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.
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.
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.
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.” 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. 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.”
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. 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. 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.”
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.”
 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. http://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM//ead/ptepf/daianu_ptepf_28_06.pdf
 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.
 And, it should be remembered, what harms agriculture is beneficial to those who need farmers to rely on illicit sources of income to survive.
 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.
 For an excellent analysis, see: Del Castillo, G. Guilty Party: The International Community in Afghanistan, Xlibris Corporation, 2014
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
At the end of summer 2019 the GDPO was successful in an application to Swansea University’s Higher Education Funding Council for Wales – Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) scheme.The GCRF is a £1.5 billion fund announced by the UK Government in 2015 to support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries. The fund supports research surrounding three challenge areas; Equitable Access to Sustainable Development, Sustainable Economies and Societies and Human Rights, Good Governance and Social Justice. As it happened the project the GDPO proposed touched on addressing issues in all of theses categories.
This was the GDPO’s second successful GCRF award. Earlier in 2019 GCRF funding was secured to begin the project Cultivating Change: UN treaties, cannabis regulation and options for sustainable development in the Caribbean, in collaboration with partners at the University of the West Indies, Mona (UWI) in Jamaica. The aim of this interdisciplinary project was to facilitate knowledge exchange and to identify in-region expertise pertaining to the complex and increasingly challenging issues of international drugs policy. The project focused on exploring the potential of enabling the currently illicit cannabis cultivation within the Caribbean to enter the licit market. This is an issue that is becoming an increasingly important part of sustainable development strategies within many traditional producer states in the Global South. With a rapid expansion of legally regulated markets for recreational use of cannabis comes the potential for market engagement and associated benefits, relating to social justice and human rights within marginalized communities in the Caribbean.
Jamaica is just one of many Caribbean islands exploring if the relaxation of certain drugs policies relating to marijuana can not only lead to social reform but to related economic development. The Jamaican ‘brand’ of cannabis culture and production is world-renowned. Add this to the historic and religious use of ganja for sacramental purposes and one can see why it is such a burning issue.
In 2015, the Jamaican government amended the Dangerous Drugs Act, which effectively decriminalized the possession and use of ganja in small amounts, (up to 2 oz), possession of larger amounts remaining a criminal offense, and which also legalized medical marijuana. This allowed the use of marijuana for medical and religious purposes, but not for recreational use. It also introduced licenses for its cultivation and sale. Other Caribbean nations have looked towards Jamaica as an early mover and many have amended and introduced their own legislation keen not to miss out on potential profits, particularly in the field of medical marijuana production. However, in the years since the act was passed forward progress has apparently stalled, and it is currently unclear how the legislation would develop to assist the significant numbers of traditional (illicit) marijuana producers across the country. Many of these growers struggle to survive economically; a fact often underpinning engagement with the currently illicit market.
The goal of the Cultivating Change project was to generate knowledge exchange and develop in-region expertise pertaining to complex and increasingly challenging legal and policy dilemmas around cannabis, both at the national, regional and international level. The project focused on the potential transition of currently illicit cannabis cultivation within the Caribbean to the licit market and as such become an important part of sustainable development strategies in traditional so-called producer states within the Global South. With a rapid expansion of legally regulated markets for both medical and recreational use come the potential for market engagement and associated benefits relating to social justice and human rights within currently marginalized communities within the Caribbean. While shifts would do much to help states work towards a range of Sustainable Development Goals (particularly those relating to poverty, gender equality, decent work and economic growth and life on land) there are currently complex legal questions concerning not only the practicalities of market transition within Jamaica and other states within the region, but also of the feasibility of international trade in cannabis for recreational purpose. The GDPO team were therefore keen to speak to legislators, growers and officials to examine the complex legal questions concerning the feasibility of international trade in cannabis and to consider how such a shift would do much to help states work towards a range of SDGs.
So, in June 2019, in the good old pre-COVID days (we thought the risk assessments were bad enough then!) GDPO Senior Research Associate Axel Klein and I boarded a fight to Jamaica to meet colleagues at the University of the West Indies, Mona and begin field work. The team visited traditional growers and discussed the impact the CLA regulations were having on licit and illicit cannabis production. They then met with Minister J.C. Hutchinson from the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries (MICAF) who explained the Cannabis Licensing Authority’s (CLA) new ‘Alternative Development Programme’. The programme is a pilot project aimed at transitioning current illicit cannabis farmers into the legally regulated medical cannabis industry. It hopes to increase the legitimate earning potential of small, marginalised communities that have been disproportionately impacted by drug policy and regulation and therefore still operated within the cannabis black market. The team visited the site of the Maroon community project in Accompong, St. Elizabeth and saw first-hand that the transition from illicit to licit production and trade of cannabis will be a complicated but no less worthy endeavour. After meeting with CLA officials and numerous academics at Mona working in various fields of study relating to cannabis in the Caribbean we were confident we had had a good overview of the current state of play and were encouraged that there was much support for further collaboration.
When the second Swansea University GCRF grant award was approved in late 2019 the GPDO moved to assist in the set-up of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Cannabis Research (ICCR) at UWI, Mona. Its aim is to serve as a centre of research excellence for pertinent cannabis related study and discussion within the Caribbean. This includes the fields of political science, law and agriculture, gender studies, as well as criminology and public policy. A second research trip to Jamaica in January 2020 led to the publication of the ICCR first paper ‘Ganja Licensing in Jamaica Learning lessons and setting standards’ by Axel Klein and Vicki J. Hanson. The paper, at the request of Minister J.C. Hutchinson, is an analysis of the roadblocks within the licensing process that prevent small farmers from getting access to a license and problems they have in trying to enter the medical marijuana industry. Things were going well for the ICCR. Staff were appointed to set up the website, arrange workshops and start connecting the academics across the UWI network… then COVID struck.
Universities shut; countries went into lock down. Workshops, meetings and launches were delayed and put on hold, but we adapted, and thanks to the power of Zoom and not a little hard work and creative thinking we were able to proceed with the project and in fact generated more activities and outputs than first anticipated. Thanks to GCRF funding, research on cannabis policy, social and cultural impact now has a permanent home in the Caribbean that can react to developments first-hand. This was exemplified by one of the first events hosted by the ICCR, a Covid-19 and Ganja: Medical and Economic Impact Webinar. Working on an international project at this time was not without its challenges. Nonetheless, the lessons learnt, and connections made (albeit more virtual than face-to-face) will be far reaching and impactful. Further fieldwork in the Caribbean may be on hold for some time yet, however continuing to work together across international borders proved to be, after the first few weeks of uncertainty, a fairly smooth transition.
But the work doesn’t stop! Keep an eye out for some upcoming work by GDPO, TNI and ICCR on the Cannabis Trade in the Caribbean.
The availability of drugs in prisons around the world is well documented. In Europe alone, up to seventy percent of people in prison have used an illicit drug. In Canada, forty-eight percent of prisoners in federal correctional institutions have had ‘problems’ with drugs. In Australia, one in six people discharged reported using illicit drugs during their sentence.
The 2018-19 Annual Report of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales stated, ‘we are regularly told how easy it is to get hold of illicit drugs in prisons, and of the shockingly high numbers who acquire a drug habit while they are detained’. The Chief Inspector was ‘particularly concerned by the high number of prisoners who said they had developed a problem while in prison – 13% of adult men in our survey reported that they had developed a problem with illicit drugs since they had arrived’. Here in Wales, a Cardiff prison survey found that fifty-two percent of prisoners said it was easy to get illegal drugs into the prison.
The availability and use of drugs in prisons cannot be separated from wider drug policy. The criminalisation of drugs and the people who use or sell them fuels mass incarceration in many countries, and in doing so creates large profitable markets for drugs behind bars. To counter this, prison systems around the world have deployed a wide range of supply reduction and drug interdiction measures – from searches to sniffer dogs to drug testing – to try to stop drugs entering prisons, and to disrupt internal markets.
Are these measures effective at deterring drug use or shrinking illicit markets? The high levels of drug use in prison cited above suggest the impacts are limited at best, and that despite the efforts of prison security, drugs continue to flow into places of detention with relative ease.
Although supply reduction efforts in prisons may be ineffective overall at eliminating drug markets, that does not mean they do not have an impact on drug consumption. As noted in 2008 by Antonio Maria Costa, former Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, efforts to control illicit drugs often have negative ‘unintended consequences’ not considered at the time they were implemented. In other words, drug enforcement efforts often have the effect of creating problems worse than those they were intended to solve. In prisons, one of these ‘unintended consequences’ is increased drug-related risk and drug-related harms.
One widely used measure to deter drug use in prisons is mandatory drug testing (MDT). The UK Ministry of Justice states that 67% of prisoners surveyed in 2014/15 had participated in some form of MDT. While the UK government states that MDT is intended to ‘deter prisoners from misusing drugs’ and to ‘contribute to drug supply reduction, and contribute to prisoner safety, violence reduction, order and control’, the evidence suggests that random drug testing may actually undermine all of those objectives.
Drug use is as much a part of the prison environment as it is the outside community. Overall, the supply reduction activities of prison regimes fuel drug-related risk and drug-related harms among people in detention. The advent of NPS only exacerbates this, creating an environment in which use of new psychoactive substances, substances often more dangerous than the traditional drugs they are created to mimic, are the easiest to smuggle in, and the most logical to use if wishing to avoid detection.
If governments are truly serious about addressing drug use and reducing drug-related harm, they must move away from enforcement-focussed responses, and instead implement laws and policies that reduce the number of people in prison for drug-related offences, and to provide comprehensive harm reduction programmes for people in detention.
*Dr Rick Lines is Associate Professor of Criminology and Human Rights at the School of Law, Swansea University. He is also a Senior Research Associate with the Global Drug Policy Observatory. Olivia Howells is a Law and Criminology student at Swansea University and Daniel Webb is a Criminology and Criminal Justice student at Swansea University.
This research was conducted as part of the Swansea Paid Internship Network programme, a scheme enabling School of Law students to obtain experience working on an active research project under the guidance of an academic supervisor.
Traditionally, the UN and governments have measured progress in drug policy in terms of flows and scale; principally the numbers of people arrested, hectares of drug crops eradicated and the amounts of drugs seized. For years now, IDPC and many civil society colleagues (in particular the Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO), CELS, the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation, and the Social Science Research Council among others), have advocated against such an approach, because of its inability to truly assess the real impacts of drug control policy – especially for communities affected by the illicit drug trade on the one hand and by drug policies on the other.
The 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) was instrumental in pushing the boundaries of UN drug policy to consider issues related to health, human rights, social inclusion, criminal justice reform and how all of this might contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. However, while recent years have seen a welcome increase in focus on the adverse health consequences of drug use and interventions aiming to reduce them, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and many member states have thus far been resistant to incorporate these critical elements into their main data collection tool – the Annual Reports Questionnaire (ARQ). The ongoing review of this tool has so far been a missed opportunity to fully reconsider what success in global drug policy should look like.
In 2018, IDPC published our landmark Shadow Report ‘Taking stock: A decade of drug policy’, in which we assessed the progress made – or rather, the lack thereof – in global drug policy since the adoption of the 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action on drugs, to inform the Ministerial Segment of March 2019. Collaborative work by the IDPC network and other civil society experts was instrumental to obtaining a full picture of the global situation relating drug control approaches on demand and supply, but also on the impacts of drug policies on the broader UN priorities of promoting human rights, development, and advancing peace and security. What we found was extremely worrying. While the UN was in many ways side-stepping difficult questions, drug policies in many parts of the world had become responsible for increased HIV and hepatitis C infections among people who inject drugs, half a million drug use-related deaths in 2015 alone, and tens of thousands of people falling victim to extrajudicial killings, as well as arbitrary and compulsory detention. In the meantime, the prevalence of drug use, the hectares of crops cultivated for the illicit drug trade, and the tons of drugs trafficked had reached record highs. But far from being a wake-up call, UN drug policy debates in Vienna have mainly continued to rely on the business-as-usual approach.
Faced with the clear lack of appetite from both governments and the UN to evaluate the impacts of drug control on communities worldwide in any meaningful way, it seems likely that civil society will once again need to take a proactive stance. The critical role played by civil society in holding governments accountable by creating transparent and informative policy evaluation tools is not a new idea. This has been done before in various policy areas. For instance, Transparency International has, for some time now, been tracking progress made by countries across the world in reducing corruption, with the Global Corruption Perception Index. Journalists without Borders has done the same with their World Press Freedom Index. And the list continues. Indeed, it is now widely recognised that the ‘soft power’ of indices is capable of exerting considerable social pressure and can – via a number of interrelated process – be a potent lever for the generation of policy change.
With this in mind, IDPC and GDPO have now embarked on a similar endeavour, faced with the urgent need to develop a tool that would enable us to track drug policy developments worldwide in a systematic and scientific way, as well as to assess how effective these turned out to be on the ground. The results of this analysis would enable us to compare policies adopted between various countries, and track evolution over time, as well as rank countries according to how well their drug policies have been able to foster improved health, human rights protection, gender equality, social inclusion or violence reduction.
Learning from other composite indices, the proposed Global Drug Policy Index (GDPI) would be a collaborative civil society endeavour (as was the case for the Shadow Report), with the aim of increasing transparency in decision making processes around drugs, promoting new indicators to evaluate drug control, facilitating the participation of civil society in data collection, and ultimately supporting more humane policies and reforms.
We are still in the preliminary stages of development and fundraising for this ambitious tool, but we are excited by the advocacy opportunities that a carefully designed Global Drug Policy Index will bring to the global and national debates on drug policy for the years to come. Stay tuned for more information!
Axel Klein, GDPO Senior Research Associate.
April 24, 2019.
At the 62nd meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in March this year the tensions between states with widely diverging drug policies finally came to the surface. On the floor of the plenary meeting the Russian delegation took Canada to task for ‘violating international law [by] legalising cannabis.’ (http://cndblog.org/2019/03/plenary-item-9-implementation-of-the-international-drug-control-treaties-cont-2/)
The Russia delegate also took issue with the Expert Commission on Drug Dependence of the World Health Organisation for recommending that cannabis be moved from schedule 4 of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and placed in the less strict schedule 1. Interestingly, the objection had nothing to do with either the new assessment of the harms posed by cannabis or its medical potential. What had given cause to offence was that the ‘perception of the world of the community would be that legalisation is fine and dandy. Probably the experts don’t have to go through the turmoil of thinking through the repercussions of their decisions. They are technical experts. Nothing more’ (emphasis added).
Technical issues, say of patient benefit, the need to address discrimination and stigma, or pre-empt trafficking were not touched upon. The Russian Federation’s statement also glossed over the fact that the placement was not designed to be permanently fixed. The original founders of the system expected that substances would move across the schedules as more scientific evidence became available. Important to recall here is that at the time that cannabis was slotted into schedule 4, tetrahydrocannabinol, the most important psychoactive substance, had not even been discovered.
The point of Russia’s attack on countries like Canada, Uruguay and several US states– though only Canada was singled out – was the risks that legalisation was having consequences.
Consequentialism has not been a driving force in the history of international drug control, given the ontological foundation of the treaties on the ‘welfare of mankind’. The system architects recruited ‘mankind’ to labour in the construction and then retire. Hence the object of Russian concern were not people in their totality or diverse sub-populations – patients, drug consumers, communities – but the ‘international drug control system’ itself.
Taking this to its logical conclusion, we then understand that adhering to the provisions of the three drug control conventions and the various associated agreements and protocols is only indirectly to do with problems of addiction and substance misuse. Their overriding purpose lies in protecting the functionaries and officials who work in it.
Such proposals tend to resonate particularly with representatives of countries with natural resource-based economies and authoritarian regimes. If the recent focus on human rights has already opened a divide between countries, the question of accountability is likely to push them even further apart. Justifying costly layers of administration to tax-paying electorates (though not to universities), is difficult at the best of times, but particularly when they fail to have a positive purpose.
And yet this is what the international system has long been lacking, at least according to Antonio Maria Costa, the former head of UNODC. In a seminal address to the CND in 2008 he stated with counter-intuitive perspicacity, that the ‘system was no longer fit for purpose’ and unable to contain a number of displacements.(Costa, Antonia Maria, Making drug control ‘fit for purpose’ Building on the UNGASS decade, Report by the Executive Director of the UNODC, 2008) The first he mentioned was the ‘huge criminal black market that now thrives in order to get prohibited substances from producers to consumers.’ Along with these markets comes the full spectrum of crime from large, police and policy corrupting syndicates to addiction fueled shoplifting. Such crime is the trade-off for containing the public health that is threatened by open drug markets. It is on this Faustian pact that the system is build.
(Antonia Maria Costa, UNODC)
Picking up on the admonition by the Russian delegate to consider the repercussions of our actions we need to review the criminogenic effect of drug control. This has to be done repeatedly and publicly precisely because it runs counter to the popular assumptions. In popular folklore, police and paramilitaries are believed to be breaking down doors and shooting up laboratories in ‘response’ to drug criminals. In effect, the causal effect runs the other way. The harder police and magistrates squeeze drug supply, the more devious and brutal the industry becomes when meeting the demand.
The fact that drug control generates crime needs to be repeated to policy makers at every level and may even hold sway with an audience that is otherwise immune to arguments about human rights, patient needs or stigmatization.
At the CND in Vienna most national delegations are comprised of and led by senior law enforcement officers or officials of the Ministry of Interior. If the realisation that vigorous enforcement is resulting in ever more vigorous criminality has not so far had much effect comes down to one of two possible sets of explanation. First, it could be that they are (i) simply not listening, (ii) the causal chain has not been understood, or (iii) is simply not believed. But the second explanation is that the criminal justice sector agencies and public have different objectives. The former are interested in expanding and increasing means and powers to enforce the law. And if public safety is one of the outcomes, so much the better.
In accordance with key tenets of institutional economics we hold that drug control and law enforcement are driven by motives of any social organism – self perpetuation. Hence the need for continuous checks and assessments of policy purpose and outcomes. Since all institutions also include well intentioned and dedicated professionals the need for restating the arguments of criminogenic consequence has to be repeated over and over.
Naturally it is much more difficult to achieve results in thematic areas where key policy decisions have been abstracted by remote and unaccountable international bodies. As the Russian delegate reminds of the importance of repercussions, it is high time to take back control.
The Psychoactive Consumer and International Drug Policy: A Sweeping Sketch
Christopher Hallam, PhD
GDPO Research Associate
The role of the consumer, in its complexity and diversity, is often marginalised in analyses of drug policy. Of course, it is obvious that consumers play a part – if nobody were smoking, injecting, drinking or otherwise consuming psychoactive materials, there would not be a control regime trying to stop them. However, the consumers of drugs are a variegated group; their tastes for multiple psychoactive substances are formed by complex, often hybrid, cultures, and are satisfied by globalised industries and services. The forces of governance and the regimes of control are confronted not by a monolithic consumer and supplier, but by multifaceted appetites that are poorly understood by those seeking to suppress them. They are stimulated by the very attempt at control.
If we examine the historical foundations of the international control apparatus, its ground zero lies in China and its intricate population of opium smokers – or rather, the ways in which that population was constructed by the imperial powers, which possessed the economic, social and technological authority to enforce their will. The United States of America should be included in this grouping, as it had recently taken colonial possession of the Philippines following its brief war with Spain; it is notable that the beginnings of the US’s imperial period coincided with the inception of its global drugs project. Indeed, the occupation of the Philippines was tightly bound up with the suppression of opium smoking amongst the Chinese inhabitants of the islands.
Chinese opium smokers, lodging house, San Francisco (late C19th)
The Chinese diaspora, travelling to many parts of the world in search of work, carried the practice of opium smoking with it. Settling into Chinatowns across the planet, the diaspora became the object of indigenous fear and loathing, often centred on concerns over economics and the sexual possession of women. The cultural practice of opium smoking became a symbolic locus of this ontological panic (which underlay the ‘moral panic’), while governments constructed legislation to suppress the smoking of opium, before moving on to other drugs.
Opium smoking found its way from the Chinese diaspora into sub-groups within the indigenous population. Sex workers, the sporting classes, the underworld, the bohemias of modern cities, these took up the practice of opium smoking, followed by other drugs and modes of consumption: such use was a badge of otherness, a sign that one shared with the immigrant the status of outsider: the mark of the elective alien. The movement of psychoactive drug cultures from modernity’s ethnic diasporas into the indigenous population was an object of anxiety for nation states preoccupied with identity and borders. It was a movement that began with the Chinese but followed on successive waves of people of colour. The spread of bohemian culture – the ideas and attitudes of the elective alien – would, as the twentieth century developed, bring drugs into the youth movements of the 1950s and after.
The drug culture and the project of drug control are, therefore, profoundly bound up with conflicting patterns of identity and belief in modern societies. They are thoroughly symbolic and tied in complex ways to the process of modernity itself.
The responses of governments and international organisations to these developments are too many and varied to cover in their specificity here. However, a few general trends can be traced. The attempt to suppress the consumption of one drug led to the development of new, stronger and more mobile replacements – a trend which remains apparent today in the proliferation of hundreds of new psychoactive substances. In a final irony, the assembled discursive authority of governments, legislators, law enforcement agencies, educational systems, and finally bodies concerned specifically with ‘prevention’ have, in their vocal pronouncements against the evils of drug consumption, succeeded only in stimulating the appetite, and identifying it with freedom.
It is high time for a new approach.
Current policies are linked to an impoverished understanding of drug consumption, based upon assumptions current within the cultures of contemporary states. One could summarise these understandings as centred on ‘theories of absence’- in short, the idea people only take drugs because they’ve got something missing in their lives, either genetically or psychologically (for the political right) or in terms of social capital (for the left). Policies therefore are either repressive or therapeutic. None of them have been very effective so far.
On the other hand, if drug consumption is, as I have argued above, intimately bound up with the history and cultures of modernity, and is fundamentally part of the processes of modernity, there’s no point in these approaches. Instead, policies must integrate drugs and their users into a more generous cultural mainstream. The only approach that fits into the reality of the situation is a form of harm reduction, which accepts drug consumption and sets out to ameliorate the risks and harmful impacts of it. But the conception of harm reduction I’m suggesting here would be an extremely broad one, which includes acceptance of the benefits of some modes of drug use.
Better to Ask Forgiveness Than Permission: What the rest of the world can learn from Spain’s approaches to drug policy
The movement for drug policy reform is a global one – and it has become increasingly important to look at what other countries are doing on drug policy to see what can be learned. Portugal’s decriminalization model and Switzerland’s pioneering role in heroin-assisted treatment have been studied extensively, and there’s an emerging field of promising research evaluating state-level cannabis legalization in the U.S.
Overlooked in this discussion is Spain, where certain sub-national entities (similar to states in the U.S.) have implemented innovative approaches to drug policy based on the principles of harm reduction and a rejection of prohibitionist principles.
A new report, released today, takes a deep dive into Spain’s drug policy reform. What makes these reforms interesting is that they’ve succeeded in spite of the central government, not because of it – an approach that we call “better to ask forgiveness than ask permission”.
The best-known of Spain’s drug policy innovations are cannabis social clubs, which emerged in Catalonia and the Basque Country and have now spread throughout the country. These clubs utilize ambiguities in the law to allow the use and distribution of cannabis to their members under certain circumstances.
And Spain isn’t just noteworthy for its cannabis policies. The U.S. and other countries can learn a lot from Spain’s successful harm reduction interventions, which include safe consumption spaces, heroin-assisted treatment, take-home methadone, opioid substitution and syringe programs in prison, mobile methadone clinics, and drug checking services to prevent accidental overdoses.
At the same time, Spain has never technically criminalized drug possession, meaning that drugs are essentially decriminalized. Nonetheless, there are many fines and fees for possessing drugs, making Spain’s policy more punitive than Portugal’s.
While Portugal’s model is often seen as a beacon for reformers, political realities make its implementation in places like the U.S. very challenging. Portugal’s national drug decriminalization policy was comprehensively implemented in 2001 by its central government. It’s unlikely that the U.S. federal government – especially the current one – would implement drug decriminalization nationally without states moving forward on the issue first.
Spain’s political system – autonomous regions and a central government – largely mirrors that of the U.S, with states having a level of autonomy on many issues despite there being a strong role for the federal government. As we have seen with cannabis reform in the U.S., states will take action on certain drug policy issues even when the federal government expressly opposes it. Spain provides a potential roadmap for how U.S. states can implement cutting-edge drug policies in other areas, beyond cannabis.
Since many of Spain’s reforms are undertaken by autonomous regions, there is still a risk that the central government could try to undo their progress. This report was concluded a few days before Spain’s President Rajoy was dismissed by parliament and the new socialist government of Pedro Sanchez came to power. Changes in public policy are expected on many fronts, including drug policy and other public health issues.
However, until now, the Socialist Party has yet to embrace drug policy reforms.
This report serves as a guide for countries around the world, as well as the new Spanish government, to understand how and why Spain’s drug policy reforms have succeeded so far – and where improvement is needed in the coming years.
As part of its mission to provide dug policy research and publication opportunities for postgraduates and early career scholars, over the course of the past year the Global Drug Policy Observatory has been pleased to have worked with three second year students studying on the Master of Public Administration (MPA) course at the School of Public Policy, Central European University (CEU), Budapest. Under the supervision of Julia Buxton, Professor of Comparative Politics within the School and Observatory Senior Research Associate, and with oversight from Dave Bewley-Taylor, Jasmin Gamez, Anna Maria Džunić and Mai Hla Aye of the Applied Policy Project worked to develop the GDPO’s publication streams in a number of key areas. As well as researching and writing Situation Analyses (SAs) of their own – on the environmental impact of the regulated cannabis market in California, gender and drug policy, and synthetic drugs in Hungary – the students successfully commissioned and assisted with the editing of series of SAs and a Policy Brief from academics and practitioners working in the drug field from among other places India, Pakistan, Ghana, South Africa and East Africa region. These publications cover a wide range of relevant policy issues including current policy reforms in Ghana, South Africa, and the East African region, developments within crypto-drug markets, access to essential medicine, drug policy and depictions of drugs users in gaming and access to harm reduction in prisons. The students are also currently working on the production of videos on decriminalization, synthetic drugs and drug policy metrics. The Observatory will be publishing and posting the outcomes of the Project over the next few months, beginning with a SA on Crypto-market Enforcement – New Strategy and Tactics by Alois Afilipoaie and Patrick Shortis that can be found here. The GDPO team would like to thank the commissioned authors as well as Jasmin, Anna, and Mai for all their hard work. We wish them all the best for the future.