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Analysis: the awesome power of the illegal high

Hallucinogens as cancer drugs, poppy fields left untouched. Is the focus of the "war on drugs" shifting?

Skeptics point out that two-thirds of Obama’s $15 billion annual drug-control budget is dedicated to interdiction and law enforcement even though many studies show that programs to prevent and treat drug abuse are far more cost effective.

Washington has also poured huge sums into forcibly eradicating plots of coca and opium, the raw materials for cocaine and heroin. But peasant farmers often press deeper into the wilderness to grow more drugs. And around the world, heroin and cocaine remain relatively cheap, potent and widely available.

Last year, Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan, finally acknowledged the obvious. He put a stop to U.S.-supported programs to eradicate opium poppies in that country, saying the effort was turning local communities that depend on drug profits against the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

“Eradication is a waste of money,” Holbrooke said. “It might destroy some acreage, but it didn't reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar. It just helped the Taliban. So we're going to phase out eradication."

Instead, there will be a greater U.S. focus on fighting high-level traffickers and promoting legal economic activities in Afghanistan, the source of 93 percent of the world’s heroin.

In Colombia, Washington is sharply drawing down the budget for forced eradication of coca and opium, though the idea is for the Colombian government to take over some of those chores. Yet both governments have endorsed a more “holistic” approach.

In former guerrilla and drug-trafficking strongholds where the Colombian government is trying to win over the civilian population, eradication is being closely coordinated with efforts to set up police stations, build roads and schools and provide alternative sources of employment for farmers trying to leave the drug business.

Then, there’s Mexico where the ferocious violence seems like a flashback to Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s.

Washington is providing the Mexican government with $1.4 billion in equipment and police training to target drug gangs. But since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006, Mexico has registered nearly 23,000 drug-related killings.

Both governments seem at a loss over what to do next which means that, for now, they’ll likely stay the course.

Yet there have been some rhetorical shifts from U.S. officials. Secretary of State Clinton and others have acknowledged American responsibility for domestic drug consumption and for the flow of assault weapons and drug profits to bad guys south of the border. There’s also a growing recognition that Mexico will likely get nowhere unless the government cleans up its corrupt law enforcement agencies.

“There’s a realization that the drug war hasn’t accomplished what had been hoped for,” said John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. “We are seeing some new attitudes but this hasn’t always translated into new policies.”

After years of floundering, however, even small policy changes should be cheered.

And as for what to do in Mexico, policymakers can always turn to The Onion for inspiration. One of its latest dispatches from the drug war was headlined: “DEA hires Lil Wayne to use up all drugs in Mexico.”

John Otis covers Colombia for GlobalPost. He is the author of a new book "Law of the Jungle: The Hunt for Colombian Guerrillas, American Hostages, and Buried Treasure."