Category Archives: modernizing drug law enforcement

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.

Behind the Staggering Rise in Women’s Imprisonment in Latin America

Harsh drug laws are driving a surge in the number of women imprisoned in Latin America.

Between 2006 and 2011, the female prison population in Latin America almost doubled, increasing from 40,000 to more than 74,000 inmates. The vast majority of incarcerated women are in prison for drug-related offenses. Estimates range from:

  • 75–80 percent in Ecuador
  • 30–60 percent in México
  • 64 percent in Costa Rica
  • 60 percent in Brazil
  • 70 percent in Argentina
  • More than 90 percent of Argentina’s foreign female prison population is incarcerated for drugs

As Latin America assumes the lead in reforming drug laws internationally, many domestic laws are incredibly harsh. In some Latin American countries, sentences for drug offenses can be as high as 30 years of imprisonment, often with no distinction between minor offenses and involvement in organized crime.

It is clear today that our punitive law enforcement strategies are unjust and have failed to achieve policymakers’ stated goals: to protect public health and increase public security.

Women are primarily involved in the lowest rungs of the drug trafficking ladder, and more often than not, they become involved in order to put food on the table for their children, according to Women, Drug Offenses and Penitentiary Systems in Latin America, a new report published by the International Drug Policy Consortium and written by Corina Giacomello.

The criminalization of these women hardly makes a dent in the drug trade. When they are arrested, they are easily replaced and criminal structures remain basically intact.

But their incarceration does have tragic consequences both for the already overcrowded penitentiary system and for the lives of those women and the people who depend on them.

At the OAS General Assembly meeting in Antigua, Guatemala, in June 2013, the hemisphere’s foreign ministers issued a declaration that highlights that drug policies need to be implemented from a human rights and a gender perspective, with a focus on prevention and ensure civil society participation.

To meet this mandate, more research is needed on women incarcerated on drug charges across the hemisphere; more proportionate penalties should be imposed for drug offenses, especially for vulnerable groups; and far more prevention and income generating programs should be established to keep women from going to jail in the first place.

Finally, a special focus should be put on alternatives to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent offenders and for social reintegration for those who do serve time such that they can return to their families and communities with opportunities for employment and adequate housing.

The criminalization of poverty is not the solution to problems caused by drug use and drug trafficking in Latin America.

This blog was written by Coletta Youngers and originally appeared on Open Society Foundations Voices Blog

Coletta A. Youngers is the Latin America regional associate with the International Drug Policy Consortium and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Global Drug Policy ProgramLatin America Program

Modernizing Drug Law Enforcement takes the stage at United Nations headquarters in New York

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Last week the topic of modernizing drug law enforcement took center stage at UN Headquarters when the Permanent Missions of Switzerland and the Czech Republic to the United Nations co-sponsored a program with International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), Harm Reduction Coalition, the International Security Research Department at Chatham House and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) entitled “Modernizing Drug Law Enforcement”. Featuring a distinguished international panel of scholars and law enforcement personnel including Professor David Bewley-Taylor (Director, Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO) at Swansea University, UK), Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown (Brookings Institute, Washington D.C.) and Interim Chief of Police Jim Pugel (Seattle), the event aimed to promote debate around the current challenges to drug law enforcement, the concept of managing drug markets to minimize harm and the implications for future law enforcement strategies. The program was moderated by Heather Haase of IDPC and Harm Reduction Coalition and was well-attended by the UN community and civil society.

The first speaker was Professor David Bewley Taylor, who gave an overview of the Modernizing Drug Law Enforcement project and its key goals and objectives. Providing background for the project, he explained that for decades drug law enforcement has focused on reducing the size of the illicit drug markets by seeking to eradicate drug production, distribution and retail supply, but that these methods have failed in significantly decreasing supply and demand in consumer drug markets. As a result there is a need for an adjustment in drug law enforcement strategies: the new challenge is to manage drug markets policing strategy in a way that will minimize harm to communities.

Minimizing harm is particularly relevant in the case of drug-related violence. Discussing the relationship between violence and drug markets, Professor Bewley-Taylor explained how actions of law enforcement can affect – and even cause – drug drug-related violence. He noted the growing recognition that law enforcement powers can be used to constructively shape these markets and discussed several underlying concepts, especially focusing on the need to change indicators to “metrics that matter” – from metrics concerned with numbers of drug-related arrests, seizures, or hectares of crops eradicated to measures relating to public health and community well-being. He also discussed the need for selective targeting of law enforcement efforts on areas where the most impact on harms can be achieved, and concentrating law enforcement action on the basis of the level of harm caused by individuals in the market (rather than focusing on the easiest to catch).

Professor Bewley-Taylor then presented the core objectives of the program, supported by a series of publications as well as network development and seminars. He ended by expressing the hope that “we will move into the High Level Review in Vienna and the 2016 drugs UNGASS with a different view about policing drug law enforcement”.

Next, Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown discussed her report “Focused deterrence, selective targeting, drug trafficking and organized crime: Concepts and practicalities” (as well as various concepts addressed in the other reports in the series), focusing on enforcement efforts in the context of global drug markets. Giving an overview of the ever changing global drug market, she noted that while each country is different and “one size does not fit all” in the context of law enforcement responses to each situation, there were some things that are generally true across the board. These included that we not only cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem but we also cannot “eradicate” our way out: eradication efforts have not had a lasting effect on markets due to the “balloon effect”. The drug markets pose very severe threats to states and societies – including violence – and therefore it is critical how these markets are managed. She discussed traditional law enforcement methods (exported from the US, particularly NY) such as zero tolerance and high-value targeting (going after heads of criminal organizations) that have been ineffective overall. She then suggested an alternative: while law enforcement has traditionally focused on suppression on the flow of drugs, it makes more sense to focus on suppressing the violence instead. Drug markets lend themselves to this prioritization because drugs are an infinitely renewable resource; thus it would be more effective to focus on the harms associated with the flows, rather than on the flows per se. Another method is to identify the greatest threat generated by a particular drug market and apply selective targeting and focused deterrence methods to signal to criminals that certain behaviors are less tolerated than others (e.g., trafficking will be punished, but violence will be punished far more). Also, middle-level targeting is more effective than high-value targeting, as it is really the middle layer that allows an organization to operate, while in many cases high-value targeting disrupts an organization leading to more violence but no change in conditions.

Finally, she suggested that the goal of law enforcement in connection with drug markets should be to shape behavior of criminals to pose the least threat to societies. She discussed certain aspects connected with this goal, including reducing, to the lowest level possible, the violence of criminals, their capacity to corrupt societies, and their interaction with society. She pointed out that these goals might be achieved not just through deploying law enforcement approaches but with other policies including socioeconomic approaches to dealing with criminality.

The last speaker was Interim Chief Jim Pugel, acting chief of the Seattle Police Department. Chief Pugel described a program that puts many these concepts into practice: the Law Enforcement Diversion Program, or “LEAD”, operating in Seattle. The LEAD program is a comprehensive initiative championed by government and non-government, multi-agency and community partnership to divert non-violent, low level drug dealers away from jail and toward a productive life while making residents feel safer and saving money.

First he discussed some of the challenges law enforcement faced in Seattle that gave rise to the program, including business and resident complaints of street level drug dealing in the downtown area, pressure to arrest low level drug dealers, many of whom were ‘subsistence’ sellers, and concerns of disproportionate impact of these arrests on racial minorities – as the result of which the police department and prosecutors were sued. In the end, they realized that the system was very expensive for everyone involved, and did not produce results. To come up with a better solution for the community, numerous stakeholders, including ACLU, public defenders, police, prosecutors, elected officials, local businesses and community, came together, and, over an 18-month period, met to define the issues and agree on moving forward. The result was the LEAD program.

Chief Pugel then discussed the program including eligibility for LEAD (involving factors such as amount of drugs sold or possessed, whether the person is amenable to diversion, and whether the person exploits others or has committed a violent crime) and how it works: at the point of arrest, the officer offers the choice of going to jail or going to see a case manager. The case manager from a service provider performs an initial assessment at the police station, and within a week a 3-hour assessment is done. The program tries to meet the person’s needs on a holistic basis whether that entails treatment, housing or other services. Any treatment is harm reduction based, and a person can be in the program indefinitely.

A brief audience Q&A session followed the panel speaker presentations in which the discussion circled back to examples of “metrics that matter” – metrics based on community health, such as HIV/AIDS rates, drug-related violence (particularly homicides), and the level of penetration of criminal groups into political processes were cited as examples. The point was made that the difficulty of measuring “smarter” metrics should not deter us from using them – and that there were many indices already available such as the Human Developments Index.

The following day, Professor Bewley-Taylor and Dr. Felbab-Brown, along with Virginia Comolli, Research Associate for Transnational Threats at IISS, presented a similar program to an audience of US officials, security experts, members of the drug policy reform community and embassy personnel at IISS-US in Washington, DC. During his stay in New York, Chief Pugel also made a presentation on the LEAD program to a group of state prosecutors, district attorneys, public health professionals and law enforcement personnel from all over New York State in a meeting held by Drug Policy Alliance and Open Society Foundations, at OSF’s offices in New York City.

The full audio of Modernizing Drug Law Enforcement at UN Headquarters is available here and a video of the IISS-US event can be viewed here.

By Heather Haase, IDPC New York consultant

This post was originally published on the IDPC website