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  • Writer's pictureJan Peterson

From Drugs to Flowers

Have you ever wondered why Colombia and Ecuador have become the largest growers of roses? Thank the war on drugs. It might not surprise you to learn that the shift from U.S. grown roses to South American ones happened a few decades ago, when the U.S. and Colombian governments were looking for new ways to stop the flow of cocaine into the U.S.

One part of the strategy was to convince farmers in Colombia to stop growing coca leaves (a traditional Andean plant that provides the raw ingredient for making cocaine) by giving them preferential access to U.S. markets if they grew something else.

In 1991 the Bush Administration with both the Colombian and Ecuadorian governments signed the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. This agreement gave coca-producing countries duty-free access to U.S. markets in exchange for clamping down on growing illegal drugs. Many Colombian and Ecuadorian farms started growing flowers instead of coca and began exporting mainly roses to the United States. In the early days cartels continued to smuggle cocaine in flower boxes, but this has largely gone away with the amount of Customs and Border Protection agents looking through product and sophisticated detection processes implemented at the Miami airport.

The ATPDEA reduced the drug crop in these particular countries and helped create legitimate floral businesses for South American farmers. Some experts feel the drug trade would have grown exponentially if not for the shift to floral imports.

In 2006 The United States Labor Department determined that ATPDEA did not appear to have had a negative impact on U.S. employment. However, this view was not widely shared among U.S. rose farmers. The agreement significantly impacted rose production in the United States and did not stop the cartels from relying on other countries such as Mexico to grow coca.

Whether or not it made a dent in the flow of drugs is debatable; however, the trade agreement radically reshaped the world flower market. The South American flower industry expanded access to the U.S. market while domestic growers were suddenly overwhelmed by the competition. Domestic rose growers could not compete with high energy costs, cheap labor and the duty-free incentives given to South American farms. This resulted in a sharp decline in U.S. growers. South American grown roses have a number of advantages over U.S. grown roses. The milder weather conditions year round and the higher altitudes can produce a stronger, taller, more robust rose. Today there are only a handful of domestic rose farms and the U.S. rose growing industry has declined 95% since 1991.

In recent years about 90% of all roses sold are grown in South America. Did it stop the war on drugs? The consensus is illegal drug imports remain a thriving business and cartels have expanded their reach into human trafficking and other illicit crimes.

"No drug not even alcohol causes the fundamental ills of society. If we are looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn't test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power."

-P.J. O'Rourke

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