by Isa Hopkins, editor-at-large
The drug war is a hot topic these days: Mexican drug violence has made it to the front pages of everyone from The Economist to The New Yorker. Most stories focus on the interplay of police and cartels, the political geography of Mexico’s capture by organized crime; it is taken as a given that the massive American drug market cannot be subdued, at least not nearly as easily as the massive cartels which not only profit off of American drug use to the tune of billions of dollars a year, but also murder thousands in increasingly grotesque fashion.
It was this rather lopsided equation, in which the Mexican economy must bend to suit the destructive behaviors of the first world, which first sparked the curiosity of Adam Newell, twenty-nine, when he was a young activist and graduate student in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. In May of 2007, Newell posted a meeting on an electronic bulletin board to discuss America’s complicity in Mexican gang violence.
“It was kind of a shot in the dark,” Newell admits. “I sent it out to all the schools in the DC area, just to see what would happen.”
What emerged from that fateful night was a kind of rainbow coalition: Letitia Hughes, then a law student from Howard University, has been active in inner-city anti-drug programs since she was in middle school; Yvonne Hernandez, then a senior at Georgetown, is the daughter of illegal immigrants from the now-bloodied city of Cuidad Juarez; and Peter Syzmanscki, a recent Harvard graduate, was an analyst at the Treasury Department, specializing in international trade and currency flows.
“I’m an enlightened rationalist,” says Syzmanscki. “Which is to say, I believe people will make rational choices based on the information available to them, and the most rational decision can be made only with the highest levels of transparency. We have such easy access to so much information, but there’s much of it that’s still difficult to trust or to verify. That’s why FTCA is so important.”
FTCA is the final product of this brain trust, a multi-year effort that has recently won recognition by the United Nations and a contract with the government of Portugal. Fair Trade Cocaine in the Americas has also earned some prominent enemies: namely, the United States government, where Syzmanscki has lost his job and Newell, Hughes, and Hernandez have found employment impossible.
“It’s absurd,” says Hughes. “Cocaine was legal until 1970 in this country, and what you see after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act is a skyrocketing of drug use and particularly imprisonment. It’s easy to create soundbites that make us sound like criminals, but the truth is, we’re actually working to improve people’s lives, instead of just locking up end-users and letting producers and drug mules get killed for this product.”
The certification process is itself straightforward. As Hernandez notes, “the infrastructure for certification and oversight of growers is there — cocaine-producing countries are the same ones growing coffee and cocoa, and fair-trade programs have been successful with those crops for decades now. That part is a cinch, and we’ve had a lot of cooperation from the governments of Peru and Colombia.”
What, though, of the all-powerful Mexican cartels? Newell can’t help but grin at the mention. “They fucking hate us,” he says. Last month, Newell and Hernandez met with El Chapo, legendary head of the Sinaloa cartel, often regarded as Mexico’s most powerful man. That the two Americans lived to tell the tale is itself a testimony to their impact.
“He was concerned about losing market share,” Newell explains. “And we said, look, if you carry product that we’ve certified in Colombia, and we can verify that it was carried without any violence, then we’ll stand behind it. Really, a cartel is just a business, and fair-trade certifications are about promoting businesses that don’t do harm. We were very matter-of-fact about it, and he respected that.”
“There are a lot of Mexicans who make their lives off the drug trade,” Hernandez says. “Innocent Mexicans, too. And the whole American response to it is such a mess — we have this giant market that just grows and grows, and instead of working seriously to reduce demand, we just punish those who supply it. We’re talking out of both sides of our mouth, and it’s insane, and people are getting killed. So we just said, why not work from the supply-side? Why not give consumers a better choice? And those were terms that El Chapo really understood.”
FTCA has normalized select routes out of cocaine-producing countries to a handful of dealers in New York and Los Angeles. And, contrary to the popular depiction of the cocaine user as a mindless addict, their certification has become a hot commodity. One California dealer, speaking anonymously, told us plainly that it was just a better product. “When it’s got a certification like that, there’s accountability built in to the system,” he said. “Cokeheads know they’re getting something pure, that’s not messed with. A lot of my clients are people who eat organic and get acupuncture and shit. They’d get their coke at Whole Foods if they could, and when I sell with the FTCA label, it’s like I’m suddenly the Whole Foods of cocaine, and nobody tries to bargain me down from a premium. It’s pretty fucking brilliant all around.”
“Look,” says Hughes. “It’s not like we’re promoting cocaine use — the use is there no matter what we do. But tobacco use is terrible for you, too, and we don’t let thousands of people get killed for that just because we don’t know how to frame a sane tobacco policy.”
Syzmanscki points to the evolving marijuana policies of Oakland, California, as a promising example of positive, progressive drug law. “What you see there is an increase in domestic sales — once you decriminalize and regulate, and build a system with accountability, you’ve got people who only want Humboldt bud and who can demand that. And in that case it’s mostly about the quality, that it’s better than Mexican weed, but it improves the local economy and reduces incentives for drug crimes in Latin America nonetheless. We can’t have Humboldt cocaine, but we can have trustworthy cocaine, and people will buy it.”
The system is imperfect. “Fair-trade production and commerce doesn’t erase the public health impacts of drug use,” Newell admits. “But it does go a long way to stabilizing some of these Latin American countries that have been torn apart by the drug trade. Fair-trade chocolate doesn’t fix the obesity epidemic, but nobody takes that as a reason not to pay fair wages to growers.”
In the meantime, the very future of FTCA is in doubt — and the danger comes not from a hit by El Chapo, but the United States government. The organization has already had to move from its first office in Washington, DC, to one in San Francisco, and they are now contemplating a switch to Vancouver (Canada’s drug laws are slightly more liberal than America’s). “Ultimately, we’ll probably end up in Lisbon,” says Newell. The Portugese government decriminalized all drug use in 2001, and has proven the friendliest to FTCA’s stated goals. “But our real aim is in the US, so hopefully we can find a way to stay without each one of us getting audited each year. How does the NRA get to cozy up to presidents, and yet when we try to save lives with a rational approach to drug policy, they try to run us out of the country?”
Regardless of where they end up, the FTCA already has some devoted fans. In an informal survey taken over dinner at Princeton University’s Tower Club, undergraduates were impassioned in their opinions. “I don’t care where the hell they go, as long as their product stays here,” said Chelsea, a twenty-year-old double-major in chemistry and East Asian Languages. Paul, twenty-one and on track to graduate summa cum laude in classics, declared that FTCA cocaine was “better than Adderall” and “better be easy to get at Stanford”, where he will be earning a PhD next fall. Meanwhile, two entire tables of economics majors high-fived. “We hear Goldman has an expense account with those guys,” they told me. “IBs” — investment bankers — “love that shit.” As in all things in America, if Wall Street is in favor, the government can’t be too far behind.