Category Archives: regulation

Need Versus Greed: the Complex Nature of Opium Farming in the North East of India

This blog was written by Romesh Bhattacharji, former Narcotics Commissioner of India, founding member of the Institute of Narcotics Studies and Analysis (INSA) and GDPO Technical Advisor

During the shooting of the film Raw Opium in March 2009 I was interviewed in a poor man’s steep and low yielding opium field in Kadong village of Anjaw district in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, India. The village is a good three hours uphill march from a motorable mountain road. I was overwhelmed by the unrelenting misery that I saw amongst the poor who cultivate opium mainly for their own use and barter the small surplus for essentials like utensils and kerosene oil. Faced with such abysmal poverty and the continuing brutal living conditions, I was so sad and swamped by waves of ineffective empathy that I forgot to highlight the fact that there are both rich and poor cultivators.  As soon as I saw the finished film a year later I realised that I ought to have distinguished between those that farm on account of need and those that are producing poppies commercially.

poor man's opium field on a steep hill side (photo: Romesh Bhattacharji)

A poor man’s opium field on a steep hill side (photo: Romesh Bhattacharji)

Within a year of filming Raw Opium in Arunachal Pradesh, some ex-narcocrats got together to form a think tank – the Institute for Narcotics Studies and Analysis (INSA) – to analyse the drug laws and consequential problems in India. I helped plan a survey that would quantify as precisely as possible opium cultivation and its use in Anjaw and Lohit districts in Arunachal Pradesh, a border state in the North East of India.

The actual survey, carried out by young college students from opium cultivating families, found that a few rich farmers (less than 15%) produced the large majority of the opium. It was noted that the villages close to the road cultivated opium on a commercial scale, while those away from the road (especially in Anjaw district) did so only to provide marginal subsistence and support their addiction. The wealthier farmers have benefited the most from development programmes including financial subsidies for businesses and agriculture such as orange orchards and cardamom plantations, help with marketing their products, interest free loans, free school and college education and free electricity, as well as large-scale government investment in infrastructure projects such as dams, all weather roads, hospitals and schools, employment schemes and health care.    

The rich farmers, who were once poor themselves, have  properties all over the region and are now able to send their children away to be educated to become engineers, bureaucrats, businessmen, doctors, professors, politicians and so on. The poor opium cultivators now hope that one day roads will reach their villages so that they can also become rich by growing opium on a commercial scale. It should be noted however, that many villages reported that they are ready to give up opium cultivation if a viable agricultural alternative is available.

Approximately 95% of villages in Anjaw and 89% of villages in Lohit district had opium addicts: the total number of addicts was almost 11,000 in number in both the districts (largely males but also about a 1000 females). In both districts there were addicts as young as 15 years old. Very few addicts received treatment but a number of them – almost 1600 addicts – were interested in the possibility of treatment. Unfortunately most of the villages did not have any health care facilities nor were there any community efforts in this direction.  It should be noted that whilst locally grown opium is sometimes used for medicinal and ritual purposes, it is increasingly used to support addiction.

A line has to be drawn between greed and need. Those in the former category are selling opium to neighbouring states, to new and old users, and for conversion to heroin. Such cultivators deserve the full brunt of efficient eradication and jail. Those that are poor often grow the opium for their own use and therefore deserve to be given access to opium via the now defunct Opium Registry.  The Government of India set up the Opium Registry in 1971 whereby registered opium users received doctor-certified dosages of opium from government stores.  At the beginning of the programme there were about 300,000 people enrolled on the programme. More than forty years later, less than a handful are alive to benefit from it and new users are not added to the programme.  All over India there are at least 2 million opium users. They get their doses from illicit cultivation and from diversion from licit opium cultivation.  

It is my belief that the Opium Registry should be revived on order to curb opium cultivation. If the opium user/cultivator is given opium by the government he or she will not need to cultivate it. Opium fields could then be eradicated without endangering any one’s health.  In 1999, whilst Narcotics Commissioner, I recommended that the Government of India revive the system but the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) objected, and the idea was dropped. In 2004 the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC) of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi held a workshop where this topic was discussed further, but nothing came of it.    

I have been monitoring the plight of the poor opium cultivators since my first visit to the region in January 1987. More than two score visits followed. Until 2003, as Narcotics Commissioner of India, I used to help eradicate illicit opium fields in these parts and elsewhere in India. In India it is still being done as tenderly as possible: no one is arrested and in the operations I participated in, a little would be left for personal use. 

The local government administrators in the late 1980s and early 1990s thought that development and eradication would wean the cultivators away from opium cultivation. It did for a while and the opium available for sale decreased. By the end of the 1990s there were only small cultivators. There were a few large fields but these were collectively cultivated by entire villages. By the end of the 1990s opium cultivation was down to a few hectares in these two districts. However in recent years things have changed and now poppy cultivation is in the thousands of hectares.

The young were initially against opium cultivation but their elders would not listen as they required it for their own use. Development did improve the lives of some villages: electricity and computers have reached wherever the roads have gone, where people once had to walk for days to get to the district headquarters, there are now many buses and taxis and privately owned vehicles plying the roads round the clock; where earlier most people were poorly clothed, they are now dressed in jeans and warm jackets and the young now deliver opium on expensive motorbikes; previously everyone in the district lived off the land, many now have different occupations. In the past they were reluctant to leave their homes and families as they would have no news from their families for months but now they have mobile phones and computers which have helped them leave their homes for employment all over the country.

However despite these improvements in living standards for some, poverty is still rampant in the region and poppy growth is on the rise once again.  As has been mentioned above, now those who have gained from the improvements in infrastructure have turned to farming opium for commercial use rather than in order to survive.

‘The Dilemmas of Drug Policy: Global to local’

On Wednesday 19th February GDPO hosted a film screening of ‘Raw Opium: Pain, Pleasure, Profits’ followed by a panel discussion ‘The Dilemmas of Drug Policy: Global to local’.

Raw Opium-300-q90The film itself follows the trade in opium/heroin from a poppy growing region of India, over the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border and on to Vancouver’s supervised injection site – Insite – to Portugal’s drug dissuasion committees.  There are largely insightful interviews with poppy growers in Arunachal Pradesh, India, a UNDOC enforcement officer on the Tajik-Afghan border, a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officer, the former Indian Narcotics Commissioner Romesh Bhattacharji (and GDPO Technical Advisor) as well as members of the Insite team, Gabor Mate (a doctor who works in Vancouver with problematic drug users), and Portuguese street workers who offer support and food to drug users on the streets.  It also talks to some of those that use the supervised injection site in Vancouver about why they started using drugs and what Insite means to them.  The film is a powerful exploration of the local and global impacts of the trade.

Building upon many of the issues raised within the film, the accompanying panel discussion explored global nature of the illicit market in heroin and other controlled drugs as an area of public policy concern.

Panel members:

Julia Buxton (Chair)  GDPO Senior Research Officer and Professor of Comparative Politics, School of Public Policy at the Central European University, Budapest

Baroness Molly Meacher  Chair, All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Drug Policy Reform

Ifor Glyn  Chief Executive, SANDS Cymru

Mike Trace  Chief Executive, The Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust (RAPt), Chair, International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) steering group, former Deputy UK Anti-Drug Coordinator

David Bewley-Taylor  GDPO Director and Professor of International Relations and Public Policy, Swansea University

Kicking off the discussion, Professor Bewley-Taylor emphasised the global nature of the heroin/opium trade.  In this regard, he noted that in 2012-13 there had been a 36% rise in opium production in Afghanistan and that poppies are now being grown in provinces that had previously been designated ‘poppy-free.  He also pointed out that after full ‘Transition’ at the end of 2014, the security situation is likely to worsen with a consequence being that poppy production will continue to increase.  Despite a range of complexities and uncertainties concerning the opium market, any increase in production in Afghanistan may well result in a decrease in price and an increase in purity of heroin on the streets of the UK.

This may have a direct impact upon the heroin markets in Swansea.  On a local level, it was noted by Ifor Glyn that the city has a growing problem with heroin use.  Twenty years ago there was very little heroin use in Swansea and the surrounding area.  Today it is one of the main drugs used by clients at SANDS CYMRU.  This seems to be part of a broader principality-wide situation, with an estimated 17,000 problematic drug users in Wales.  In response, since devolution,  the Welsh Assembly Government has become more innovative regarding drug policy and has invested £32 million into the issue area.  The Advisory Panel on Substance Misuse – the Welsh version of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) – has recognised that there is a need for drug consumption rooms like the Insite facility shown in the film.  They have also looked into heroin prescription similar to the model used in Switzerland.  On this point, Baroness Meacher noted that the Swiss model provides a wide range of support services from heroin maintenance to counselling and housing support. She also pointed out that it is estimated that for every 1 Swiss Franc (CHF) spent on this programme, the tax payer is saved CHF2.

Whilst the Welsh government has not instituted drug consumption rooms or heroin maintenance as yet, they are considering new approaches to drug policy.  Public Health Wales has set up a government-funded drug testing service – the Wedinos project – where people can have their ‘legal highs’ (or Novel Psychoactive Substances) tested to find out what substances they contain.  It aims to give individual users rapid and accurate information to reduce harms associated with drug use.

On national level issues, Baroness Meacher highlighted that UK Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, has ‘come out’ in favour of a review of the UK Misuse of Drugs Act  but that Labour and the Conservatives are still resistant to change.  Panel members concurred that politicians often do not engage with drug policy reform because there is a fear that being supportive of decriminalisation or legalisation can be politically damaging.  For example, at the 2002 Home Affairs Select Committee (of which David Cameron was a member) it was agreed that it was necessary to review the MDA.  Cameron supported this but when he became Prime Minister, he jettisoned this proposal.

In response to a question from the audience asking why drug policy is not simply left to the ‘experts’, Baroness Meacher noted that in the UK policy is driven by the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) and therefore the only people who can change this are politicians.  Scientists, such as members of the ACMD, do their best but are often ignored.  A recent example of this was UK Home Secretary Theresa May’s announcement that the drug khat would become a banned substance against the ACMD’s advice.  You can read more about the ban on the khat trade in GDPO’s Situation Analysis – The UK khat ban: Likely adverse consequences.

On the international level, it seems that rhetorically at least, there has been a shift in emphasis from criminalisation to a more public health orientated approach.  There has been a recognition in much of the world that punishment shouldn’t be a tool of demand reduction.  The UN is holding a special session (UNGASS) on drug policy in 2016 and, as outlined by Mike Trace, diplomats are currently trying to agree on a Joint Ministerial Statement (JMS) that will set the scene for the UNGASS, as well as recording member states’ views of progress towards the goals set at the UN Political Declaration on drugs in 2009.  It is becoming clear, however, that there is little consensus around the issue.    According to Mike Trace states involved in the JMS process can be broadly divided into three camps:

  • Reformers – e.g. Latin American states such as Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala
  • Re-balancers – e.g. European nations who agree that drug policy should be health-based rather than criminal justice-based.
  • Defenders – usually authoritarian countries e.g. Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan.  For these countries the War on Drugs is handy for pacifying citizens.

Member states will attend the annual Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting in Vienna in March for a ‘High-Level Segment’ in order to finalise the Join Ministerial Statement.  But, as yet, there is little agreement on what it should contain. 

Another area of discussion centred on drug policy reform and the relationship between support at the government level and public opinion.

In many countries public opinion on drug policy is way ahead of the politicians.  Mike Trace noted that in the US public support in favour of legalisation has shot up in recent years and now hovers around the 60% mark.  As a result of this jump in public support, more and more US politicians are coming out in favour of cannabis reform particularly since the voter initiatives in Washington and Colorado in 2012.

A Gallup poll produced last October shows how support for legalisation has changed over time.

marijuana-legalization-support-gallup-poll

The situation is somewhat different in the UK where there is no option for voter-driven referendums. However, Mike Trace noted that within 24 hours of an online campaign run by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Avaaz hitting 100,000 signatures, all three main political parties became more eager to discuss the issue.  It seems that even in the UK politicians are becoming aware that the public mood might be shifting.

In July 2013 the Research and Documentation Centre (WODC) of the Netherlands Ministry of Security and Justice asked RAND Europe to provide a multinational overview of cannabis production regimes.  The result of this research was a report that summarises differing cannabis production regimes across the world.  It also analyses official statements and/or legal decisions made about production regimes for non-medical and non-scientific purposes (i.e. recreational use for adults). 

Because GDPO has been following developments in cannabis policy across the world, particularly in the US, we decided it would be worthwhile to summarise some of the key points made in this important piece of research.  The report focuses on four key case studies: Spain, Belgium, the USA and Uruguay.

Spain – “Following several Supreme Court rulings, the possession and consumption of cannabis is no longer considered a criminal offence, and the jurisprudence in the field has tended to interpret the existing legislation in a way that permits ‘shared consumption’ and cultivation for personal use when grown in a private place.”

These legal developments have allowed hundreds of Cannabis Social Clubs (CSC) to be established although they still operate in a legal grey area.  The report identifies a number of conditions that need to be met in order for the Spanish CSC to be considered to “act in accordance with recurring criteria defined in case law.”

  • The CSC must aim to reduce the harms associated with the consumption of cannabis, decreasing for instance the risk of adulteration of the substance.
  • The premises must be closed to the public, and entrance must be only allowed to members (who should be regular consumers of cannabis).
  • The members must only obtain and consume the average quantity of cannabis. The CSC must not allow traffic of cannabis among its members.
  • The cannabis obtained from the CSC by its members is for immediate use on the CSC premises, to prevent others from having access to the substance.
  • There should be no payment/fee for access to the substance, or a limited one.” (pg. 10)

Belgium – “The Belgian CSC ‘Trekt Uw Plant’ (‘Pull Your Plant’) is a non-profit organization initiated in 2006, following the 2005 joint guideline (as issued by the Minister of Justice and the College of Public Prosecutors) which assigned the lowest possible priority to prosecution for possession of up to three grams of cannabis or one cultivated cannabis plant.”  

Trekt Uw Plant allows its members to produce cannabis collectively in closed private spaces in a number of cities (Antwerp, Luik, Brussels and Hasselt) with a ‘one plant per person’ policy.  Since establishing Trekt Uw Plant a number of members have been charged with a variety of offences from possession of cannabis to encouraging drug use, however none of charges have stuck.  The report sets out how Trekt Uw Plant operates:

“Each member pays a contribution for the costs incurred for raising the plants and every two or three months a so-called ‘exchange fair’ takes place in a private space, where members receive the harvest of their own cannabis plant (Trekt Uw Plant, 2013). In August 2013 Trekt Uw Plant consisted of 304 members, with departments in several cities and a medicinal division (Trekt Uw Plant, 2013). Eligibility for membership in Trekt Uw Plant is restricted to adults who live in Belgium, are cannabis users, are informed about the Belgian Drug Law regarding cannabis, support the organisation’s aims, and endorse its statutes and decisions (Trekt Uw Plant, 2006; Plant, n.d.), and membership is open to both non-medical and medical cannabis users (Verbond voor Opheffing van het Cannabisverbod, 2010). The organisation is based on a not-for-profit principle and is financially supported through donations, loans, membership contributions, legacies and other awards (Trekt Uw Plant, 2006).”(pg. 18)  

United States – The RAND report analyses the developments in Washington and Colorado where legal regulation of cannabis was instituted by voter initiatives in November 2012.  The report notes that, “Both states now allow adults aged 21 and older to possess up to one ounce (28.35 grams) of cannabis and larger weights of cannabis-infused beverages and edibles, and Colorado allows home growing (up to 6 plants), but the significant change is the licensing of large-scale commercial cannabis businesses. The initiatives tasked state agencies with developing regimes to license and regulate for-profit cannabis firms.”

In Colorado, the commercial market is regulated by the Marijuana Enforcement Division, operating under the Department of Revenue, and based on the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division, which already regulates the medical cannabis market. Colorado’s regulatory system of production and supply came in to force on 1st January 2014 and it’s estimated that recreational cannabis sales exceeded $5million in the first week alone.  An NBC News survey published on 3rd February indicates that taxes raised from cannabis sales have netted the state $1.24 million in tax revenue in the first month.  It is possible that the sales will not continue at these levels once the novelty has worn off, however Mason Tvert, director of communications for Marijuana Policy Project argues that the so-called “Colorado experiment” will continue to show impressive sales, “obviously this is just the first month of sales and only a fraction of the businesses that are expected to be open are currently operating.”

In Washington where the Liquor Control Board (LCB) is in charge of regulating the industry, no date has formally been stated for the opening of stores but its thought they might be ready for sales by June of 2014. The LCB started accepting applications for licenses on November 18th 2013.

Whilst cannabis is still illegal under federal law, in August 2013 the US Department of Justice issued a memo that set out eight enforcement priorities in the light of the votes in Washington and Colorado:

  • Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
  • Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
  • Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
  • Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for
  • the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
  • Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana
  • Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences
  • associated with marijuana use;
  • Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and
  • environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
  • Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

Uruguay – On 31st July 2013 Uruguay’s House of Representatives voted in favour of a bill to regulate the production, sale and use of cannabis.  Details of the bill can be found here (in Spanish).  This bill was then passed to the Senate who approved the bill by 16 to 13 votes on 10th December.  President Mujica signed the bill into law at the end of December with the first sales likely to be in April 2014.

The bill will, “create a new public agency, the Instituto de Regulacion y Control del Cannabis [IRCCA], to issue permits for production by for-profit companies, and maintain registries for users and those who want to (1) grow at home (up to six plants), (2) participate in collectives (between 15 and 45 members who maintain up to 99 plants at any given point) and (3) purchase at pharmacies (up to 40 grams per month produced by licensed companies).”

The RAND report identifies four crucial distinctions between these case studies:

The first is whether the activity pertains only to distribution within cannabis clubs, as in Belgium and Spain, or whether larger scale and overtly for-profit activity is or would be permitted, as in Colorado, Washington and Uruguay. The second distinction pertains to whether government action is undertaken by the national government or by a subnational jurisdiction that has some degree of sovereignty under that country’s constitution.  Uruguay’s situation is the only one that involves a national government passing a law with respect to activity that is clearly meant to be suppressed by the international treaties. The third issue is the role government employees do or do not play in production and distribution. In Belgium and Spain, there is no role. In Colorado and Washington the role is indirect, in the form of licensing and regulating but not participating in the trade. A final distinction pertains to how overt the officially banned but nonetheless tolerated activity can be. In Belgium, if the cannabis clubs are visible in the manner of Trekt Uw Plant, law enforcement may act, albeit perhaps half-heartedly. By contrast, cannabis production and distribution in Uruguay and the United States will involve fully open activities; cannabis business will be registered with, and will pay taxes to, the government.” (pg. xi-x)

As well as reviewing these four case studies, the report also refers to a number of the other countries (or jurisdictions) that have either allowed production of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes (Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, France, Israel, Germany, the United Kingdom and Switzerland) or have had discussions about changing the laws on cannabis production for recreational use (e.g. Chile, Denmark, Portugal and Switzerland and Copenhagen City Council).

This report is a fantastic resource for those anyone interested in the ways that cannabis policy is developing across the globe.

Citation for the report is as follows: Kilmer, Beau, Kristy Kruithof, Mafalda Pardal, Jonathan P. Caulkins and Jennifer Rubin. Multinational overview of cannabis production regimes. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013. http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR510

The Beginning of the End for the Pot Prohibition

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The beginning of the end for the ‘war on weed’ in the US?

A new survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports in August 2013 shows that 82% of Americans think the US is losing the war on drugs. Only 4% of respondents believe the US is winning this war. This survey comes at a sensitive time for US commitment to the ‘war on drugs’ or the ‘war on weed’ at least.

In November 2012 two US states – Washington and Colorado – voted to tax and regulate recreational adult use of cannabis. Earlier this year Pew Research found a majority of the public – 52% – think the drug should be legal. The same poll also found that almost three quarters of Americans – 72% – think that efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth.

Now it seems that even the federal government is having doubts about the benefits of criminalising pot smokers. In August US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that low level, nonviolent drug offenders with no history of ties to gangs or organised crime shouldn’t be charged with offences that carry mandatory minimum sentences.

Also in August CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta (reportedly Obama’s choice for US Surgeon General, though Gupta turned the post down) made a documentary about the medical benefits of marijuana. Gupta argued that the DEA’s insistence that cannabis has “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse” has little scientific basis and that the American public has been “systematically misled” about cannabis and apologized for his role in this. The White House has refused to comment on Gupta’s documentary and in fact since Obama took office raids on medical marijuana dispensaries have increased.

On 29th of August 2013 the Department of Justice released a memorandum to US attorneys and law enforcement officials noting that whilst they should continue to enforce the federal government’s prohibition on marijuana the main focus in those states that allow some form of cannabis use – either for recreational purposes such as Washington and Colorado – or for medical use should be on eight key areas:

• Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
• Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
• Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
• Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
• Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
• Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
• Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property

This guidance is an attempt to resolve the tensions between state laws and federal law with regards to cannabis. The commitment to maintaining the prohibition on pot is essential – not least because they are signed up to international treaties such as the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – however Obama has been open about his own weed smoking as a college student and must find it hard to ignore the shifting public opinion especially when more people voted to tax and regulate pot in Colorado than voted for him.

So the big question many drug law reformers in the US are asking is, ‘Is this the beginning of the end for pot prohibition?’