Poppy cultivation in Badakhshan, Afghanistan. Getty Images / Paula Bronstein. All rights reserved. In April 2016, the international community will convene for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS). This event, held two years early due to the urgency of the drug situation and intensity of drug-related violence, presents an opportunity to question the fundamentals of international drug policy. Despite overwhelming evidence that a century-long quest to control human behaviour and drug markets through international treaties and national legislation has failed, there is little expectation of change. The vested interests in retaining the status quo are significant, with sclerosis legitimised through the recurrent exhortation to improve international co-operation.
Major institutional and policy change is required and will ultimately be unavoidable. The treaty system and international drug control institutions stemming from the first international drug conference in 1909 have set us on an orientation within drug policy that does not reflect the dynamics of global drug markets or protect us from drug related harms. Control efforts and resources are skewed toward drugs such as cocaine and heroin, when synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine dominate markets. Enforcement is focused on countries of the global south, when the global north is the world’s key zone for the manufacture and export of illicit substances, and where the bulk of drug trade profits are realised.
Framed by history
From its initiation, the drug control system has responded to the perceived risk from narcotic plants grown in the global south. In 1909, the ‘great powers’ of the day met in Shanghai to discuss controls on opium, a freely traded commodity derived from opium poppy. The result was a seismic market shift, overturning centuries of colonial engagement in opium poppy cultivation in far flung empires of south Asia, and ending the popular use of opium for purposes of pain or pleasure.
The resulting 1912 International Opium Convention of The Hague was the first international drug treaty. It set the intellectual and institutional direction for the drug control system, strategies and approaches that operate today. To put it another way, today we respond to the complex, transnational challenges of HIV/AIDS, internet-based drug sales and international organised crime through a framework devised by imperial powers at a time when women could not vote or wear trousers, when nose size and skin colour were seen to determine brain size and civility, and when addiction was understood as a problem of ‘godlessness’.
The vested interests in retaining the status quo are significant.
Over the course of a century, the treaty system has evolved through to the most recent 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, incorporating into the control system a diversity of plants, weeds, shrubs and chemicals deemed “evil” and harmful to the “health and welfare of mankind”. At no point has the United Nations, which administers and oversees the treaty system, reconsidered first principles – as set out in 1912 and institutionalised in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – that it is desirable or even possible for states to prohibit access to a selected range of intoxicating substances.
Sovereign states remain locked into the goal of eliminating, or at least significantly curbing the production, distribution and use of drugs. They must cooperate on international control efforts and, in line with the 1961 Single Convention, they are required to treat participation in the drug trade as “punishable offences when committed intentionally”, and as “serious offences […] liable to adequate punishment particularly by imprisonment or other penalties of deprivation of liberty”.
A legacy of failure
These efforts to control human behaviour and to terminate the supply of harmful substances cannot succeed, even if recurrently stepped up, militarised and coercively enforced. According to the latest figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 1 out of 20 people between the ages of 15 and 64 years used an illicit drug in 2013. This is despite punitive national policies to prevent consumption, including by depriving users of illegal drugs of their freedom, access to their children, employment and medical care, and even their right to life.
The use of cocaine, heroin, cannabis and amphetamines remains a ‘global habit’ in a borderless world, configured around a sophisticated, lucrative and innovative transnational market that supplies a diversity of ever cheaper drugs to an estimated 246 million people.
The 1961 Single Convention looked to eliminate opium use within 15 years, with a 25-year schedule for cocaine and cannabis. In 1998, the UN promoted a “drug-free world”, to be achieved within ten years, and a host of cultivating countries have, over the decades, committed to achieving zero-cultivation of narcotic drug crops. But just as demand reduction targets have never been met, neither have those relating to supply. At over 7,000 tonnes in 2014, opium production reached its highest level since the 1930s. There was an estimated 120,000 hectares under coca bush cultivation in 2013 (with potential for the manufacture of 662 to 902 tonnes of cocaine). Meanwhile, as stated in the UNODC’s “World Drug Report 2015”, advances “in cannabis plant cultivation techniques and the use of genetically selected strains have led to an increase in the number of cannabis harvests, as well as in the yield and potency of cannabis”.
As set out by Yury Fedotov, executive director of the UNODC, “we have to admit that, globally, the demand for drugs has not been substantially reduced and that some challenges exist in the implementation of the drug control system”. This acknowledgement has not led to any questioning of mission, or the plausibility of prohibiting access to certain drugs – even with evidence that nine out of ten users are not considered dependent or problematic. Neither has there been engagement with the reality that making certain substances illegal has made them more attractive to produce and supply. Criminalisation has converted freely growing plants into billion dollar crops, high profit margins incentivise illicit supply, while the ‘success’ of drug seizures serves only to elevate prices. A utopian goal is being pursued through a strategy that makes it unachievable.
A northern bias
In policy and implementation, drug control remains overwhelmingly preoccupied with opium poppy and coca leaf. International counter-narcotics efforts and assistance – both military and development – have focused on ‘producer’ states such as Colombia, Bolivia and Peru (coca leaf), Mexico (opium poppy) and south Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Burma and Laos PDR (opium poppy). However, as successive UNODC World Drug Reports demonstrate, opioids and cocaine are not the most widely consumed drugs, or arguably the most dangerous.
Contemporary drug markets, measured in terms of seizures and reported use, are increasingly dominated by synthetic drugs: ‘Amphetamine Type Substances’ (ATS) such as methamphetamine and amphetamine, as well as Ecstasy (MDMA) and a raft of ‘New Psychoactive Substances’ (NPS) of which 450 were reported in 2014. The key manufacture and export zones for these drugs are not the global south, but west and east European countries and north America. Patterns of drug flows are the reverse of the dynamics envisioned in the treaty framework. The old delineation of consumer and producer states no longer exists, and the global north is now the key producer region, including for cannabis.
This raises the more difficult question of accounting for the inconsistent application of counter-narcotics efforts, and the gross inequalities in terms of costs and impacts. An estimated 164,000 people were killed during the counter-narcotics surge of 2007 to 2014 in Mexico, a death toll higher than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. But the thought of militarising supply control in the Netherlands – a leading producer country – on the level experienced by Mexico, is unconscionable. Why are Colombia, Bolivia and Afghanistan acceptable theatres for violent weaponised counter-narcotic operations, and not Poland or Canada?
Moreover, the lack of high level violence in the drug markets of these northern producer countries signifies that illicit markets can be peaceful. From this perspective, it is the disruptive market interventions, weapons flows and training of paramilitary counter-narcotics units that are the drivers of violence in the global south, not the drug markets themselves. Similarly, in relation to northern interventions, how can it be the case that the EU and US fund cannabis eradication in the global south while legalising or decriminalising domestically?
The north’s deflection of its leading role in the drug trade is institutionalised in the treaty system and international drug control institutions. The result is that we have remarkably little information about the evolving threats to mankind’s ‘health and welfare’ posed by synthetics. As set out in the preface to the 2013 World Drug Report, ATS use “remains widespread globally, and appears to be increasing in most regions”, with crystalline methamphetamine “an imminent threat”. Yet while we have each hectare of coca and opium meticulously researched, there is a paucity of data and information on the manufacture of synthetic drugs, or their consumption. It was not until 2008 that the UNODC launched dedicated ATS analysis through the UNODC Global SMART Program (Synthetics Monitoring: Analyses, Reporting and Trends), with the aim of generating, analysing and reporting on the synthetic drug market, and improving global responses to the rise in ATS manufacture, trafficking and consumption.
A utopian goal is being pursued through a strategy that makes it unachievable.
Drug control is constantly re-legitimised by a moral narrative of protecting health, welfare and security. Yet by downplaying the role of European and North American countries in the drug trade, and the historical salience of synthetic markets by default, the system is creating public health risks, it cannot anticipate change in dynamic markets, and it has an insufficient evidence base for policy. Indicative of this is the acknowledgement in the 2016 World Drug Report that, “the sheer number, diversity and transient nature of NPS currently on the market partly explain why there are still only limited data available on the prevalence of use of many NPS. Those difficulties also explain why both the regulation of NPS and the capacity to address health problems related to NPS continue to be challenging.”
In 2012, the International Narcotic Control Board that monitors treaty enforcement, set out that, “dividing countries into the categories of “drug-producing”, “drug-consuming” or “transit countries” has long ceased to be realistic. To varying degrees, all countries are drug-producers and drug-consumers and have drugs transiting through them.” Despite institutional acknowledgement of market transformations, the new geopolitical realities of the drug trade are not reflected in enforcement activities, in the language of drug control institutions, or in the allocation of resources for research, education, treatment and rehabilitation. These remain concentrated on coca and opium poppy, cocaine and heroin.
From the local to the global level, we are, with some small exceptions, locked into arcane, counterproductive and illogical policies that violate fundamental rights and freedoms, spread disease, exacerbate violence, and which impede development – in the view of other UN agencies. The UNODC, which sits in an institutional silo, uses the benign term “unintended consequences” to refer to the wholly negative impact of counter-narcotics policies and how these are disproportionately borne along stratified racial, class and geographic lines. The myths, Victorian moralism and hypocrisy that frame international drug policy need to be confronted if we are to progress to rights-based interventions that genuinely reduce harm. In other words, drug policies which are fit for the twenty-first century.
This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.