BOGOTA, Colombia, March 26 (Reuters) - More than three years and $2 billion later, Colombia's U.S.-backed anti-drug offensive is still not affecting the U.S. cocaine market, the head of the U.S. government's anti-drug effort said on Friday.
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"Plan Colombia," backed by more than $2 billion in mainly military U.S. aid, began in late 2000, but it took time to deliver equipment and resources, the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, John Walters, told Reuters by telephone.
Drug crop eradication has hit full speed in the past two years, the U.S. "drug czar" said, and the area in Colombia sown with cocaine's raw material, coca leaf, has shrunk by a third.
But prices in the United States still have not risen, indicating the drug is still getting through.
"The magnitude of what's happening in Colombia will in the next six to 12 months begin to show up," Walters said.
Walters made a similar prediction in July, when he also said effects on the U.S. market would appear within a year. But the U.S. Congress has so far been willing to wait.
"There's gotta be some impact on the street in the United States," said Eric Akers, staff director of the Senate Drug Caucus. But he said congressional patience was still not running out: "I do think that there are 12 months before .... those questions are going to start having a real effect."
Walters said the first effect on the street would likely be lower purity, as dealers stretch supplies, not higher prices.
"If you raise the price on people who are dependent, when they are basically spending most of their discretionary income on the drug, they start going into crisis and they start going into detox, into treatment, you lose them as a customer," Walters said.
MORE PRODUCTION ELSEWHERE?
Law enforcement officials believe drug traffickers have stockpiles. So far the decline in the coca-growing area in Colombia, far the world's biggest cocaine producer, has not been matched by more cultivation in Peru or Bolivia.
Critics of U.S. policy say focusing on eradication will only lead to more cocaine production elsewhere.
"The cocaine problem consists of people in the U.S. prepared to sell cocaine to other people in the U.S. and people in the U.S. prepared to buy it," said Mark Kleiman, Professor of Policy Studies at University of California, Los Angeles.
About 2 million U.S. citizens use cocaine, once the official remedy of the American Hay Fever Association but banned in the early 20th century. U.S consumption is about 250 tons a year; Europe's is 150-200 tons, and Brazil's 50 tons.
Walters said the pace of crop spraying authorized by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe provided an historic opportunity to break the cocaine trade.
"We are hopeful that sustaining this level for another two years, if necessary, will be sufficient to cause a significant collapse in the infrastructure to make people turn to other activities," he said.
Uribe met President George W. Bush in Washington this week to ask for more U.S. aid to replace Plan Colombia once it runs out in 2005. One of Washington's favorite Latin American leaders, Uribe says he needs to smash the cocaine business because it funds Marxist rebels and far-right paramilitaries.
Walters said Uribe's strategy was paying off.
"We've seen effects inside Colombia with some of the groups, some of the armed groups making money off of this, having shortages," he said.
He expected U.S. support for Colombia to continue.
"We cannot rest .... we have to maintain the effort, but we've never been in a better position to strategically change the threat of cocaine in the world today, and that is largely the result of what Colombia has done, and we are grateful for that," Walters said.
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