Introducing Spike on a Bike: An interview with the Project Architects.

By Joe Janes, Lecturer in Criminology, Swansea University and GDPO Harm Reduction project lead

Saddle up! Today, we’re diving deep into harm reduction and the Spike on a Bike project Saddle up! Today, we’re diving deep into harm reduction and the Spike on a Bike project in Dyfed Powys, where a revolutionary project is flipping the script on conventional thinking. We are putting the pedal to the metal with the architects of a project that’s not just changing lives—it’s rewriting the rules.  What follows are excerpts from a conversation with Sian Roberts (Barod Operations Manager) & Paul Thomas (DDAS Assistant Manager).
Spike on a Bike is a service offered by Dyfed Drug and Alcohol Service (DDAS) where clean injecting equipment and other harm reduction services are delivered straight to the door – fast and for free.

Sian and Paul, thanks for talking to us today. Why did this project begin, and what issues does it address?
Sian: It began as an idea 11 years ago. Someone in the office actually made a bit of a rude joke [regarding a possible title for the concept] and that is where ‘spike on a bike’ came up as a catchy name.  Then we had never really been in a situation where we could afford to deliver that kind of service in our budget. So, it had always been on the back burner. I was always looking for an opportunity for us to do something like that. Then the pandemic came, and we were doing our quarterly reports we saw that our needle exchange activity had changed dramatically. We’d seen a significant reduction in the number of transactions we were seeing through the needle exchange.

Because of this reduction… ‘spike on a bike’ came into my head straight away.  When we had been consulting service users and asking our regular needle exchange users ‘why aren’t you coming in’, there were a lot of things to consider.  There was a fear of COVID-19 transmission, being arrested, or being in trouble with the law because, at the time, people were being told to stay home.

There were also police particularly patrolling in the Ceredigion area and stopping people if they were driving. There were people who were obviously isolated or protected because of their convictions and couldn’t go out and get their clean works, and there were rurality and public transport issues. So, we thought, right, we need to do something… we had some underspent money in our budget…and we thought, what are we going to do with it? That’s where ‘spike on a bike’ came from. I discussed it with our directors, put a business case and proposal together, and asked Paul to give me a hand with it because, at that time, he was the only person I really knew who had ridden motorbikes before, so that is why his kind involvement came in. Paul had been moving into the assistant manager post by then and was already in the leadership team, and that’s why it grew and became a need.

Paul: It’s flourished, hasn’t it? I think the proof is in the pudding. When we look at the most places it is used, it is Ceredigion. Even though the numbers aren’t as huge as I certainly would want at the moment, it has proved the need for it is there, especially for Ceredigion. It has been fantastic to see that the service has taken off and done what it says on the tin. I think we’ve managed to evolve further when we are looking at non-fatal poisoning, drug-related deaths, admission of naloxone and doing follow-ups using ‘spike on a bike’ for that specifically as well.

Sian: Just to add to the non-fatal poisoning that Paul is talking about. We work in conjunction and partnership with the police and A&E. When someone is presented at A&E…they try to prevent them from being a fatal poisoning because drug-related deaths are up in Wales, but down in Dyfed compared to the year before it. One of the things that would be really successful to do in Dyfed is to make sure that those non-fatal poisonings don’t become later fatal.

Sometimes, we’ve seen the need to have several non-fatal poisonings before an intervention, not necessarily in Dyfed, but in Wales. Where an intervention could have been put in place, perhaps that could have saved a life. We make sure we get that notification and we are utilising the ‘spike on a bike’ initiative to get naloxone out in the community to the people and the people surrounding the user.  

What issues would you say ‘Spike on a Bike’ addresses?
Sian: Harm reduction is in our DNA. It is the golden thread that feeds through  all of our services. ‘Spike on a bike’ is just one of those. Harm reduction, how we define it, is not just about how we reduce harm to individuals, but it’s how we reduce harm to society, communities, and our economy. In wound care, for example, people in the community suffer great stigma when they are service-use users. When they present to their GP or A&E quite often they will get a judgemental response, which further impacts their likelihood of seeking treatment from any services.

They could be in a situation where they brought a minor wound, which could be easily managed by the ‘spike on a bike’ scheme because we deliver wound care packs. This may prevent an amputation, a gangrenous infection, or an abscess, which would then further impact our NHS, which is already burdened. We try to make sure people get the appropriate care for what they need at the time that doesn’t need to escalate. Obviously, if somebody needs A&E, a GP or medical treatment, we will signpost them to that. We’ve got people who are interested in Naloxone or hearing more about overdose awareness. The issues it targets are overdose prevention, trying to reduce the number of drug-related deaths, and preventable deaths. Trying to reduce the number of non-fatal poisonings as well as raise awareness about naloxone and what it can do to save people’s lives. Dry blood spot testing relating to bloodborne virus transmission is also important. We know that people who reuse their own works or don’t use clean works or share with other people. When I say works, I mean injecting paraphernalia. We know that they are at greater risk of bloodborne virus transmission, which is hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV.

Would you say that Spike on a Bike addresses the stigma of drug use?

Paul: I think, in addition to the services discussed, ‘spike on a bike’ adds extra value in relation to the reduction of stigma that Sian spoke about.  It may not lead to anonymity per se, but there is an element of that. For those individuals who may not be aware of the service or may not have historically come into service, it gives them extra avenues. It addresses the issues that they faced previously and overcomes those barriers of walking in or getting a needle exchange. That’s a big impact, isn’t it?

Sian: Absolutely, and as Paul alluded to there, this service isn’t just targeted for people needing a needle exchange. It is also targeted to professionals who may be working with a client who isn’t in treatment with us; they might go to their home and see loads of used sharps everywhere that need cleaning. Quite often, we have phone calls with professionals or requests on the ‘spike on a bike’ website saying, ‘Can you come and dispose of these sharps safely?’.

So, a SOAB rider will go out and take a sharps bin. We have needle pickers where we can dispose of them safely, take them with us and make that home safe again. Moreover, we do have populations that wouldn’t traditionally come into a needle change or substance use service. The obvious ones that pop up now are your IPED users (image/performance-enhancing drugs). They do not see themselves in the same way as traditional illegal drug users.  

They may access a service like this to get pins and barrels for their consumption of steroids and image-enhancing drugs. Also, people who are concerned about someone else’s drug and alcohol use. It might be their children or adult children living at home. They have sharps in their bedroom, and their mum and dad don’t know what to do with them. They might contact us to come and do that. We are also an avenue, we must not forget, into treatment for people. When they are utilising this service, which is very non-committal, no one has to sign up to enter treatment. No one has to sign up to make any changes. This is all about how we reduce harm and make people safer, including safe sex as well. We provide contraception through SOAB, too.

What would you say are the benefits of this programme?

Sian: We are reducing harm to people who use substances and trying to make them as safe as possible. By doing that, we reducing health-related risks but also the cost to the economy and making our communities safer. It is also about building a compassionate approach to the way we view somebody with a mental health condition.

Most people in our communities have empathy at some level for people with mental health problems. For someone who uses drugs or alcohol, it seems a self-inflicted problem and therefore reduces the levels of empathy for them, even though it’s someone’s son, someone’s daughter, they are someone’s someone. Addiction doesn’t discriminate. It can happen to any of us at any time. The project is very much geared toward reducing stigma to try and make the services as accessible as possible and reduce barriers.

Paul: The main bit for me is the accessibility. Sian and I wanted the service to have an impact on the community. It’s not just our service users, it is for the community as a whole. If you look at needle picking, house clearances, and health advice, they are much broader and more accessible. To reach those people that wouldn’t normally come into the service.

How would you say this project is different from what is currently available?

Sian: Its not, it mimics all the services to people that access it when they come into our buildings. The only difference is that we are taking that service, which historically has been a fixed service in a building, out in the community, to wherever it needs to be. No one is disadvantaged regardless of their rurality, regardless of disability or physical health, even their anxiety. The nature of our clients is that they will feel stigmatised and nervous, maybe suffering from other mental health problems and struggling to leave their homes. The service is exactly the same, but the way you access it is different.

Paul: It’s the flexibility, it’s an exaggerated outreach project that covers all areas of the community. That’s a unique selling point, it’s the flexibility and mobile aspect of it.

Sian: You might not have people who are that trusting of services. Going online and being able to order your equipment discretely are I think how we are different in that respect to the rest of Wales or Europe. This is the only service of this kind in Wales or Europe.  We are pioneering, although taking inspiration from Spikes on Bikes, push bikes, a Canadian intervention service launched in 2016 in response to the overdose crisis. The programme offers harm reduction supplies to drug users and responds to overdoses and reports of discarded injections across Vancouver’s Downtown East Side and West End.

Who would you say is the clientele of this service, and would you expect this service to bring out a different demographic?

Sian: We hope so. We would hope to see people who have not historically engaged with us. Or who have chosen not to come into treatment services for whatever reason. Those might be people with physical health problems or in the depth of the hard-of-hearing community or LGBTQ+ who wouldn’t know we are diverse in our staffing and people who use the services. It could be they are worried about facing stigma or that they physically can’t come into the building. We are hoping to reach people who are traditionally harder to reach. It is a service for anyone.

We don’t like to propose stereotypes because addiction affects everybody. People who choose to inject, who are using drugs and alcohol, whether that’s in a problematic way or recreational way. People who have been addicted to prescription drugs through irresponsible prescribing of over-the-counter medications. Family members, friends, and loved ones of those using. Professionals also working with our service users. It could be anybody.

Paul: Someone asked me once what our criteria were for eligibility criteria to use our service. I said there isn’t one if someone needs our help. Whether that is a concerned other, whether they are dependent on alcohol or other substances. That question came from a health professional, and they were aghast that there wasn’t a criteria. A core ethos of harm reduction approach of Dyfed and DDAS is that the service is open to everyone.

Thank you both, keep fighting the good work.

I brought the sunshine!

By Alana Griffith

Squawk, squawk, squawk … sound the seagulls in Swansea. Oh, I do love to be beside the seaside! After years of reading and citing the work of Axel Klein, a former Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO) senior research associate, I have been afforded the privilege of calling on Swansea University as a visiting research scholar in the GDPO, from the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus in Barbados. Coming on what appears to be the tail end of the Covid-19 pandemic hysteria and the reopening of Swansea to visiting scholars, this introductory visit and meeting with the fantastic colleagues/associates/machinery/brains of the GDPO and contagious enthusiasm of Branwen Lloyd, Dave Bewley-Taylor and Matt Wall has been reassuring. Furthermore, it has certainly whetted my appetite to delve deeper into the ‘logic’ of drug policy in the Caribbean. The opportunity to interact with experienced colleagues across the ocean, who like myself have been in the trenches working on research akin to public scholarship, has left me with the opinion that there is vast amount of interrogation still to be done.

With its 15 member states and five associate members, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) formed a Commission on Marijuana in 2016. Since then, several CARICOM members have been engaging in cannabis policy reform, especially in relation to its medical use and cultivation for the same. Through its colonial ties, cannabis policy in the region unlike many other countries where there was an ‘opt’ into the UN Conventions and efforts to meet the requirements of such, is orientated towards navigating the potential fallout from breaching the Single Convention of 1961 and what in effect are a set of inherited treaty commitments. Indeed, with the first of the pre-UN era foundational treaties – the Hague Convention of 1912 – signed by the metropole, the course towards punitive cannabis prohibition was set well before independence. At this point in 2022, in CARICOM’s delicate meandering ‘dance’ with the United Nations conventions on drugs, 10 countries have taken a conservative approach and legalised cannabis for medical purposes, which is permitted under the Single Convention and gained more legitimacy following a recent – and historic – rescheduling process. Eleven members have decriminalised for personal use, but confined this to the possession of a specified quantity of the substance with only five countries allowing for the home cultivation of a few plants with specifications about sex and/or maturity in some cases. Most egregiously, in a region that has birthed the Rastafarian movement and religion only seven, or less than half, have put provisions in place for Rastafari consumption, possession and/or cultivation of cannabis for sacramental purposes with various special conditions.

Alana in Rhossili overlooking Worm’s Head, Gower (the only day the sun didn’t shine!)

In all the ongoing CARICOM reforms there are several important questions that emerge around the global unevenness in the reforms, the domestic inequalities reproduced in that unevenness and the impact on the drug markets the reforms should be addressing. Rather, what is emerging is the lure for these countries of a potentially lucrative market for the cultivation, processing, and export of cannabis products for medicinal use to boost their economies. Questions also abound. For instance, is there greater negotiating space for CARICOM countries in cannabis policy reform? If so, to what end and in what ways? The block of CARICOM countries is thought to wield significant power in voting in supranational organisations. Withstanding Jamaica’s four-year membership on the United Nations’ Commission on Narcotic Drugs until 2023, a major site for debate in situating these countries within the global discourse relates to their potential to influence further treaty reform. Additionally, significant questions exist regarding the extent to which the existing treaties may be violating the rights of indigenous religious groups.

In the famous words of Johnny Nash, “there are more questions than answers … and the more I find out the less I know”. At the beginning of this blog the word introductory was not used lightly. On the ‘end’ of this visit to the GDPO, it is clear that the red-carpet welcome by Glyn James and the International office appeared too short but I’m thankful that it was just to lead me into an open space where there is so much more in store.

Alana and Branwen visiting the lavender fields in Three Crosses, Gower

My Harm Reduction Journey from the University to an NGO

By Temitope Salami

I arrived in Swansea University from Nigeria in October 2020, a week after my Masters programme in Applied Criminal Justice and Criminology had commenced. This was a difficult time considering the pandemic had morphed into phase two and there was talk in the media about a possible second nationwide lockdown amid a Welsh ‘firebreak’ to control the spread of coronavirus.

There was wide uncertainty about studying and teaching through a pandemic. For a moment, it appeared higher education institutions were ‘winging it’ as much as students were. Personally, being new to the United Kingdom, and having to adjust to a different culture and education system made it much more challenging.

Despite having a background in political science, being an ardent viewer of crime documentaries, and having served in a national security committee within the Nigerian Senate, I was new to the discipline of criminology. In fact, a huge part of the motivation to understand the nature of crime and how criminal justice systems operated stemmed from these experiences. At Swansea, I quickly developed an interest in one of the first semester modules – Advanced Topics in Drugs, Alcohol, and the Criminal Law (ASCM26) convened by Rick Lines, Associate Professor of Criminology and Human Rights. Why was I so taken by this course? Two things: Here I was being familiarised with the histories and politics of drug control and how ‘illicit drugs’ came to be so determined by global institutions, the role of state and non-state actors in the creation and evolution of the drug problem/war on drugs, the impact on vulnerable communities and global responses to this challenge. Secondly, my lay knowledge of criminal justice responses to the proliferation of drug use, which has taken many lives and resources and yielded very little positive outcomes. In addition, the knowledge-driven expert teaching provided by academics and guest practitioners on the course increased the appeal, further fuelling my interest in the negative unintended consequences of the global response to drugs which failed to safeguard the health and human rights of people who use drugs.

This cemented my desire to explore what the alternatives were to an approach that has consistently generated significantly poor outcomes whether that be over-incarceration, stigma and discrimination, over-representation of racial minorities in the criminal justice system, gender-based violence, high mortality rates etc. associated with the ‘war on drugs’ mentality.

After concluding my research on an essay focused on Harm Reduction in Prisons for Women Who Use Drugs over the Christmas break, I emailed my professor expressing my interest in volunteering with organisations within the drug policy reform space. Graciously, I was introduced to Harm Reduction International (HRI) where I got recruited at the end of January 2021 as an intern in the Human Rights and Justice team.

At HRI I supported the team with research on statements, recommendations, and other relevant statistics, documents made by UN and regional human rights mechanisms on the use of the death penalty for drug offences for the ‘Global Overview: Death Penalty for Drug Offences 2020’ report. I conducted research on standards developed by UN and regional human rights mechanisms on selected topics related to drug policy and harm reduction and supported the development of briefings on such human rights standards. Subsequently, I was engaged as a consultant to conduct a desk-based review and rapid scan of Global Fund’s Breaking Down Barriers initiative to identify and boost synergies on the implementation of the

seven key programmes and its intersections with human rights programming for people who use drugs. Examining whether programmes addressed legal, social, and structural barriers associated with punitive drug policy. Most recently, I supported HRI’s work on Resist Emergency Powers, mapping available resources on the impact of COVID-19 and of COVID-19 securitized responses on people who use drugs around the world, including other marginalized groups, such as people living with HIV, sex workers, and migrants.

My work with HRI was very rewarding in that it exposed me to current trends in harm reduction and drug policy reform through evidenced-based research, conferences, and publications on the success and benefits of health-centred, rights-based approaches to drugs. This experience helped me build valuable connections in the field which facilitated my Masters dissertation research – Proposing a Harm Reduction Framework to Youth Drug Use in Nigeria – for which I received a distinction. A summary of my research was later published as a blog for the Global Drug Policy Observatory.

I maintained the relationship with my new connections including HRI and a few months after my graduation, a position opened in the Public Health and Social Policy team which I applied for and got shortlisted for an interview. Fortunately, out of 79 applications I was the successful candidate and received an offer of employment as Project Coordinator and Researcher, ‘Global State of Harm Reduction 2022’ – a flagship publication of the charity and important resource for practitioners within the field.

I start my new post at HRI this week.

Key learnings:

A university education is much more than earning a degree. It is making the right connections and building productive relationships. Students should be cognizant of this and take full advantage of the ‘soft power and access’ they possess within the ivory tower.

University faculties and staff are available and willing to signpost/provide guidance. Students need to be highly motivated and committed to connect the dots and achieve success.

Harm reduction is the ‘Trojan Horse’ in the ‘War on Drugs’. Therefore, there is a need for passionate and talented young people to build on the labour of the past.

In your journey to finding a career path, prioritise knowledge and relationships over the urge to make money. Volunteering and internships are a great way to get there!

Discover an area of interest and find a mentor!

Thank you for your time and I hope this inspires you to action.

“The disposable foot soldiers of crime” – Media, County Lines and Moral Panics

By Ellie Harding, MA candidate in Applied Criminal Justice and Criminology, Swansea University

‘We are cutting the head off the snake and taking down the kingpins behind these deadly supply lines…Drug abuse and addiction ruins communities, devastates lives and tears families apart.’

So announced Priti Patel in her speech to the annual Conservative Party conference earlier this month. Strong words from the Home Secretary, and certainly a standpoint that will strike fear in the electorate. This is arguably what the speech was intended to do. To generate fear and concern in the populace, rather than inform a discussion about a complex and multifaceted topic of drugs, crime and society.

A ‘moral panic’ is a criminological concept which suggests that stylised and stereotypical media reporting of a ‘threat’ to society results in a panicked response from the public, often leading to knee-jerk policy responses. In 1998, Kenneth Thompson identified several essential elements of a moral panic.  These include (a) something is defined as a threat, (b) the threat is portrayed in the media, (c) the threat emerges rapidly in the public consciousness and (d) the threat provokes a response from the authorities.

Drugs as a moral panic in the UK is not a new phenomenon, and Priti Patel’s framing of the issue of county lines is certainly in keeping with that troubling tradition. As most audiences do not experience crime first-hand, they instead develop their understanding of criminality through media depictions. Since 2017, county lines drug trafficking has increased as has high profile media attention of the issue. This raises the concern of whether the representation of county lines in the British media is fuelling fear rather informing debate, and whether it meets the threshold of a ‘moral panic’.

Existing research around this topic lacked depth, therefore I conducted a study to examine whether media portrayal of county lines in the UK met the definition of a moral panic. To test this question, this research reviewed 132 online news articles from five major media outlets (BBC, Daily Mail, The Guardian, ITV and Sky News) and studied the language and imagery each used to report county lines. It examined how different players in the situation are represented – young people, ‘gang leaders’, police – and drew conclusions about the impact of these characterisations on public understanding of county lines.  The results of the analysis concluded that the representation of county lines can comfortably be described as a moral panic.

The research documented the common use of terms such as ‘exploited’ (used 210 times) or ‘vulnerable’ (used 192 times) to describe the young people involved in the county lines drug trade, paired with stylised images of drugs (used 38 times). It found that the articles were empathetic to these individuals, who were often referred to as ‘victims’ (used 58 times) rather than criminals, with a focus on their vulnerabilities and associated risks. For example, one article described the children involved in county lines as “the disposable foot soldiers of crime”.

On the other hand, dehumanising descriptions were evident of those described as controlling or directing these trafficking operations. It was common to find the use of gang terminology such as “professional gangsters exploiting vulnerable minors”, despite the societal stigma associated with such language. The articles’ language often focused on the control and coercion associated with county lines (combined use of 64 mentions). This representation was paired with the use of mugshots (being featured 59 times), giving the audience a voyeuristic look into the criminal consequences of county lines. The impact of county lines was typically depicted using violence and weapons (mentioned 139 times with nine images of weapons), overall adding to public fear. ­­

Articles also focused on the response from the government and law enforcement. This included language such as ‘crackdown’ (used 35 times) and images of the police (featured 60 times). Articles emphasised that policing county lines is a priority for government and law enforcement, using statistics of arrest rates and seizures of drugs and money to prove to the public the success of the police. This, combined with the repeated use of images of the police reinforces to the public that county lines is a threat to society, contributing to a sense of moral panic.

The research found the Daily Mail relied particularly heavily on information from the Home Office when reporting on the issue. Many of its articles focused on Priti Patel’s response to county lines and the new ‘Beating Crime Plan’ from a personal perspective. “I will not tolerate county lines drugs gangs terrorising our communities and exploiting young people, which is why I have made tackling this threat a priority”. The Home Secretary was featured in Daily Mail reporting far more often than in any of the other news sources examined.

The research also examined the extent to which the media offered support and protection to the vulnerable individuals involved in county lines (both the children used as drug couriers and the adult victims whose homes may be ‘cuckooed’ and taken over for drug dealing activities). Only two out of the five media outlets (BBC and ITV) consistently used their platforms to promote support and protection services. This included profiling organisations that offer services and other ways to promote the support and protection of the vulnerable individuals.

The overall conclusion from this research suggested that the manner in which county lines is portrayed in the British media meets the definition of a moral panic. The study indicates that the media are more focused on selling a story using a ‘scary’ narrative rather than supporting vulnerable people involved in county lines. This moral panic arguably gets in the way of the more important discussions about the context of county lines, drug markets and criminalisation.

The research found that the contributing factors driving county lines (although alluded to) need further emphasis from the media, as this would allow the public to better understand the issue and potentially have a more empathetic response. For example, the socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds of many of the individuals involved in county lines needs to be further featured in media news outlets. This includes more focus on issues such as poverty, lack of employment opportunities and the impacts of austerity, which are often drivers of county lines involvement. Similarly, the increasing rates of school exclusions (especially racially motivated ones) need to be addressed by governing bodies as well as the media, as this highlights the vulnerability of children who are then exploited by county lines organisations.

Regardless of reporting, while there is demand there will be supply of drugs. The counterproductive ‘war on drugs’ therefore needs to be addressed, but the moral panic surrounding county lines gets in the way of discussing bigger policy issues. The ‘war on drugs’ is driven through law enforcement, however these efforts against county lines often result in displacement, whereby “one county lines closes another quickly opens”. Therefore, the media reporting of county lines may not highlight the true extent of the problem, or the limitations of a law enforcement centred approach.

Within the county lines discourse there is also little discussion of the negative short and long-term impacts of the early introduction of the young people involved into the criminal justice system. Prevention/education and harm reduction programmes are not represented, and the issues of decriminalisation or legalisation are often the subject of their own moral panic.

Overall, not only the media but society as a whole need to support and protect the vulnerable individuals involved in county lines, rather than the moral panic style reporting which is more focused on selling stories rather than the potentially damaging effect of their reporting styles.

Proposing a Harm Reduction Framework for Youth Drug Use in Nigeria: A Research Inspired Commentary

Temitope Salami

Drugs is a hotly debated subject that attracts the attention of policymakers, especially regarding the perceived effects drug use has on society. But, following scientific research and targeted campaigns, it is apparent that the ‘war on drugs’ rhetoric has lost its gloss and public health alternatives are increasingly embraced over criminal justice measures. As an MA student in Applied Criminal Justice and Criminology this reality, together with losing a friend to drug misuse, inspired me to investigate for my dissertation harm reduction as an alternative approach to criminalising drug use in Nigeria.

Nigeria takes a relatively firm stand against illicit drugs. This is reflected in national policy, where drugs and drug-related activities are proscribed by law. Unfortunately, young people, who account for two-thirds of the national population, are disproportionately affected by these policies. Consequently, my research sets out to investigate the reasons behind the punitive response to drug use (especially cannabis which is the top drug of choice among young people globally). To achieve my aims, the research examined three questions:

How would a harm reduction approach to drug use be beneficial to young people in Nigeria?

Whether a harm reduction approach can be complimentary to a criminal justice framework?

Whether the criminalisation of young people who use drugs is harmful and discriminatory?

These lines of questioning were informed by the desire to develop a better understanding of the motivations for drug use, the challenges of prohibitionist legal framework, and the impact on the health and social wellbeing of young people who use drugs. To fulfil these aims, the research included elite interviews with academics, researchers, law enforcement, policy makers, rights campaigners and people who use drugs in Nigeria and on the international scene. Interestingly, factors inconsistent with popular understandings of the impacts of drug use were common themes revealed from the discussions. The key findings are summarised below:

Harm reduction demonstrates that drugs are not ‘inherently evil’.

Interviews with participants revealed broad support for a harm reduction approach to drug use because it proves that drugs are not ‘inherently evil’ and protects young people from the stigma and discrimination associated with criminalisation. Findings revealed how negative perceptions of drugs feed into socio-cultural and linguistic norms that shape public responses to drugs and drug use. This finding is important as it explains locally held beliefs that ‘drugs are a taboo that promote crime and deviance’, which serves as a barrier to recognising the benefits of harm reduction. In addition, it demonstrates that scapegoating drugs, drug use, and young people to combat rising insecurity is short-sighted. It neglects other systemic factors such as poor government policies, poverty, unemployment, climate change, mass illiteracy, poor leadership, and a weak justice system.

Furthermore, despite popular use of the term, there was a lack of clear understanding of what ‘harm reduction’ means by both law enforcement (especially officials in the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency and police) and civil society. For many state officials, ‘harm reduction’ is confused with demand and supply reduction activities, and often used in a political sense rather than as an urgent call to action. The need for full spectrum harm reduction programmes which take account of the social welfare needs (housing, education, employment, equality of care) of people who use drugs was emphasised as a determinant of health needed to address some of the harms of criminalisation. Addressing these equally addresses some systemic challenges faced by the state.

AU UN IST PHOTO / David Mutua – AMISOM Public Information, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

A mixed system is problematic but achievable. However, it is far from the ideal.

Another key finding is that the Nigerian drug regime is perhaps consciously and/or unconsciously biased towards criminalisation, without a consideration of the local and national implications of this approach. Yet despite the harms associated with criminalisation, this approach can coexist with public health-based interventions provided legal reform, market regulation, and stakeholder education are utilised as pillars of success. The danger of criminalising supply however remains for production and transit countries predominantly in the global south with many relying on alternative livelihoods for survival.

Young people are using drugs in a way that has yet to be captured by state policy and harm reduction programming.

Young people are adventurous and impulsive, rarely worrying about the position of the law in making decisions. Thus, criminalising drug use becomes counterproductive. It is held that criminalisation serves as cover for social control, and the ‘war on drugs’ is more about maintaining social order and increasing state power than it is about drugs. Consequently, criminalisation deprives young people who use drugs from services that they need. While the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency acknowledges the benefits of decriminalisation of cannabis for personal use in private communication, it maintains strong opposition to cannabis use and/or legalisation in public statements. These inconsistences further expose young people to the whims of law enforcement.

Other key findings include a misunderstanding of the role of drug reform advocates by law enforcement and the Nigerian public, which views them as ‘promoting drug use’ rather than seeking to save lives and reduce harm. However, efforts have been made to foster partnership working and training to unify purpose and enhance mutual success.


Drug control is heavily nuanced. It has political utility for the global north (control of the political economy of the international system) and south (funding of development programmes and regime support). Flowing from the findings of this research, it would appear that African states (including Nigeria) prioritise their international image over human rights and public health. Hence, drug control priorities tend to reflect the international reputation sought by the political establishment at the expense of people who use drugs who may require services.

Although, Nigeria might be regarded as a conservative state, the government prioritises its international drug control commitments at the expense of health and human rights obligations. Ultimately, you cannot arrest your way out of ‘the drug problem’. Therefore, legal (market) regulation and harm reduction remain the better approach to drug control, and the provision of a safe and legal supply of cannabis would be a great leap forward. It would better account for the health, welfare, and safety of many young people, an achievement that has consistently eluded blanketed drug prohibition. The main recommendations of the research are proper education for stakeholders; provision of targeted services to address context-specific needs of young people; political commitment to drug reform; and legal regulation of drugs.

Harry and the Reds: A Revisionist Examination of Washington’s Cooperation with Moscow on International Drug Control Policy, (1945 – 1962).

Tom Crouch

In my final year as an undergraduate at Swansea University (I graduated in July this year), I chose to write my dissertation on the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) between the years 1945 and 1962.  In so doing, and by utilising the online archives of the CND alongside other primary sources, the study aimed to revise and nuance the arguments of authors such as John C. McWilliams, William McAllister, Douglas Clark Kinder, Matthew Pembleton and Dave Bewley-Taylor.  It was Dave, my dissertation supervisor, who suggested that I write this blog.

My interest in the topic was first piqued after reading about Harry J. Anslinger, the Commissioner of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) between 1930 and 1962, in Chasing the Scream: The first and Last Days of the War on Drugsby Johann Hari.  Further reading about Anslinger uncovered significant anti-communist sentiment. However, a claim in a 2016 article by Mathew Pembleton suggested that there was in fact cooperation between the US and the USSR during the Cold War around anti-narcotic policy. Mindful of the tensions between the superpowers during this period, this intrigued me. I consequently emailed Professor Pembleton about the claim, and he kindly sent through some supporting primary evidence.  And so began my revisionist exploration of the topic.

My research revealed that the primary foundation for cooperation between the US and the USSR between 1946 and 1950 at the fledgling CND was the personal relationship between Anslinger and the Soviet representative, Professor V.V. Zakusov. This relationship existed principally because of the flexibility of Anslinger’s pragmatic world view; a view that managed to transcend wider geopolitical tensions of the time.  Such a perspective differs to that of several authors who have argued that Anslinger’s views were dominated by nationalist ideology. Instead, as primary documents reveal, Anslinger’s stance on a range of countries, including the right-wing Peru, was driven their usefulness (or otherwise) to his campaign for global drug prohibition.

Seen here, just before the start of one of the meetings of the seventh session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (21 April 1952), at United Nations Headquarters are (left to right) Mr. Henry J. Anslinger, delegate of the United States, Mr. John Henry Walker, representing the United Kingdom and Professor V.V. Zakusov, delegate of the U.S.S.R.  Source: United Nations Photos

The importance of individual agency should come as no surprise.  Indeed, during this time, but also before World War 2, there had existed a ‘heroic age’ of individuals, to use McAllister’s term. This involved personal relationships at the core of narco-diplomacy and my research argues that, while largely omitted from the current literature, the Zakusov-Anslinger relationship should be included under this heading. To be sure, despite heightened geopolitical tensions, significant cooperation existed between the US and the USSR due to their diplomat’s shared individual beliefs on international drug prohibition. Concrete cooperation came in the form of Soviet support of US proposals, and vice versa, as well as Soviet inclusions onto CND ad-hoc committees and working parties.

A significant characteristic of cooperation between 1946 and 1950 was that Soviet proposals supported by the US were largely without nationalist oriented ideological motivation. This allowed Anslinger to carefully manage tensions with the US State Department and meant that Zakusov and the Commissioner enjoyed a mutually reinforcing relationship. However, this situation changed with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its exclusion from the UN. At this point, Soviet interactions at the CND became one dimensional and rigid until around 1956.  Moscow’s constant protestations at the PRC’s omission was such that Zakusov’s individual agency and personal relationship with Anslinger disappeared; a dynamic that coincided with the end of the ‘heroic age.’

Another dominant argument within the wider literature on this topic challenged by my research concerns Anslinger’s treatment of the communist world as monolithic. Despite the oft given impression of the two nations as a unitary countervailing power after the Sino-Soviet alliance of 1950, Anslinger treated the PRC and the Soviet Union differently. Specific evidence for this can be seen in his briefing to several NGOs in 1957.  Here he called for the Iron Curtain to be moved past the Soviet Union to China. This was due, according to the Commissioner, to the lack of Chinese cooperation compared to the ‘complete cooperation’ on drug control from the USSR.

My research also shows that some cooperation between the US and USSR did re-emerge towards the end of the 1950s and this this might be explained by two factors. First, by the mid-to-late 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev had successfully broken from Joseph Stalin’s legacy of the ‘inevitability of global war’. The Premier aimed to utilise Soviet foreign policy to generate soft power by settling disputes with opponents, as Zubok and Pleshakov have noted.  It might be argued that such an approach infiltrated the realm of drug policy and the Soviet stance regarding relations with the US in the CND. Second, it is reasonable to suggest that Anslinger’s diminishing influence at the CND during this period also had a significant impact on the re-emergence of cooperation.  While partly due to his strong dislike for Khrushchev, his decline is best understood as a complex mix of factors including bureaucratic infighting, the increasing influence of the more industrialised, moderate states at the CND, and the increasing pressure on him from medical professionals.

All in all, the key conclusion of my work is that the relationships that defined the ‘heroic age’ of individuals in international narco-diplomacy should include that between Zakusov and Anslinger. This relationship transcended geopolitical tensions to ensure mutually reinforcing cooperation.  Indeed, it is simply incorrect to portray Anslinger as an ardent anti-communist.  Rather he judged his treatment of nations at the CND on their usefulness to his global prohibitionist mission.

‘Drug Smuggler Nation: Narcotics and the Netherlands, 1920-1995.’ By Stephen Snelders

A review by Christopher Hallam

Despite its reputation as a centre of illicit drug trafficking and the oft-times bane of the international drug control regime, relatively little has been written by academics on the historical background of that ‘Drug Smuggler Nation’, the Netherlands.

Stephen Snelders sets out to address this lacuna, exploring trafficking in the Netherlands between the end of the First World War and the 1990s, a key era in the establishment and development of both the drug trade and the international drug control apparatus. In a series of nine chapters including an introduction and a conclusion, a series organized both chronologically and in terms of broad thematic strokes, he elaborates this history through the use of certain conceptual tools, central amongst which is the idea of ‘criminal anarchy’. This conception deconstructs the popular notion of the strictly hierarchical crime syndicate with ‘Mr Big’ at the helm and a variety of low level ‘soldiers’ carrying out the dirty work of drug supply and associated criminality: the ‘pyramid model’.

Snelders notes that the advent of the international drug control regime created new opportunities for entrepreneurs in the Netherlands, a point which is equally valid in various other national contexts. The new system of controls, combined with an increasing public appetite for newly illegal drugs, ‘led to the proliferation of a ‘hydra’ of small, anarchic groups and networks ideally suited to circumventing the enforcement of regulation’ (p.2). He goes on to state that, ‘When one head of this hydra was chopped off, another one grew in its place’ (p.2).  These groups included what Snelders calls ‘sailor-smugglers, idealists from countercultural scenes, and criminal opportunists.’ Forming fluid and mobile temporary alliances, they worked together with other groups and networks, and with legitimate ‘upperworld’ figures, especially in the chemical and maritime sectors. Coming from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds (Dutch, Chinese, Turkish, Kurdish, Moroccan etc), they made use of the Netherlands’ highly developed logistics and infrastructure and its rail, road, and maritime connectivity to turn the country into an important transit hub in the international trade, moving drugs on to other continental countries and to the United Kingdom.

Elaborating the political economy of the drug trade, Snelders critiques the theory of Robert McBride, a US social scientist whose PhD was entitled ‘Business as Usual’ and which argued that the illegal drug trade was structurally akin to that for legal intoxicants. McBride believed that criminalisation meant that the illicit market would tend toward monopolisation, high prices, and domination by organised crime groups (p.8). According to Snelders, however, predictions of ‘increasing monopolization of the market, higher prices, and control by vertically organized ‘enterprises’ have…not been validated; rather the contrary’. He observes that heroin and cocaine prices fell during the 1980s and 1990s; the market has witnessed increased competition and drug availability, ‘finding its own dark niche in the economic system’ (p.8).

The author contrasts the hierarchical model with a recurring spontaneous order that he terms ‘criminal anarchy’, as discussed above. He is careful to distinguish this flexible order from a mere mass of chaos and random linkages. Rather, its horizontal organization and dynamic connections were perfectly compatible with efficient smuggling and other supply mechanisms. Criminal anarchy deployed these horizontal connections to forge alliances and to embed itself within the host society. Some of those involved were drawn from what had been a licit supply economy and became criminals as a result of the establishment of the drug control apparatus and its new arrangement of roles and definitions; others were already criminals but saw the opportunities for profit in a novel area of illegal work and income. Snelders states that:

To understand the historical vicissitudes in the seemingly chaotic and unpredictable world of drug trafficking it is essential to observe the patterns of criminal anarchy (p.9).

The book illustrates its themes by use of a broad range of archival and other historical resources, citing well known examples such as the 1930s trafficker Ellie Eliopoulos. Despite a pervasive popular myth, Eliopoulos’ organization was not constructed along the lines of the pyramid model, with Eliopoulos as a Mr Big at the summit; instead, Snelders contends that he is best understood as a businessman who operated in the illegal drug markets as a facilitator, using his connections to forge linkages between supply and demand on an international scale. He made use of the loosely connected networks (including those in the upperworld) of criminal anarchy.

Chapter two of the book explores trafficking during the interwar period, beginning with the Dutch Opium Act of 1919, in which the Netherlands complied with its obligations as a signatory of the 1912 International Opium Convention. Like other colonialist nations, the Netherlands was ambivalent about the convention, as the Dutch state had substantial incomes from its opium regime in Asia. Domestically, companies often responded to the new controls by recourse to ‘off the books’ transactions, and individuals whose opium licences had been withdrawn continued their business by means of connections in the rapidly developing illicit market. The interwar years, says the author, witnessed the advent of Dutch criminal anarchy embedded in the border towns and ports, linked to an upperworld of respectable manufacturers and facilitators.

Three chapters of the book deal with what Snelders calls ‘global perils.’ This theme is highly significant, as the models of multi-ethnic cooperation frequently enabled the illicit market to outwit the control apparatus that was located within the strictly demarcated relationships of nation states. The first of these chapter on ‘global perils’, chapter 2, directs the focus onto this multi-ethnic dimension of the illicit market, looking primarily at Chinese and Greek smugglers in the interwar years. It was then that the Netherlands emerged as both an end point and a transit hub for illicit opioids produced in Asia. The country’s role in maritime trade is to the fore here, as the state sought to impose controls while limiting the damage to its licit trade. The Dutch East Indies provided the key opium connection, with many Chinese residents of the islands in the habit of smoking opium for pleasure and medical uses, a habit which had been introduced to much of Asia though colonial contacts with European sailors and merchants. The Chinese role in manning the ships on which colonial trade depended enabled them to transport their drug use and supplies back to the European end of the pole.

In a fascinating history, the book explores the emergence of the Chinese ‘secret society’, which came to haunt the Dutch and the wider European imagination. From this spectre congealed the ‘triad’ secret society, a term that originated in the Chinese ‘three dots society’. These shadowy networks pre-dated the creation of Fu Manchu and the ‘Yellow Peril’, which loomed large in European culture in the years between the world wars. They were, according to Snelders, mutual aid societies resembling the masonic societies of Europe, although their membership was drawn from a lower social class. The chapter weaves a fascinating and pungent narrative of the Dutch urban underground and its transnational links.

As Snelders summarises:

The interwar period already shows the pragmatic cooperation between trafficking networks of different ethnic backgrounds that is a characteristic of criminal anarchy…Their decentralization and fragmentation facilitated rather than hindered operations and made access to the market relatively easy (p.67).

The book then moves on to the post war drug trade and the countercultural movement of the 1960s, during which time the major drug of Dutch trade changes from opium to cannabis. Sourced from countries such as Lebanon, Morocco, and Afghanistan, where cultivation and production increased to meet an expanding western demand, hashish began its shift toward market dominance in the Netherlands in 1967. Those supplying the trade were at first counter-cultural youth travelling the hippie trail, and sailors. Hippie smugglers helped to forge connections with local producers in those countries named above, where borders were leaky and smuggling simple. The counterculture was international and transnational; its networks spanned the Netherlands, the UK and all of western Europe. Distribution was easy if one was part of these networks, and the aim was usually to make small profit and- probably most importantly- to access supplies for oneself and one’s friends. Sailors continued the mostly small-scale smuggling they had carried on before the war, and often had more of a motive in cash profit than their hippie counterparts. They were soon followed by criminal entrepreneurs who saw the opportunity to make serious money. These groups generally shipped larger quantities, and made use of the maritime trade, sometimes chartering ships and bringing several thousand kilos of cannabis into the Netherlands. By the 1970s, and in a step change in the business, they were employing container ships.

Chapter 5 is the second on ‘global perils’, and deals with the Chinese triads and Turkish families who trafficked in heroin. The Dutch heroin market was large by 1971, with an ‘epidemic’ of consumers. The US Drug Enforcement Agency alleged in the mid-1970s that Amsterdam was the capital of a global, Chinese-run heroin hub, operated by the triads. Dutch police had been focussed on the triads since 1973, in particular the Hong-Kong based ‘14K’ triad, which Snelders describes as a loose network of independent gangs’ (p.121).

By the 1980s, Turkish and Kurdish groups had assumed a dominant position in the heroin trafficking business. The Dutch cannabis trade bloomed after 1976, with the first of the country’s (in)famous  coffee shops opening in the early 1970s. The cannabis trade is discussed in chapter 6, while the subsequent chapter discusses the arrival of the Colombian ‘cartels’ in the 1980s. The 1990s saw the advent of the synthetic drugs market, which was accompanied by fears that democracy, social authority, and the Dutch state would be subverted by organised crime, with a large and thriving underground economy of drug production and export and a partnership between criminals and chemists. The authorities’ anxieties focussed particularly on the country’s southern provinces, especially North Brabant and Zeeland, where drug smuggling became deeply embedded in a deviant cultural milieu. At the same time, Snelders argues in his concluding chapter that a curious pride existed in relation to the Netherlands’ underground multinationals; global adventuring and maritime trade constituting a longstanding facet of Dutch national identity. Alongside this paradox, the author notes another, more familiar in drug policy history: namely, that increases in demand have followed the intensification of expanded prohibition.

By way of conclusion, at the heart of Snelders’ book lies the concept of criminal anarchy. His historical research is marshalled to demonstrate the continuing role of the patterns of criminal anarchy in the development of the Netherlands as a major hub in the international illicit drugs market, and he builds an argument that this reviewer finds powerful, bringing into view as it does the networking, mobility and dynamism of a market that has resisted a century of unsuccessful attempts to control it. The patterns and modes of illicit trading and production relationships brought to light by the lens of ‘criminal anarchy’ help to show us how the market has achieved its continued effectiveness, and in doing so Snelders has made a highly significant contribution to historical and sociological understanding.

Aerial Fumigation in Colombia: A Success for Someone

Ross Eventon*

In 2011, when the multi-billion-dollar Plan Colombia had officially come to an end, the UNDP described the “rural development model” in Colombia as “highly inequitable and exclusionary.” The model “causes innumerable rural conflicts, does not recognize the differences between social actors, and leads to the inappropriate use and destruction of natural resources.”  Any attempt to improve the situation, the UNDP argued, must be based on changes to “structural factors”, among which were “the concentration of rural property, poverty and misery, and an unjust and exclusive social and political order.”  A year later a Free Trade Agreement with the United States came into effect, and the incomes of hundreds of thousands of farmers fell as subsidised foreign goods entered the local market. This coincided with an economic slowdown, and GDP growth fell steadily from 6.9% in 2011 to 1.4% in 2017, the year coca cultivation reached record levels. Over roughly the same period, global drug use is considered to have risen by 30%. Today around half of Colombians work in the informal sector. In the countryside, where one in three people are classified as poor, this figure may reach 85 %.  The economy revolves around extractive industries, mono-crop agriculture and financial services, a combination that concentrates wealth and cannot provide stable employment for a large segment of the population. In a country rich in natural resources the level of inequality is comparable to resource-starved Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere. Land concentration, the historic grievance of the insurgent movements, is today the most unequal in Latin America.

These are the structural factors to be kept in mind when we discuss the country’s many problems. To claim in this context that a rise or fall in the amount of coca being cultivated is a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’ is a false economy. For hundreds of thousands of people coca is an important cash crop, and a reduction in cultivation levels means a reduction in their income. It could also imply a technological improvement and better productivity. In an environment where demand is fixed, reductions in cultivation may ultimately lead to a rise in prices and an even greater incentive to cultivate.  It would be difficult to classify any of these outcomes as a ‘success’. A genuine success would be led, first and foremost, by the movement of large numbers of people into the formal sector, either through job creation or subsidised agriculture. The reduction in cultivation would then be a consequence of this structural change.

For American and Colombian policy makers, who are both committed to the economic status quo, the question is how to reduce cultivation without changing the structural factors. This is a difficult problem and no one has yet found an answer.  In December, President Ivan Duque announced the government would in 2021 resume aerial fumigation of coca crops with glyphosate. This policy, of which Colombia was one of the world’s few practitioners, ended in 2015 when the WHO stated the popular weed killer could be carcinogenic in humans.


The damaging environmental and health effects of aerial fumigation are well documented. In the past it has led to protests and violent repression. It also doesn’t work: through the 1990s cultivation rose along with fumigation; in the early 2000s cultivation levels decreased slightly as fumigation continued, although exports of cocaine increased; and between 2007 and 2012, while aerial fumigation decreased sharply, the hectares under cultivation was reduced by half.  If we search for alternatives, Bolivia provides an example of what could be achieved with investment, decriminalisation and a recognition of the farmers’ plight.

Yet all of this is considered irrelevant. The decision to use aerial fumigation must, therefore, be based on other considerations. Cost is clearly not one of them: it has reached such a point that analysts in Colombia claim it would now be cheaper to purchase the entire coca crop than to undertake a year of counter-narcotics operations. The human suffering and the environmental damage are also not considered relevant, neither is the woeful efficacy of the policy, which is today rejected everywhere else in the world for good reason. 

Image by Wilbue from Pixabay

Colombian President Ivan Duque, announcing the return of fumigation, said less coca was cultivated in 2014 than in 2000, and for this reason aerial spraying was necessary. It is unlikely Duque himself could be convinced by this. (It could just as easily be argued that, because cultivation and fumigation both increased in the 1990s, fumigation caused coca cultivation).  Duque described aerial fumigation as part of a “tool kit” of policies. Among them was Alternative Development, which tries to help farmers to switch to cultivating legal crops. Such initiatives generally meet the same fate in Colombia: they are under-funded and branded failures. Every journalist who makes the journey to coca growing regions reports hearing from farmers the same tired lament: the government promises much and delivers very little. Meanwhile, aerial fumigation, which is expensive and requires the participation of the military, does receive the necessary funds. This gives some sense of whether reducing cultivation in a sustainable way is a genuine aim of government policy.

If fumigation fails by the standard measures, what does it do well?  At the very least, it creates the impression, primarily in the United States, that a major strategic ally is ‘doing something’ to try and reduce coca cultivation. For a long time it also ensured cooperation between the US and Colombian military and granted the US, via private contractors, a covert entry-point into the civil war. Today, we do not know whether the United States is, behind the scenes, predicating further aid on the re-adoption of spraying.

Aerial fumigation has also proven an effective means of displacing people. When coca was being grown in areas controlled by the guerrilla, destroying the plant was a thinly concealed attempt to undermine their finances and, in counter-insurgency jargon, to ‘drain the sea’. After its experience in Colombia, Washington had similarly proposed aerial fumigation be used in Afghanistan, as part of a counter-narcotics initiative very openly aimed at the finances of the insurgency, but the policy was rejected by the Afghan government. 

How sincere is the Colombian government’s concern with coca cultivation?  The past record suggests counter-narcotics policies have been a tool used to achieve other objectives, rather than to decrease the needs or incentives that lead people to break the law. The same can be said of Washington, which pushes the onus onto supplier countries, when the real issue is the demand coming from the US for an illicit product. As Colombia turns again to fumigation, we can expect a tirade of analyses that criticise this ineffective and costly policy.  But for the Colombian and American governments, their past experience with fumigation has convinced them it should be used again. The harmful, criminal policy is, in their eyes, achieving something close to success.

*GDPO Research Associate

Notes on Criminal Economics

Ross Eventon*

In a recent report for GDPO, I discussed the links between national economic models and illicit cultivation, and the way this important context has been largely ignored by the drug policy community; localised projects – amounting to rural development aid – have instead been the focus of attention. In this blog I would like to address an important but often overlooked issue: the way the proceeds from criminal activity interact with the national economic model, and vice versa. The focus will be on the kinds of “Washington Consensus” reforms that have been applied in many developing countries since the 1970s.

Image by Robert Carner from Pixabay 

In 1994, the US Drug Enforcement Administration produced an interesting report on this topic, looking at the case of Colombia. The report opens with the following statement:

“Like many Latin American countries, Colombia recently has liberalized its economy through a series of reforms and relaxed import restrictions on foreign goods and services. Although Colombia may be benefiting from the resultant increase in international trade and exchange, criminal elements, including major drug kingpins, also are profiting from liberalization of the Colombian economy.”

The liberalisation of the financial services sector and the privatisation of many commercial facilities gave traffickers a new means of laundering their income. These reforms, the report notes, “will make it much more difficult for drug law enforcement officials to conduct financial investigations pertaining to drug money laundering in Colombia as well as in other countries.”Cases soon emerged of drug money being laundered through privately owned currency brokerage houses. The reforms also allowed Colombian citizens to hold dollar accounts. This meant “hundreds of millions of dollars worth of drug-related U.S. currency has been flowing into Colombia.”[1] When the government issued fixed-rate treasury securities, “these securities were sold to Colombian investors and informed sources reported that some securities were purchased with drug money.”  The report comments:

Ironically, a large percentage of the foreign currency reserves that are flooding the Colombian Government’s international reserves accounts (especially the majority of U.S. dollars) are believed to stem from the repatriation of drug proceeds from U.S. and European drug markets. The revenue generated by the influx of drug proceeds into the economy has provided the Colombian Government with funds for debt payments and national infrastructure development. Furthermore, through the purchase of government-issued securities, Colombian drug kingpins are investing in their country’s future economic development.

The implications of an inflow of large amounts of US dollars could be significant, for a number of reasons. The dollar flow removes one of the persistent problems of developing countries: the shortage of foreign reserves necessary to finance imports, particularly of machinery and other capital goods needed for the development of domestic industry.  Under normal circumstances, this leads to pressure to either increase exports – usually of raw materials – in order to earn the necessary currency, or to take measures to depress national demand, causing imports of consumer goods to fall (a currency devaluation, which also decreases real wages, could have such an effect).

In Colombia, the enormous amount of dollars entering the reserve accounts eliminated this balance of payments problem. In other countries, the shortage of reserves could serve as an incentive to improve the economic structure, particularly domestic export capabilities, which would create new sources of foreign exchange. In Colombia there was no such pressure. In fact, the government was able to run persistent current account deficits – imports exceeding exports – because the capital account was in surplus, thanks to the revenues from the drug trade. The DEA report refers to this as “the substitution of export revenue with revenue from illicit sources.”  

In 1996, a UNODC study noted that:

In situations of reduced money growth, an infusion of hard currency can bolster a country’s foreign reserves, ease the hardship associated with expenditure-reducing policies, and moderate foreign indebtedness. Drug money could in this light be perceived as a potentially stabilizing force, a source of capital without the strings of conditionality attached … Clearly, there are “benefits” which accrue to countries which serve as reservoirs of the revenues from the international drug trade.

After the economic liberalisation in Colombia, there followed a boom in private spending – and indebtedness – and, later, government deficits. A study of this period by the Banco de la Republica, which makes no mention of illicit incomes, instead discussing “hidden capital inflows,” remarks:

Both the rapid process of fiscal deterioration and the excess of private expenditure over disposable income were greatly facilitated by huge foreign capital inflows. They allowed the economy to keep a large and increasing current account deficit of the balance of payments between 1992 and 1997. At the same time, they implied that, during most of the nineties, the foreign exchange market was characterized by excess supply of dollars and by a pressure towards a real appreciation of the Colombian peso. A vicious circle was then created. The process of appreciation of the peso promoted a further increase in expenditure and made it apparently cheaper to increase foreign indebtedness and to bring foreign assets into the country.

From a development perspective, this is a crucial issue. The demand for the domestic currency, as traffickers convert dollars into pesos, causes it to appreciate.[2] As the OAS has recognised, “The influx of large volumes of foreign exchange directed toward activities showing sudden, artificial growth could cause the currency to appreciate and produce “Dutch disease”-type consequences by making other legitimate activities less competitive.” The appreciation will make imports cheaper, but it will also mean exports are less competitive. Domestic industries, particularly manufacturing, will find it difficult to compete internationally, given the relative increase in the price of their goods. If the appreciated exchange rate persists, domestic industry could suffer significant losses. The DEA report, in fact, had observed this unfolding anti-development tendency: “The appreciation of the peso and subsequent increase in the peso’s “real value” have significantly hurt manufacturing and agricultural producers in Colombia.”[3]

In the 1990s, the appreciated peso led to inflationary pressures, and the government responded by contracting the money supply. “However, due to the constant flow of drug dollars, this action caused the value of the peso to appreciate and, in turn, domestic production costs have increased. This increase has reduced demand for export from overseas markets; at the same time, the stronger peso has increased demands for imports.”

In this sense, the presence of drug trafficking on the national territory is similar in development terms to a low-value export industry or unproductive Foreign Direct Investment (FDI): While it provides foreign reserves, the revenues are not invested in productive capacity. Drug money is traditionally laundered through real estate (a hedge against inflation), casinos, car dealerships, construction, and so on. Any associated increase in demand is consumption-based and unsustainable. Hence Medellin once experienced enormous investments in the construction sector linked to the drug trade. But once the boom subsided, the city “suffered an economic decline and high unemployment because little alternative productive investment had been made.” Similar tendencies have been noted in other regions by the UNODC:

In West Africa, in recent years, significant amounts of criminal money seems to have been invested in the construction of casinos. Recent examples of arms and drug dealers in some of the western Balkan countries revealed major investments in large-scale construction, ranging from apartment houses, shopping malls and business centres to yacht ports, officially financed by foreign banks, though with criminal funds.

These kinds of consumption patterns, created by illicit income, mimic the historic problem of Latin America: the wasteful use of much-needed foreign currency to purchase luxury goods from abroad. The DEA report, for example, found “the importation of luxury goods by Colombia and their subsequent sale has increased suspiciously by 105 percent since 1992. Many of the purchases have been luxury automobiles and four-wheel-drive vehicles that have saturated the Colombian automobile market.”

In 1991, a New York Times article noted that drug trafficking in Colombia was contributing to deindustrialisation and, therefore, unemployment in the manufacturing sector:

A big problem is that the drug profits are repatriated as contraband goods. Colombia’s two largest cities, Bogota and Medellin, have large shopping centers, both called San Andresito after Colombia’s San Andres Island in the Caribbean. Most contraband passes from the island to these bulging inland malls. Contraband sales are estimated at $1 billion a year. But the large contraband trade has contributed to the country’s “disindustrialization,” a study by the Bogota economic research group Fedesarrollo, has found. Local industries compete with the goods and are consequently forced out of business. And the drug barons walk away with local currency to spend on luxuries: fleets of sports cars and motorcycles, exotic animals and art works. Since most of those goods are imported, there is no expansionary effect on the Colombian economy.

Today, the estimates of the value of illicit financial flows related to drug trafficking in the western hemisphere are between $80 – $90 billion a year; enough, that is, to have an impact on currency values or influence macroeconomic policy.[4]  One of the obstacles to combatting these illicit financial flows is that traffickers now take advantage of the same mechanisms used by the very wealthy and corporations, including tax havens.  To crack down on laundering of illicit gains would mean addressing the loopholes in the legal system which allow for financial secrecy. A drug trafficker, for example, will launder money using the same means as a corporation sending bribes to government officials. As one study observes, while officials have constantly promised reform, “We have waited long enough now to conclude that they are insincere.” The American justice system in particular demonstrates “a curious indifference to white-collar crime.”

Another UNODC study has discussed the way drug trafficking – through its macroeconomic effects and, citing the DEA, “short-run positive effects” – can influence policy decisions:

[T]he political dilemmas posed by the illicit drug industry are not limited to personal enrichment. For some Governments, even with the best of intentions, worsening terms of trade mean that hard currency revenue – drug-tainted or not – have special appeal even at the official level. For those faced with seemingly untenable debt-servicing burdens, drug money can be seen as a panacea for a vast array of other public commitments. In 1992, the proportion of external debt to GNP was 84 per cent for Bolivia, 48 per cent for Pakistan, 95 per cent for Peru and 386 per cent for Zambia. In such desperate situations, officials find themselves caught in a dilemma between looking the other way in order to finance governmental expenditures and enforcing laws against drug trafficking. In financial markets, Governments often find themselves in an analogous situation: by relaxing controls and establishing safe-money havens in order to woo investors, they run the risk of attracting illicit funds, losing creditworthiness and lowering prospects for long-term financial stability.

Drug trafficking, therefore, may lead to circumstances that condition the kinds of macroeconomic policies that are pursued. And there may be other ways in which economic reforms benefit local groups reliant on illicit incomes. The obvious example is Afghanistan. Soon after the occupation, the country adopted – or, more correctly, the occupying forces and the international financial institutions imposed – an economic model based on the “Washington Consensus” reforms.[5]  A long-recognised effect of a free trade regime in a poor country is that it will hold in place the existing production structure: a country that exports rugs and grapes, and adopts free trade, will most likely be exporting the same kinds of products ten years later. The economic model, noted a World Bank report, had led to a “market-oriented overall policy environment, few legal constraints on labour markets, and a generally untrammelled informal sector.” Commenting on the beneficiaries of such a model, Erik Reinert, an economic historian and development economist, writes: “Warlords in the world periphery may appreciate free trade [because it] locks a nation in a pre-capitalist and backward economic structure that prevents democracy.”

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

The privatisations and the economic liberalisation that followed the occupation of Afghanistan were, it seems, a great boon to the political and business elite involved in the drug trade. There are other dynamics to be considered. In Colombia, for example, the paramilitary forces are financed by the drug trade. These groups have historically been the shock-troops of the government’s economic model. By assassinating trade unionists, they contributed to the extremely low rates of union membership and stifled calls for changes in the economic model. The murder of progressive politicians, by paramilitaries and traffickers, had a similar effect. Land grabs by paramilitaries also helped consolidate land ownership and the model of development based in large part on oil, mining and monoculture; studies have even shown that “violence perpetrated by armed groups sympathetic to the interests of the oil sector – namely, the public armed forces and right-wing paramilitaries – have facilitated FDI in Colombia’s oil sector.” We therefore have a self-reinforcing system: an economic model beneficial to criminal groups, combined with violence funded by illicit income that serves to perpetuate that model. A coalition of NGOs in Colombia have referred to the national economic model as “pro-rich.”  For a number of reasons outlined here, it may also be “pro-criminal.”

In my report, I discussed another neglected area: the relationship between economic reforms, deindustrialisation and criminal gangs. Throughout Latin America, economic liberalisation has led to the decline of manufacturing industries that were a source of relatively well-paid jobs. Medellin, for example, was once an important textile centre. When the industry disappeared, young people were left with few viable options for employment. Criminal gangs offered an alternative. Similar phenomena are observed across urban areas of Latin America. And the same issues exist in the countryside: it is in the interest of the traffickers and their facilitators to have a large proportion of farmers rely on an illicit cash crop in order to survive.

Identifying the sources of such problems guides us towards possible solutions.  As I write in the policy brief:

“From the perspective of a development economist, the fact that in Guatemala City thousands of young men decide to join local gangs cannot be separated from a production structure which revolves around exports of bananas, coffee and sugar. In Colombia, the key to the perennially high levels of coca cultivation is the government’s exclusionary economic model focused on extractive industries, monoculture and finance, which cannot absorb the labour abandoning the countryside and leaves around half the working population in the informal economy. If Afghanistan continues to focus on exporting carpets, rugs and dried fruits, its farmers will never have any other option than to produce illicit crops to survive.”

Read the full Policy Brief: Drug Policy and the Development Fallacy

*GDPO Research Associate

[1] A related issue is the liberalization of capital accounts, a policy that has been embraced by a number of developing countries. These measures increase the economic vulnerability of a country, and go far beyond the original recommendations of the so-called ‘Washington Consensus’. Allowing the free flow of capital out of the country grants investors the power to ‘discipline’ governments who make economic policy decisions to which they are opposed. It will also facilitate money laundering. As one study notes, capital account liberalization should not take place until the government has made sufficient strides against “corruption, crime, illegal businesses and money laundering.”  This was clearly not the case in countries like Colombia or Brazil.

[2] In Colombia, foreign currency, primarily dollars, flooded the black market. And this caused an inversion of the normal arrangement: buying pesos on the black market was more expensive than the official rate. This suggests a surplus of foreign currency, and a willingness of traffickers to pay a premium to convert their currencies, without uncomfortable questions being asked.

[3] And, it should be remembered, what harms agriculture is beneficial to those who need farmers to rely on illicit sources of income to survive.

[4] One of the results of the pandemic has been a worldwide increase in cash holdings. Part of this development could be attributed to less retail activity, meaning criminal groups have been unable to launder their money, and are forced to hold cash.  See here for discussion.  

[5] For an excellent analysis, see: Del Castillo, G. Guilty Party: The International Community in Afghanistan, Xlibris Corporation, 2014

Trump v Biden. Their stances on Drug Policy: ‘How it started. How it’s going.’

Branwen Lloyd*

The 2020 United States presidential election—with early voting underway and Election Day on November 3—is already like no other in history. In a pivotal year the presidential campaign has been repeatedly shaken by seismic events: a devastating pandemic, George Floyd’s killing by police officers, and subsequent protests, President Donald Trump contracting COVID-19, and Trump himself claiming that the vote will be fraudulent.

Image by Larry White from Pixabay

With the election likely being decided on the merits of each candidate’s “character” an analysis of their positions on drug policy is a fascinating measure. With so many other high-profile issues competing for attention – COVID-19, the economy, Supreme Court nominations – drug policy will not be a deciding factor in the 2020 election. Indeed, it seldom is in any Presidential contest.  However, the influence of the winner on Health Care and Criminal Justice systems will directly affect the nation’s drugs policy and an analysis of the candidates’ evolving positions on the issues reveals some important differences between the candidates.

‘How it started. How it’s going’ is a trend currently sweeping Twitter and sees Twitter users sharing experiences about their lives, careers and relationships. If we look at the stances of Trump and Biden on drug policy in the same context we see fascinating diametrically opposite movements. Joe Biden – often considered to have been one of the main “architects” of the 1980 and 1990 “War on Drugs,” now has a far more liberal attitude towards U.S. drug problems while Donald Trump’s track-record during office offers little hope for radical changes in the status quo.


Before COVID-19, the U.S. was already battling an overdose crisis of unprecedented proportions, caused by prescription analgesics and illicitly manufactured fentanyls, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine (alone or in combination). The Centres for Disease Control reports that from 1999 to 2018, over 750,000 people died from a drug overdose with the number increasing each year. Then in 2018 Trump claimed credit for the first drop in 25 years, a decrease of 5% in 2017-2018. Deaths totalled 68,557 – the dip mainly due to a reduction in deaths from prescription opioid painkillers. But it didn’t mark a true turning point in the trajectory of this crisis; the next year 70,000 people died of drug overdoses and 72,000 in 2019, a record high. Provisional data indicate that drug overdose deaths will increase again in 2020, a situation further complicated by the pandemic.

Other issues that had previously dominated the domestic drug policy landscape, such as cannabis legalization, have been eclipsed by recent developments and more pressing issues. Once a ‘third-rail issue’, views have changed in Washington, mainly due to the wider acceptance of cannabis use across the population. More Americans now support the legalization of marijuana, whether for recreational or medicinal purposes, than oppose it. A 2019 Gallup poll indicated that Democrats and Independents overwhelmingly supported legalization and even the majority of Republican voters were for it – albeit by much close margins. The MORE Act (Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act) was expected to have been passed by the House in late September 2020. It would have removed federal penalties for marijuana related crimes by deleting cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and erase some criminal records. However, the motion was delayed until after the election (so that the House could concentrate on coronavirus relief legislation).

So where do the developments in the United States sit within the global drug policy debate? The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) has also decided to delay until December 2020 a vote on the potential global rescheduling of cannabis for medical purposes, recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). James Walsh, leader of the US delegation to the CND expressed regret at the U.N. delay, but he also noted that the US delegation’s concern is on what it considers more pressing drug control issues such as “continue to combat the global opioid crisis and synthetic drug threat”.

Trump’s record on drugs

Back in 1990 at a luncheon held by the Miami Herald, Trump called the United States’ drug enforcement policy a ‘joke’ and was quoted as saying “We’re losing badly the war on drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.” He advocated using tax revenues from legalized drug trade to educate the public on the dangers of drugs. However as a candidate for the White House in 2016 he did a 180-degree flip, saying cannabis regulation was “bad” and that decisions should be left to each state to decide its marijuana policy. One of his first appointments as President was to bring in Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, one of many in Trump’s administration who have openly opposed pro-marijuana legislation. In a leaked recording from 2018, Trump was heard to say marijuana makes people “lose IQ points” and at an opioid summit that same year at the White House, Trump advocated the death penalty for drug dealers, equating the provision of lethal drugs with murder. He was quoted as saying “Some countries have a very, very tough penalty — the ultimate penalty — and by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do”.  

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The Trump administration’s lack of focus and failure to act decisively in response to the nation’s drug crisis have frustrated progress over the last 4 years. In 2019 government auditors reported that the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), tasked with leading efforts to tackle illegal drug use, has not delivered on a central mission, which was to produce an annual strategy to guide federal agencies and to allocate billions of federal dollars. The ONDCP failed to produce reports in 2017 or 2018 and the first report produced in 2019 lacked the necessary depth and analysis required to be effective – it was only 23 pages long.  In February 2020 just prior to the widening COVID-19 pandemic the office published its 2020 Drug Control Strategy. Despite claiming that “The President’s top priority remains, as he articulated in his first strategy, to address, head on, the current opioid crisis and reduce the number of Americans dying from these dangerous drugs”, the document lacked useful information and planning and failed to provide detailed metrics and objectives, as it was legally required to do.

The ONDCP claims achievements in expanding availability of the overdose reversal medication, naloxone; increasing anti-opioid misuse education campaigns for young people; and securing historic funding levels for anti-trafficking efforts and addiction recovery. However data from ambulance teams, hospitals and police shows the number of suspected overdoses has jumped nationally during the pandemic (18 percent in March, 29 percent in April and 42 percent in May), and ONDCP has be woefully slow in responding.

In June 2020 the ONDCP launched the Rural Community Tool Box which is aimed at helping patients access treatment remotely. The Trump administration has designated $425 million in emergency funding for mental health and substance use treatment, but critics say it is not nearly enough to keep afloat treatment programs, recovery centres and needle-exchange programmes. Social isolation, economic hardship and new suppliers and substances have compounded the threats to drug users during the pandemic. So far, the Trump administration has made little real progress in addressing these pressing issues and shows little sign of doing so in the future. The Trump 2020 website doesn’t include any campaign promises. There is some mention of the opioid crisis on the ‘Promises Kept’ section but no indication of the direction of any future drugs policy– or any policies for that matter.  We can only deduct from this that his position remains relatively unchanged.

During his first Presidential Campaign much of Trump’s drug policy proposals revolved around the building of “a wall” on the U.S.-Mexican border to stem the flow of drugs and drug dealers. Although he has partially delivered on this campaign promise the pandemic has shown that closing the border with its southern neighbour will not solve the U.S.’s drug problem. During the pandemic the drug flows have been interrupted along with legal commerce but America’s drug problem has not abated and dealers and users have found other, home-produced substances, often with deadly consequences.

In June 2020, following weeks of often violent protests following the death of George Floyd, Trump declared “I am your president of law and order,” emphasising this by tweeting “LAW AND ORDER” in block capitals. This latest mantra doesn’t speak directly to drug policy, since like many of Trumps outburst it doesn’t refer to any particular policy or strategy, but it may include a renewed emphasis on harsher drug related penalties. Evoking fear of “crime” in the electorate has been a feature of American political strategy for years, and was a key feature of Trump’s 2016 campaign, in which Trump vilified immigrants as violent criminals. However, recent polls have indicated “violent crime” is not a top issue for voters, ranking fifth in importance behind the economy, healthcare, supreme court appointments and the coronavirus.

On October 3rd in a proclamation on National Substance Abuse Prevention Month, 2020, the President assured the nation that “we renew our unyielding commitment to breaking the grip of alcohol and drug addiction.” He acknowledged “Addiction to alcohol, illicit drugs, and prescription medications fuels havoc, heartache, and hopelessness in the lives of far too many Americans, as well as their friends and family members.” This seemingly sympathetic concern came only days after the first, disordered, presidential debate in which he mocked Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden’s, history of drug addiction.

Biden’s record on drugs

Joe Biden’s record as a U.S. Senator since the 1970’s, including periods as Chair of Senate Committee on the Judiciary (1987-1995) and Chair of the International Narcotics Control Caucus (2007-2009)—as well as his service as 47th Vice President of the United States (2009-2017)—affords a substantial amount of evidence about his stance on drugs policy. However, as with Trump, it is not straightforward. Like Trump, Biden’s beliefs started a long way from where they appear to be now.

Image by: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America

During his early years in the Senate, Biden was instrumental in some of the most significant crime bills in recent U.S. history. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 established mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses; the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, introduced much harsher sentences for possession of crack than for powder cocaine; and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, again stiffened prison sentences for drug possession, enhanced penalties for transporting drugs, and established the ONDCP. In 1989, Senator Biden went on national television to criticize President George H.W. Bush’s plan to escalate the War on Drugs, saying it didn’t go far enough; “Quite frankly, the president’s plan is not tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand”. He called for harsher punishments for drug dealers and to “hold every drug user accountable”. In the address he also called for greater spending on drug awareness education, to “do more, and now”.

By the early 1990s, as violent drug related crime continued to rise, in a speech on the Senate floor, Biden wanted to “Lock the S.O.B.s up.” In 1994 Biden boasted, “The truth is every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress, every minor crime bill, has had the name of the Democratic senator from the State of Delaware: Joe Biden [on it]”. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the largest crime bill in U.S. history, was also known as the Biden Crime Law. The laws Biden helped shape in the 1980s and 1990s, and similar legislation in states across the nation, marked a trend towards stricter sentencing laws for drugs and violent offenses, resulting in mass incarceration that overwhelmed America’s black communities.

This is not lost on the Trump 2020 campaign. A video ad reminded (Black) voters “Joe Biden’s policies destroyed millions of black lives” and a tweet by @AmericaFirstPAC claimed “Biden was the chief architect of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs”.

Biden’s positioning has often reflected the politics of the time. Democrats and Republicans have battled to prove that they are the toughest on crime. However as the numbers using illicit drugs keep rising and the collateral consequences of disproportionately incarcerating poor people of colour is still devastating lives, Biden has done a volte-face on his ’80s and ’90s stance. The Obama administration, faced with a growing opioids crisis, worked to reshape how America approached the drug problem by pushing for public health response rather than the “tough on crime” approach taken by previous administrations dealing with drug epidemics; heroin (Nixon, 1960s) and crack cocaine (Reagan, Bush, Clinton, 1980s & 90s). Biden backtracked on tougher prison sentences for crack cocaine that he had shaped and he’s acknowledged his previous ‘mistakes’, saying in 2008 “I am part of the problem that I have been trying to solve since then,…because I think the [crack-powder] disparity is way out of line.” During his 2020 run for office he has admitted “I haven’t always been right,” and speaking to criminal justice issues he acknowledged that, “I know we haven’t always gotten things right, but I’ve always tried.” A point he reiterated in the final presidential debate on 22 Oct 2020, repeating that previous laws had been a “mistake” and stating, “No one should be going to jail because they have a drug problem.” Biden’s 2020 campaign website states if elected he will “Reform the criminal justice system so that no one is incarcerated for drug use alone” and “Decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions”, although he does still appear to fall-short of backing full legalization.  

Biden’s choice of running-mate, Kamala Harris, has had a similar rethink on her position. The former Californian Attorney General who has a history of aggressive prosecution of marijuana cases is now a vocal supporter of reform. In 2018, she co-sponsored Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act that would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and expunge existing cannabis-related criminal records, and was the MORE Act’s lead Senate sponsor. In the Vice Presidential debate on October 8, 2020, Harris vowed that marijuana would be decriminalized at a federal level in the United States under a Biden administration, a move that saw the shares of U.S.-listed major cannabis producers surge the following day. Harris’ stance in fact goes even further and she now appears to support full legalization. In her book, The Truths We Tell (2019) she writes “We need to legalize marijuana and regulate it. And we need to expunge nonviolent marijuana-related offenses from the records of the millions of people who have been arrested and incarcerated so they can get on with their lives.”

Biden’s change of heart may also be down to his own personal experiences. In 1999, his daughter Ashley was arrested in New Orleans for possession of marijuana while attending Tulane University but was not prosecuted, while his son Hunter has had a well-documented drug problem. In that first, already infamous presidential debate, he was provoked by Trump on Hunter Biden’s troubled history he responded “My son, like a lot of people, like lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He’s fixed it, he’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.” With so many American lives touched by the devastating consequences of illicit drug use this message of compassion and care, in the face of stigmatization and scorn, and Biden’s about-face turn may play well with American voters on November 3rd.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay


Already amidst an overdose crisis of historic magnitude Trump’s administration over the past 4 years has failed to make any significant steps to address the issue and shows little appetite to take the lead on cannabis policy reform. The COVID -19 crisis has only served to highlight failures in a fundamentally broken system, on top of which future U.S. drug policy will have to deal with the legacy effects of the pandemic. While both candidates have over the years shown significant reversals on drug issues, the Trump campaign does not signal and appetite for any specific, further change of direction if re-elected. While a future with Joe Biden as President may offer a more progressive approach to drug policy the repercussions of the events of 2020 may make substantial change more challenging and protracted.    

*GDPO Project Officer