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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COCAINE")

LYDEN: In the 1980s, if you moved in certain circles or were under 30 - or picked up the newspaper, a certain white powder was everywhere. Ad it was seductive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COCAINE")

LYDEN: Cocaine and its derivative, crack, ravaged the nation's inner cities with drug wars and open-air drug markets. And today - well, earlier this month, the Office of Drug Control Policy announced that in the last decade, cocaine production had dropped a whopping 40 percent in South America. And in America, cocaine use has dropped by almost half since 2006. That's our cover story: how Americans did, in fact, just say no to cocaine.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: OK, last time. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs.

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PETER REUTER: The drug went out of vogue a long time ago.

LYDEN: That's drug policy expert Peter Reuter.

REUTER: Lots of people experiment with it. But very few of the people who've experimented, in the last 20 years, have gone on to become regular users of it.

LYDEN: To understand how far cocaine use has fallen in American drug culture, let's go back to the Reagan administration, when President Ronald Reagan was waging a war on drugs.

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PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: We can defeat this enemy, but we still have much to do. Despite our best efforts, illegal cocaine is coming into our country at alarming levels.

LYDEN: At the time, crack cocaine had decimated African-American communities, and inner cities faced upheaval. Meanwhile, the powdered version of the drug reached a different demographic, who found it irresistible. Perhaps no one portrayed the highs and lows of cocaine culture better in the 1980s, and New York City, than author Jay McInerney.

JAY MCINERNEY: The ethos in fashionable Manhattan was that you worked hard all day, and you stayed up and partied all night; and cocaine seemed to facilitate that kind of approach to life.

LYDEN: McInerney's novel "Bright Lights, Big City" became a literary sensation for a generation. It captured a culture of glitz, glamour and cocaine.

MCINERNEY: In the space of a few years, cocaine went from being something that was surreptitiously snorted off of toilet stalls in these kind of grimy clubs, to something that was being done on tabletops in chic restaurants by investment bankers. (Laughing) It was a status symbol.

LYDEN: So what happened? To find out more, we turn to Peter Reuter again, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies the drug trade.

REUTER: I'm notoriously a skeptic about the official numbers, but I'm fairly convinced that there has, in fact, been a big decline. What caused it? I think there are two things going on. One is sort of a long-term effect, which is just the aging of the cocaine-dependent population. If you look at people showing up in treatment programs for cocaine problems, they've gotten older each year. You see the same thing with people who are arrested, and who turn out to be positive for cocaine. They're getting older in almost every city.

On the supply side, the answer is either Mexico or Colombia, or both. That is, in Mexico, there's been this huge increase in violence. The trade is very disrupted, and that probably has simply raised the price at which things get sold out of Mexico. There've also been some shifts in Colombia. The Colombian government, which has been very weak for a long time, is now substantially stronger. They have cut back production. They may have also contributed to the decline in consumption.

LYDEN: Let's talk about this because we heard so much, for such a long time, about enforcement. And you're saying that really, demand is what is lower.

REUTER: That's correct. You know, drugs are fashion goods. You get people who are addicted. For them, it's not a fashion; it's an addiction. But for the rest of the population, you know, this drug's in vogue; now, it's out of fashion. A new drug comes along. The question is, what is the new drug that's come along?

LYDEN: You took the words out of my mouth. I think we're all interested to know.

REUTER: Yes. And it's not clear that there is any single drug. There are lots of drugs that come and go. And they have a niche for a while; and then they turn out not to be so great, and they go out of fashion. It's unclear that there's something that has replaced cocaine in the poorer populations that have been traditionally the heavy users of the drug.

LYDEN: Whether cocaine simply went out of fashion - or not - may, however, depend on your vantage point.

DANIEL MEJIA: The decreasing cocaine consumption in the last five years has been more rapid, and this is basically due not to the vanishing of the epidemic, but due to policies - successful policies that started to be implemented in Colombia after 2008.

LYDEN: That's Daniel Mejia. He's the director of the Research Center on Drugs and Security, at the University of the Andes in Bogota, Colombia. For decades, Colombia was the front line of the American war on drugs. Pablo Escobar, for example, the drug kingpin killed in 1993, was almost a household name in America. Even as late as 2000, Colombia still grew 74 percent of the world's coca leaves.

Despite pumping billions of dollars into the country to root out the cartels and the crops used to make the drug, it wasn't until 2008, when a new defense minister - who is now Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos Calderon - came to office. And he changed the strategy.

MEJIA: He basically changed the antidrug strategy in Colombia, making less emphasis in attacking the coca crops. Basically, what he did was to increase seizures, and increase the detection and destruction of the labs - or the processing facilities - that are used to transform coca leaf into cocaine. And that created a huge supply shock from Colombia. Net cocaine supply from Colombia was reduced by about 50 percent. It was reflected in an increase in cocaine prices in the U.S., between 2007 and 2008, of about 40 to 50 percent. That was a tremendous increase that must have had an effect on cocaine consumption.

LYDEN: The new approach, focusing on seizures in labs, was a departure from a U.S. effort called Plan Colombia, a multibillion-dollar partnership to stabilize the South American country and in turn, reduce the supply of cocaine. In Colombia itself, the results were mixed.

MEJIA: Let me put it this way: Plan Colombia was both a security strategy and an antidrug strategy. As a security strategy, I think no one disagrees that Plan Colombia was a complete success. The homicide rate was reduced by more than 50 percent within a period of just eight years. Kidnappings went down by 90 - more than 90 percent; extortion attacks by illegal armed groups; etc. Everything you look at in Colombia, in terms of security - everything has improved.

LYDEN: As an antidrug strategy however, there were consequences.

MEJIA: And the cooperation between Colombia and the U.S., it has worked in some dimensions, but it has been extremely costly as well, in terms of violence and corruption. And I think that debate is starting to take shape in the region - and with the U.S., actually - on trying to figure out more effective and less costly alternatives to the war on drugs. And the U.S. has, I have to say, that has been open to this debate so far. So...

LYDEN: Back in the U.S., to find out whether the decline of cocaine is a change in fashion or a change in policy, we turned to the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske. He's also known as the drug czar.

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Well, there are a couple things that are going on. First of all, the production in South America has really fallen. And second, the appetite for cocaine, in this country, has fallen.

LYDEN: And what do you attribute that to?

KERLIKOWSKE: Well, if I knew all the answers, I would probably be some high-paid consultant. But here as a government employee, I can tell you a couple important parts. One is that there is just a strong understanding about the dangers of cocaine; and that's particularly true in the African-American community, which was very much devastated by crack cocaine.

We also, of course, see that the reason that these production levels have fallen in - particularly Colombia, which is an outstanding example, is not only the enforcement but the fact that alternative crops are available to those farmers who were growing coca.

LYDEN: Since the '80s, how has drug enforcement changed? Has it shifted, to some degree, in response to drug trafficking?

KERLIKOWSKE: I think the last four years, the enforcement effort has changed not only rapidly, but dramatically. And it is one in which it is much more public health-focused. We're seeing some really innovative collaborations at the state and local level, to get people into drug treatment rather than incarceration. We're seeing some partnerships that - between drug treatment programs and law enforcement and, of course, drug courts, which now number about 2,600 in this country; and the research shows that they work very well.

LYDEN: So would it be fair to say - coming back to cocaine - that it isn't any longer the office's chief concern?

KERLIKOWSKE: I would say that it's still a concern, but it's very difficult to kind of prioritize or rank order. I mean, when we look at prescription drugs and the number of deaths that are occurring, those are greater than the deaths from cocaine and heroin combined.

LYDEN: At this point, would you say that other drugs are becoming more fashionable or desirable than cocaine, here in the U.S.?

KERLIKOWSKE: We don't really see that. I mean, I'm often asked what's the nation's drug problem, and we really have a series of regional drug problems, not a national drug problem. So people could say, gee, they'll switch to heroin, or they'll go to prescription drugs - both of which are certainly problematic in the United States. But the research really does not support the - people leaving cocaine and then going to another drug.

LYDEN: Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The price of cocaine is way up from its glory days in the 1980s. And the culture has moved on from lyrics like this:

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J.J. CALE: (Singing) If you want to hang out, you've got to take her out, cocaine...

LYDEN: The singer-songwriter J.J. Cale wrote and performed the song "Cocaine" in 1976. Coming up, we'll have a remembrance of J.J. Cale who passed away last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COCAINE")

CALE: (Singing) She don't lie, she don't lie, she don't lie. Cocaine. If you got bad news, you want to kick them blues, cocaine...

LYDEN: You're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

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