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Fighting Drugs by Focusing on Demand

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It seemed strange that so many people finished their meals together with Colombia's former-president César Gaviria.

We sat next to him at a dinner in the Latin American nation when he invited us outside to continue our conversation. We pushed aside our plates and slowly rose.

So did another third of the room.

We walked out discussing Gaviria's role in the War on Drugs. He had fought the powerful Medellin Cartel led by the infamous Pablo Escobar. During his presidential campaign, candidates had a better chance of being assassinated than elected. Gaviria felt that sting personally. His sister was murdered in 2006.

That's when it became clear the people walking among us weren't a coincidence -- they were a security escort. That's also when Gaviria explained the drug trade might be Latin America's issue, but it's North America's problem.

From cocaine in Colombia to opium in Afghanistan to marijuana in West Africa, the drug trade is a dangerous world. Since mid-January, we felt this violence in British Columbia's 20 gang-related murders. These incidents are rightly appalling but only a taste of what Latin America and other war-torn nations have experienced for decades.

Gaviria now advises Mexico on dealing with its 10,000 drug-related murders since 2006. That's how he's come to the conclusion the only stability offered in this violent business comes from North American demand.

Our strategy in the War on Drugs has traditionally been to cut off supply. Aircrafts locate coca farms and drop a powerful herbicide on the plants. This successfully kills it and everything else including legal crops like bananas, coffee and other livelihoods of poor, rural farmers.

Despite treating over 130,000 hectares in 2005 alone, the CIA says that growers began to aggressively replant new terrain virtually canceling out earlier efforts.

It's the steady North American demand that makes this replanting so lucrative. The annual profit for a hectare of coffee, one of Colombia's main exports, is estimated at about $500 while coca will bring in $5000.

For one young woman, that price difference makes the decision of what to plant a no-brainer.

"The farmers are thinking, 'My kids are starving,'" says Carolina Arcila, a 26-year-old Colombian refugee. "If someone tells you to plant a legal crop and get paid nothing, why would you?"

Unlike students in Canada or the United States, Arcila explained that growing up in Colombia she never saw cocaine in her high school. She did, however, see its effects.

As a teenager, she met returned child soldiers who told her about the brainwashing tactics of the guerrilla armies. She also spoke with individuals who had been kidnapped. One man was tied to a tree for seven months and guarded by a group of soldiers her own age.

Two weeks before her family fled to Canada as refugees, three of Arcila's school-aged friends were kidnapped.

All atrocities in the name of the drug trade. But, it wasn't until Arcila got to Canada that she actually saw the narcotic.

That's when the bubbly young woman with a seemingly permanent smile got mad.

"Do you understand that when you buy cocaine here, you're giving money to war?" she asked. "It's the same as just handing them a gun."

But guns are exactly the strategy we've taken in the past -- and it's the strategy we're currently working with. In April, President Barack Obama's requested $80 million for Black Hawk helicopters to help Mexico fight its growing drug cartels.

As Gaviria stepped into his bullet-proof SUV, that's where his exasperation came out. The man is understandably tired.

Tired of watching his people die. Tired of the negative portrayals of his country. Tired of no one taking responsibility for our demand.

That's where the long-term solution lies. He's just tired of waiting.