbut one that requires significant amounts of herbicide to kill the hardy coca bush. The opium poppy and the marijuana plant are easier to eradicate than coca bushes but, because they are annuals and planted from seed, with several harvests a year, they require year-round crop-control efforts.

Manual Eradication.

Manual eradication involves physical removal or cutting. For coca, removing the plant is more effective than cutting, because coca can sprout new shoots from the base of the stump. The plants, however, are difficult to remove after three years of growth because of their root systems. Coca, poppy, and marijuana plants can be removed only if grown in areas that are easily accessible. Many of the illicit growing areas are in remote corners of the countryside, so transporting personnel and equipment may be expensive and hazardous. More importantly, the manual eradicators place themselves at great personal risk, as for example in coca-growing areas of Peru and Colombiawhere violence directed at eradication personnel have forced the suspension of such efforts.

Biological Control.

Numerous biological control agentsparasites, predators, pathogenshave been identified that may destroy coca and poppy plants. Too little is known, however, about the effect of these agents on the ecology of the growing regions. Another issue is the possible negative impact on legitimate crops, which, if inadvertently destroyed, could cause famine and/or severe economic losses. Use of biological agents may be a future possibility, but the current state of research on such pests and their potential impact does not make this option feasible yet.


Control of coca by foliar application of herbicides was attempted in Colombia in 1985, with inconsistent results. In 1987 and 1988, further small-scale testing was conducted in Peru, involving both foliar- and soil-applied herbicides, which confirmed the efficacy of soil-applied herbicides. Two herbicides were chosen for further testing: tebuthiuron and hexazinone. Based on further tests in Peru in 1989, researchers learned that aerial application of either pellet tebuthiuron or granular hexazinone, at lower rates than used typically in the United States, can kill a significant percentage of coca plants in a field and force its abandonment. Environmental tests were conducted in Peru for more than two years to measure such ecological effects as translocation of the herbicide into the soil, water, and air; water solubility; effect on the flora and fauna; and ability of the herbicide to leech on the clay molecules in the soil. Tebuthiuron and hexazinone were judged environmentally safe and effective. Other herbicides such as dicamba, imazapyr, picloram, and triclopyr were also tested and found to be more toxic but less effective. Use of herbicides on poppy and marijuana has been tested and thoroughly documented. Concise environmental reviews (measuring impact on environment) and environmental-impact statements (measuring health consequences for consumers who use the drug product after it has been sprayed with herbicide) have been filed for 2,4-D, glyphosate, and paraquat use on poppy and marijuana fields.


In Mexico, Colombia, Belize, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Bolivia, Jamaica, and Thailand, croperadication efforts continue to have varying degrees of success in reducing illicit crop cultivation. In the mid-1970s, Mexico began an aerial herbicidal-eradication program on both opium and marijuana and reduced the cultivation of these illicit crops significantly. In 1991, Mexico reportedly destroyed some 16,000 of its 25,000 acres (6,500 of its 10,000 hectares) of opium and 27,000 of its 71,500 acres (11,000 of its 29,000 hectares) of cannabis. In the early 1980s, the Colombian government used glyphosate in the north to eradicate most of its marijuana there. In the early 1990s, Colombia planned to use the same herbicide on newly discovered opium in the Cauca and Huila departments. In 1987, the U.S. government supported the government of Belize in an aerial marijuana-eradication program, which resulted in a 90 percent decline in cannabis production.

In the 1987-1988 growing season, Myanmar sprayed the herbicide 2,4-D from fixed-wing agricultural-spray aricraft to destroy about 31,000 acres (12,500 ha) of opium poppy. This program came to a halt late in 1988 when the government moved its limited military resources to attack mounting antigovernment protests. The political balance also changed abruptly when Myanmar's ruling military eliminated the opium-eradication program, abolished bureau rights, and accommodated certain trafficking insurgents (the Wa and Kokang Chinese components of the now-defunct Burmese Communist Party, who were lighting one of Burma's principal enemies, Khung Sa and his Shan United Army).

In addition to these aerial herbicidal-eradication efforts, manual eradication of crops continued in 1991 in a number of countries, to include destruction of nearly 30 percent of Thailand's 10,500 acres (4,200 ha) of opium, about half of Colombia's 6,000 acres (2,500 ha) of opium, approximately 10 percent of Bolivia's 131,000 acres (53,000 ha) of coca, and a little less than half of Jamaica's 4,500 acres (1,800 ha) of cannabis.


Conceptual, political, and technical arguments are often raised against drug-crop eradication. Opponents of eradication believe that the reduction of foreign supplies of illicit drugs is probably not achievable, or short-term at best; they say that even if eradication had a longer-term impact in the source country, it would not have a meaningful effect on levels of illicit-drug consumption in the United States, where the consumer would simply switch to other available drugs. Moreover, some fear that inordinate environmental damage will result from herbicide use. Others question whether a global policy of crop control is feasible politically, because many growing areas are far beyond government control, and even when there is government jurisdiction, crop eradication becomes impractical because the grower can continually shift areas of cultivation. Instituting effective eradication efforts in some source countries, such as Peru, might also drive political insurgents (who co-locate with the drug traffickers) into threatening alliances that would undermine the central govenment even further. Finally, some question the value of supply-reduction efforts at the source altogether, since world production and supply of illicit drugs vastly exceed world demand. If the worldwide supply were reduced dramatically, it would not be felt in the United States until the supply had dried up throughout the rest of the world, because U.S. consumers often pay higher prices than those in any other market; moreover, U.S. dollars are the preferred narco-currency (Perl, 1988).


Crop substitutionthe replacement of opium, coca, or marijuana production with a legal agricultural commoditycan never be successful by itself, because of the immense profits from illicit-drug cultivation. A more broadly defined income-replacement approach (which may include an agricultural crop-substitution component), however, coupled with strong law enforcement, may succeed in convincing drug growers to stop planting the illicit crop.

In the Malakand District of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, the U.S.Pakistani efforts in the early 1980s to implement a fully integrated, rural development project, which provided roads, water, electrification, and agricultural substitutes (e.g., peanuts, apples), resulted in a net reduction in opium poppy production. Providing project support for the 300,000 inhabitants of the district enabled local residents to earn an income from an extensive road-building and infrastructure development program, thus making cultivation of the opium poppy unnecessary. A side benefit of the development efforts was the creation of valuable infrastructures to raise the standard of living throughout the region and encourage the nomadic populations to establish roots and achieve more stable living conditions.

The Highland Village Project in northern Thailand has provided similar benefits to the culturally diverse, opium-producing hill tribes. This resulted in decreased opium cultivation consistently in the early 1990s. In Laos, the Houaphanh project near the remote border region with Vietnam began in 1990 to provide area development incentives (of improved water and roads and medical and educational benefits) for growers who opted to cease planting opium. In the Western Hemisphere, a principal component of the Andean Strategy to eliminate illicit coca in Peru and Bolivia has an economic-assistance element that provides hard-currency earnings, trade incentives, and local project assistance to entice the growers away from coca cultivation. Some funds have already been expended on agro-research (discovering viable crops), infrastructure development, extension training, and rudimentary marketing.

In the broadest sense of the term, crop substitution worked rather effectively in Turkey in the early 1970s when a government cash subsidy permitted the farmers to harvest the poppy before the plant ripened to produce the opium gum. In this way, the traditional cooking and ceremonial uses of poppy could be maintained through the poppy straw process, as it is called, but the seed pod would not be available for the illicit opium gum.


Several inherent difficulties exist with crop-substitution approaches.

  1. Many of the growing regions are remote inhospitable areas, outside central government control.
  2. In a free-market economy, no legitimate crop can compete with either coca or opium as an income-producing agricultural commodity. Even if there were competitive substitutes, with the immense profits from the drug trade, the drug traffickers could continue to raise the price to compete for willing cultivators.
  3. Much of the land in the growing zones cannot produce legitimate agricultural products sufficient to support the farming population.
  4. The presence of political insurgents and threat of violence in some of the growing areas (Peru, Myanmar, Afghanistan) create an unfavorable climate for crop substitution.
  5. There are difficulties in finding international markets to accept the substitute crop; for example, in Bolivia's Chapare region, oranges and coffee are viable agricultural products, but the international coffee cartel and U.S. citrus growers do not allow Bolivian products to compete for shares of existing markets.
  6. In some regions, such as Peru's Upper Huallaga Valley and Bolivia's Chapare, the vast majority of coca cultivators are not farmers and know nothing about agriculture. Many were unemployed urban dwellers and laborers who moved to the coca-growing regions to seek a viable living after the collapse of the tin market in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Bolivia. In the long run, regional development efforts in the urban areas may be required to attract the cultivators back to their places of origin.
  7. Successful crop substitution takes years of agro-research, infrastructure development, training, and marketing; it may take too long for subsistence-crop and/or cash-crop producers to make a living. In Pakistan's Malakand project, it took more than five years to develop the agricultural component. Some argue that in the absence of strong law enforcement and control, crop substitution becomes only an additional income generator, not a true substitute. The growers will accept the substitute and continue to cultivate the illicit-drug crop.
  8. Corruption and powerful interest groups in the growing areas pose serious impediments to any crop-control efforts.

(See also: Foreign Policy and Drugs ; Golden Triangle ; International Drug Supply Systems )


Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, U.S. Department of State. (1990). International cocaine strategy: Report to the Congress. Washington, DC: Author.

Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, U.S. Department of State. (1990). International narcotics control strategy report (INCSR). Washington, DC: Author.

Labatt-Anderson (1990). Environmental assessment of the use of herbicides to eradicate illicit coca overseas (Revised) Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State.

Morales, E. (1989). Cocaine: white gold rush in Peru. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Musto, D. (1973). The American disease. New Haven &London: Yale University Press.

Nadelmann, E. A. (1988). U.S. drug policy: A bad export. Foreign Policy, 70, 83-108.

Office of National Drug Control Policy. (1992). National Drug Control Strategy, 1992. Washington, DC: Author.

Perl, R. F. (1989). Congress and international narcotics control. CRS Report for Congress. Washington, DC: The Library of Congress.

Reuter, P. (1985). Eternal hope: America's quest for narcotics control. The Public Interest, 79, 79-95.

Van Wert, J. (1988). The U.S. State Department's narcotics control policy in the Americas. Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 30 (2 & 3), 1-18.

Walker, W. O., III. (1981, 1989). Drug control in the Americas. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

White, P. T. (1985). The poppyfor good and evil. National Geographic, 167 (2), 143-189.

White, P. T. (1989). Cocaan ancient herb turns deadly. National Geographic, 175 (1), 6-51.

James Van Wert