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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
For the sixth consecutive year, a side event was held at the 61st Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) to continue the global discussion on reprioritizing the objectives and indicators used to evaluate drug policies.
Pic 1Recent years have seen a growing appreciation for the intersections between drug policy and the sustainable development agenda, particularly in relation to human rights. Against this backdrop, and as preparations for the High-Level Ministerial Segment of the CND in 2019 continue, the Government of Switzerland, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), Centro De Estudios Legales Y Sociales, Social Science Research Council (SSRC), Global Drug Policy Observatory, and the ICSDP held a side event to examine how the sustainable development agenda might offer opportunities for more effectively measuring the impact of drugs and drug policies, including on human rights.
With the event expertly moderated by Mr. Adrian Franco, National Institute of Statistics and Geography, Mexico, Ms. Cleia Noia, Programme Manager for the Drugs, Security and Democracy Programme at SSRC, began the session by sharing recommendations from a new publication by the International Expert Group on Drug Policy Metrics. Titled, “Aligning Agendas: Drugs, Sustainable Development, and the Drive for Policy Coherence,” the discussion paper argues that aligning the way we measure and evaluate drug policies with the 2030 sustainable development agenda would have two clear benefits; first, such harmonization would help to overcome many of the limitations of drug policies resulting from suboptimal metrics for measuring their impact, and second, help to ensure drug policies enhance, rather than hinder, efforts to achieve the SDGs. Ms. Noia stressed that drug policies must be designed in coordination with other relevant policy agendas to guarantee that achievements in one are not undermined by those in another. A recognition of the interconnectedness of policy agendas is reflected in SDG 17, specifically target 17.14 to “enhance policy coherence for sustainable development.” A key recommendation from the International Expert Group on Drug Policy Metrics is therefore for the UN Deputy Secretary-General to establish a process for developing adequate indicators for target 17.14, including a framework for coherence between drug policy and sustainable development. System-wide coherence would be further reinforced by another recommendation shared by Ms. Noia, which called for the UN Statistical Commission to consider the addition of further SDG indicators related to drugs and drug policies. While only SDG 3 on health and wellbeing includes an explicit indicator in this area, there are at least four other SDGs, as outlined in the discussion paper, that are well positioned for the addition of indicators related to drugs and drug policies. Noting that the window of opportunity is rapidly closing, Ms. Noia concluded by asking Member States to consider how the procedures in place for the sustainable development agenda could be expanded to include their interactions with drug policies, in order to avoid embedding blind spots that would undermine achievement of the SDGs.
Offering concrete examples of drug policy indicators that could be incorporated into the SDG framework, Ms. Marie Nougier, Head of Research and Communications at IDPC, focused on the interactions between drug policy and SDG 5 on gender equality. Pic_2_croppedBeginning with target 5.1 for the end of all forms of discrimination against women, Ms. Nougier stressed that this could be supported through the addition of an indicator measuring cases of discrimination faced by women who use drugs accessing health and social services, given the heightened stigma experienced by this key population. For target 5.2 on the elimination of violence against women, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation, Ms. Nougier emphasized that the SDG indicators framework must track the number of women coerced into the illegal drug market, but also cases of violence by law enforcement officials against women who use drugs, as well as measuring rates of impunity for such cases.
Beyond SDG 5, many other goals and targets could be used to address the issues affecting women and drugs, including Target 1.4 on equal rights to economic resources, or Target 3.3 on ending AIDS by 2030. These represent just a few examples of the many indicators that could be incorporated into the SDG indicator framework, as well as into other international and national evaluation mechanisms on drug policy impacts, such as the Annual Report Questionnaire (ARQ) – the principal mechanism through which Member States report on the impacts of their drug policies to the UN. Ms. Nougier cautioned that without deliberate efforts to apply a gender perspective to the evaluation of drug policies, this will remain a blind spot and certainly hinder the achievement of SDG 5. This will also require that key aspects of the UNGASS Outcome Document be incorporated into the ARQ to ensure that more opportunities are offered for Member States to report back on gender-disaggregated data.
Christian Schneider, Drug Markets and Drug Policy Analyst at the Swiss Federal Office of Police, built upon the discussion by noting that even if indicators are in place, the limitations of the mechanisms used to gather data must also be taken into account. As a contributor to the ARQ, Mr. Schneider has seen firsthand the limitations and challenges posed by self-reported data. Mr. Schneider suggested that the sustainable development agenda and the UNGASS Outcome Document provide an impetus to address gaps in drug policy evaluation by supplementing self-reported ARQs with data sources from other actors, such as civil society organizations. The UNGASS Outcome Document presents several opportunities for improving the evaluation of drug policies, including paragraph 4(h), which suggestspic3_cropped.png the inclusion of human rights information in Member States’ reporting on the implementation of the three drug control conventions, and paragraph 7(g) on improving impact assessments by employing relevant human development indicators and other measurements in line with the SDGs. Mr. Zaved Mahmood, Human Rights Officer at the OHCHR, further emphasized that these can serve as entry points for human rights data collection. Mr. Mahmood shared a recent publication from the OHCHR, titled, “Human Rights Indicators: A Guide to Measurement and Implementation,” which contains relevant guidance for the incorporation of human rights indicators into the evaluations of drug policies. As the review process for the consideration of improvements to the quality and effectiveness of the ARQ continues, Mr. Mahmood encouraged Member States to use this opportunity to consider a more holistic approach to the evaluation of drug policies and ensure the inclusion of indicators pertaining to human rights.
Referring to CND Resolution 60/1 (paragraph 6), Mr. Mahmood also urged Member States to explore possibilities to strengthen existing data collection and analysis tools at the national level by using human rights indicators.
Click here to visit the CND Blog’s live reporting from this side event.
Written by: Nazlee Maghsoudi, Knowledge Translation Manager at the ICSDP
By John Walsh, Tom Blickman, Martin Jelsma and Dave Bewley-Taylor
This Op-Ed was originally published in iPolitics on December 11th, 2017
Buzzing in the background of Canada’s debate on cannabis legalization is the issue of the three UN drug control treaties, and what to do with them.
The issue arose during the House of Commons’ consideration of Bill C-45, and may well come up again now that the bill is coming under Senate scrutiny. There is no doubt that legalizing and regulating cannabis markets for non-medical use will mean Canada is no longer in compliance with the obligation under the treaties to restrict cannabis to “medical and scientific” purposes. And Canada will need to address those treaties — in due time.
However, what ‘due time’ should mean has been the subject of some alarmist commentaries. It has been argued that Canada should have initiated the process of withdrawing from the treaties by this past July 1 to avoid a breach of international law when cannabis is legal for recreational use in July, 2018, as the government intends. Some have suggested that, by missing this supposed deadline, Canada has now limited its legal options and might even suffer international sanctions if its reforms continue as scheduled.
This raises two key questions. Did the supposed July 1 deadline really exist? And does Canada really now have fewer options with regard to managing the mismatch between cannabis regulation and UN drug treaties?
The 1961 UN Single Convention specifies that if formal notification of withdrawal from the treaty is submitted before July 1, it takes effect on January 1 of the next year; if notification is submitted after July 1, then withdrawal takes effect a full year later. But at this stage in Canada’s reform effort, the mechanics of the treaty withdrawal process do not dictate hard deadlines. The alarmism about treaty violations, deadlines and delays is misplaced.
Canada certainly has important decisions to make about how to ensure that its impending cannabis reforms will align with its international obligations. As we describe in our report Cannabis Regulation and the UN Drug Treaties: Strategies for Reform, a range of alternatives merit Canada’s careful consideration. Beyond simply withdrawing from the drug treaties, these options include the possibility of withdrawing from and then rejoining the treaties with reservations (a procedure that Bolivia used with regard to coca) or of modifying certain treaty provisions by means of a special agreement among a group of like-minded countries.
In reviewing its options, Ottawa would be wise to be protective of Canada’s positive reputation as a country that upholds international law. But there is no need to postpone the regulation of cannabis, and there is also no reason to rush to withdraw from the drug treaties — certainly not before the relevant legislation has even become law, and not even immediately afterwards.
The experience in Uruguay — the first country in the world to regulate cannabis — demonstrates why immediate withdrawal from the treaties is not necessary. Having justified its policy position via its human rights obligations, Uruguay has suffered no negative consequences beyond mentions in the annual reports of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the watchdog of the UN drug conventions — noting that the country’s law regulating cannabis is contrary to the provisions of the drug conventions and urging a resolution.
The United States — where eight states have legalized adult-use cannabis and where the federal government has adopted a policy of accommodation — has received a similar message from the INCB regarding Washington’s legally dubious interpretation of the drug treaties.
Canada has better and more legally-grounded options, and plenty of time to consider them carefully. A good starting point would be for Canada to publicly acknowledge that moving forward with regulation of adult-use of cannabis will result in a period of respectful non-compliance with certain treaty obligations — a route that, in the absence of a seamless transition, displays the appropriate regard for international law.
Canada could explain the reasoning behind its reforms and why the country’s new regulatory approach is justified by the need to realize other domestic and international legal and policy commitments, particularly with regard to public health, child protection and human rights.
Canada is not alone in reforming its cannabis policy, nor is it the first. In addition to Uruguay and the eight U.S. states, many local authorities in other countries, notably in Europe, are pushing national governments to follow suit. In the Netherlands this has resulted in the October 2017 decision of the new coalition government to allow for experiments with regulated supply of cannabis to coffee shops. This would extend toleration of cannabis sales in these premises to tolerated regulation of the supply.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has initiated a review of the classification of cannabis under the drug conventions. Canada’s cannabis regulation is part of a bigger trend and there is no reason to rush to unilaterally withdraw from the drug conventions. Acting unilaterally may not even be in Canada’s best interests; it could be wiser to act in concert with like-minded states.
The bottom line is that Canada ultimately will need to choose a path forward with regard to cannabis regulation and the drug treaties. But there is no need for hasty decisions and plenty of time for Canada to evaluate its options — and act when the time is ripe.