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View From the Ground: Magical Journalism and the Chemical War

by Ross Eventon
Bogota, Colombia

After decades of studies demonstrating the inefficiency and the harmful effects, the environmental damage and the health problems, the Colombian government announced in June that it would be stopping aerial fumigation of illicit crops using the herbicide glyphosate. It has been an interesting and somewhat depressing experience to read the international commentary and analysis published since then. “The decision to suspend the fumigation program suggests that president Santos understands the necessity of promoting reforms not just at a global level, but also at home,” one analyst told the Spanish press in a typical formulation that manages to present three key misconceptions in one sentence: i) The decision was made by the Ministry of Health, invoking the precautionary principle which the constitutional court determined to be applicable following a World Health Organisation statement that glyphosate is carcinogenic to humans. The President had his hand forced: his only move was to put it to a vote and to recommend the resolution to suspend be passed. ii) The fumigation programme has not been suspended – it continues until October and then it is fumigation with glyphosate that will stop. iii) The decision doesn’t demonstrate a commitment to change. In fact the available evidence suggests the government is committed to the same policies, except slightly modified – possibly using a new herbicide, maybe switching to forced manual eradication instead.

The Man, The Myth

President Juan Manuel Santos, one analysis claimed recently, is “a champion of drug policy reform in the international arena”. The Santos administration’s policy of chemical warfare against its own population, to be continued openly through a ‘transition period’ lasting until October, has not, it seems, undercut a reputation achieved by force of rhetoric alone. The commitment to an economic model that worsens the issues at the core of illicit crop cultivation has also been deemed irrelevant by the international press and the drug policy community. In the drug policy literature it is repeated ad nauseam that general economic development is crucial if illicit cultivation is to be reduced, but, to my knowledge, not a single drug policy expert quoted in the international press drew the link between the Colombia-US Free Trade Agreement signed in 2011 and the spike in coca cultivation between 2013 and 2014. The predictions made by international NGOs before the signing of the FTA appear to have been correct: subsidised goods from the US are putting the squeeze on the incomes of some of the poorest people in the country, driving migration and illicit cultivation. The passing of the most important pro-narcotics policy in recent Colombia’s recent history and the government’s fanatical pursuit of an economic policy that exacerbates the problems at the core of cultivation does not, according the prevalent view among experts, undermine claims of concern with ‘counter-narcotics’.  In the same vein, a man in a white coat who stabs someone while offering them an aspirin is no doubt committed to medicine, but is perhaps “ill-informed”, “misguided”, and should reassess his “failing” methods (the analogous debate for commentators would be whether aspirin should be replaced with codeine? 50mg or 100mg?).

The disconnect between reality and reporting goes beyond drugs. As Defense Minister during the previous administration, Santos oversaw a rise in cases in which the military murdered innocent civilians in exchange for cash and promotions, and has since tried to ensure impunity for those responsible by passing reforms that would move cases to the notoriously biased military courts. Mass displacements have increased over the course of his presidency, and his administration passed the internationally celebrated Land Restitution Law, a policy so cynical it staggers belief, one that played on the hopes of millions of displaced families to achieve greater security for foreign investments and sent dozens of unprotected land restitution leaders to the slaughter in the process. Santos has deepened the exclusionary economic policies of his predecessor, but this “modern and decent” politician, quoting the UK Guardian, has done all this with a professionalism that breaks with the crass, blunt style of Uribe, and for this he has been showered with praise and hagiographies in the international press.

The past few months have provided typical examples of the duplicity. In May, the newsletter of the Colombian National Police published an article by Santos in which he claimed, contrary to the evidence, that “the country has been relatively successful” in the fight against narco-trafficking. He went on to ask, “What can we do going forward in our country?” and he answered: “In the first place – and in this there should be no doubt – we will continue directly combatting, with all the power of our police forces and the support of our military forces, the criminal organisations that profit from narco-trafficking and its environment of illegality.” Mentioned also was the now familiar talk of a need to improve the situation for poor campesinos – a cruel comment, given the economic policies being pursued – but reading the piece one would not assume that drug policy in Colombia had been too far off-base. That same month Santos spoke at the International Conference of Drug Control, held in the coastal city of Cartagena. There, in front of law enforcement officials from around the world, he declared the necessity to move away from the War on Drugs policies – which have relied overwhelmingly on the police and military forces – and acknowledged that under the current approach “we have to recognise that we haven’t won.” This rhetorical flexibility, coupled with the predilection of commentators to value words over actions, has bought the political space for draconian policies at home.

Anatomy of a Failed Policy

Inside the country, commentary has been far more critical and informed. Compare, for example, the lazy and ubiquitous references in the international press to fumigation as a “failed” counter-narcotics policy, a demonstration of the “lunacy” of US and Colombian policy makers, with the words of the respected local journalist and author, Alfred Bravo, published a few weeks ago in El Espectador, Colombia’s second largest daily:

“The aspersion – as they refer to it in order to disguise the aggression – is also a sister weapon of paramilitarism, one which seeks to displace farmers and settlers. The thesis of “taking the water from the fish” – to remove the support of the campesinos from the guerilla – is the fundamental strategy of a war against an insurrection. The paramilitaries did it with massacres. Fumigation does it by ruining crops, not just coca but also the produce that allow farmers to feed themselves: yuca, plantain, rice. Moreover, areas that have nothing to do with coca are also devastated as the poison ‘drifts’, which is to say, it is dispersed by the wind. Viewed correctly, fumigation is a new means to remove farmers from colonised areas they have settled in search of a livelihood; Catatumbo, Meta, Guaviare, Magdalena Medio, Perijá, San Lucas, Urabá, bajo Cauca. Terrorised, the settlers have been expelled from their original lands. … What the paramilitaries do on one side, fumigation completes on the other.”

These comments go a way in explaining not just the survival but the expansion of what is almost universally referred to as a failing, even counter-productive policy. On grounds of logic, the use of fumigation, and Washington’s attempts to apply it elsewhere, suggests it produces favourable outcomes. It is not difficult to discern what they might be. The expected, consistent results of forced crop eradication are the same around the world: displacement and impoverishment of the local population. In 1992, at the beginning of a new US-backed fumigation drive, the head of the Colombian Police explained that fumigation had been effective because by creating economic hardship it “obligated farmers to return to their place of origin”. And he went on to explicitly frame fumigation in counter-insurgency terms: “Up to now 1040 hectares have been fumigated [which means] the guerrilla groups operating in the zone have therefore not received a little over 5 billion pesos.” The Colombian counter-insurgency strategy backed by Washington is predicated on “the premise that those living in conflict areas are part of the enemy, simply because of where they live,” quoting Amnesty. Such a useful policy is not going to be sacrificed simply because it fails to produce its publicly stated goals. And with the actual aims in mind, the fact that fumigation happens to be harmful and indiscriminate is not a problem but a virtue.

There are other benefits. Across the country, where the chemical’s task has been successfully carried out, mining and agrobusiness operations have moved in to take over of the land and begin operations. For these groups, and for the wealthy individuals who are able to purchase land at rock-bottom prices, fumigation has not been a failure. Nor has it failed for DynCorp, the private military services company contracted to carry out the policy. Nor do US officials consider it a failure. Plan Colombia is, according to officials, the jewel in the South American policy crown. Discussing Colombia, Pentagon spokesperson James Gregory once described the ‘counter-narcotics’ policies there as among the US government’s “most successful and cost-effective programs”, adding that, “By any reasonable assessment, the U.S. has received ample strategic national security benefits in return for its investments in this area.” With the correct understanding of national security in mind the comment is no doubt correct: Colombia remains Washington’s last bastion in a region increasingly asserting its independence, and is committed to the desired economic policies, those that preference foreign capital over local needs. If even the most minimal investigation is carried out it is the analyses that are “lunacy”. The policies make sense, given the objectives and the values.

Attacking the Problematic Poor

Fumigation’s longevity in Colombia is not just a reflection of goals being achieved, but of the nature of the Colombian state and its attitude towards the rural poor. Rural communities, on the blunt end of the state’s economic policies for decades, are a thorn in the side of the Colombian government. Those who decide to grow coca are particularly hated. They are not the invisible poor, they are the problematic poor: they don’t just ask for things like schools, hospitals, paved roads, and markets for their products, they take matters into their own hands: they have the gall to cultivate a durable crop with a stable market in order to feed their children. Were these impoverished families to behave as the Colombian state wants them to – abandon their land, relocate to the luxury of the urban slums, or perhaps seek work with a monoculture enterprise – the matter could be amicably and peaceably resolved. As things stand, it has been beholden on Bogota and Washington to attack them with chemical weapons until the lesson is properly absorbed. The slums rimming the major cities are a testimony to the success of the dual chemical-paramilitary attack.

The persistence of fumigation also demonstrates the utility of hiring private contractors to carry out criminal state policies. With limits imposed by the US Congress on the number of military personnel allowed in-country, DynCorp has carved out a role as a significant actor in Colombia’s civil war: employees pilot fumigation and observation planes and helicopter gunships, take part in search and rescue operations, train local forces, and maintain vital materiel. Were US military personnel behind the controls, the Colombian civil war could technically be considered internationalised, and International Humanitarian Law would be applicable. Given the nature of DynCorp’s role and the effects of fumigation, there are suggestions they could be acting in violation of IHL, but agreements between the Colombian and US governments have granted impunity to foreign military forces and contractors alike.

It is useful then that DynCorp’s operations are for all intents and purposes clandestine, akin to employing local paramilitary groups: contractors are accountable to no-one, protected from prosecution, and expendable. “If a [contractor] is shot wearing blue jeans,” remarked one PMSC lobbyist, “it’s page fifty-three of their hometown newspaper.” In an illustrative case back in 2003, a court in the Colombian department of Cudinamarca, responding to complaints brought by victims of fumigation, ordered the policy be stopped pending tests of the chemical being sprayed. The decision was overturned by an appellate court, which ruled that “Colombia should be able to defend itself against the guerillas and paramilitaries,” in the words of a legal analysis published by the Open Society Foundations. The appellate court “took the view that the state was entitled to continue its actions because the growth of coca plants was a threat to state security.” The decision has obvious implications for claims that DynCorp is doing counter-narcotics work in Colombia.

In order to carry out a policy that is damaging to people and the environment and a possible violation of IHL it makes sense to outsource operations to individuals who can act above the law and below the radar. From the War on Drugs to the War on Terror, policy makers are fully cognisant of the value of outsourcing. The US and the UK, the primary employers, have refused to sign UN conventions which could theoretically limit the use of mercenaries in international affairs. Instead, the post-2001 bonanza for private contractors is continuing a pace: the Pentagon recently announced it would be soliciting applications for a $3 billion contract to undertake ‘counter-narcotics’ and ‘counter-terror’ operations across the globe.

For the US government, “counter-narcotics” has always provided provided a reliable, convenient and flexible euphemism – for militarisation, repression, social control, counter-insurgency. And so it makes sense that, when responding to criticisms that DynCorp employees in Colombia were no more than mercenaries, a US State Department official should resort to the well-worn explanation: “Mercenaries are used in war,” he replied. “This is counter-narcotics.”
See also The Chemicals Don’t Discriminate, Le Monde Diplomatique



Is too much discussion on regulation making us forget prohibition?

Reflections on the 9th Conference of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy

By Constanza Sánchez Avilés, ICEERS Foundation and GDPO Research Associate

From 20 to 22 May, the beautiful city of Ghent hosted the 9th Annual Conference of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy (ISSDP), an excellent opportunity for researchers, activists and professionals in the field to catch up on recent developments in drug research and policies. These annual meetings have become unrivaled, very stimulating occasions to present original scientific works, creating spaces for discussion and debate on methods and results and promoting networking and collaboration among researchers from all over the world. This year’s event was organized by Prof. Tom Decorte and his team at the University of Ghent, who hosted a wide variety of participants in terms of geographical origin and professional and ideological backgrounds, a variety that generated interesting presentations, exchanges and -in some cases, heated- debates. Cannabis occupied a particularly prominent place in the Conference, despite discussions round other issues such as illicit markets dynamics, harm reduction strategies or African and Asian national drug policies. Throughout the three days, eight parallel sessions took place, each of them including three or four panels of several presentations. There also were three plenaries featuring keynote speakers like Virginia Berridge, Tim Rhodes and Ludwig Kraus, and three post-conference workshops focused on research methods, the Dutch cannabis model and the potential uses of research for drug policy reform endeavors. The offer was so broad that most of the time it was hard to decide which session to attend. The session ‘Cannabis policies’ included two presentations on Spanish drug policy, something not very common in this type of event which are generally more centered on US and Anglo-Saxon and, to a lesser extent, Northern European concerns and insights. An important reason for this is the growing interests on the cannabis social club (CSC) model that has emerged in Spain during the last few years and whose recent developments are awakening attention beyond Spanish borders. Many curious researchers attending the Conference approached the hall to learn a bit more about how this CSC model operates and the recent proposals for regulation having arisen at the municipal and regional levels. ICEERS participated in this session with a presentation entitled ‘Cannabis Clubs: The Politics of Cannabis Policy in Spain’. Our intention was to present an overview on the different regulatory processes that are taking place at the different levels of government in Spain, intended to manage the expansion of CSC, which are generating irreconcilable contradictions between local and regional entities and the central government. The reason that led us to make this presentation was that, curiously, while from outside our own borders we hear about the “CSC Spanish model”, from the inside is not clear at all whether this model will survive, or not. The Czech economist Vendula Belackova, one of the few researchers from outside Spain who has studied the phenomenon of cannabis associations here, presented the main findings of her investigation, based on interviews with members of Spanish CSC aimed to assess their role in minimizing the risks of cannabis use. Vendula’s vision focused on the multiple positive contributions that cannabis associations have had for users and for advancing the demands of the Spanish cannabis movement. It was pleasant to hear these positive aspects, which are sometimes hard to remember within a context of police interventions, political struggles and government obstacles. The session on CSC concluded with the contributions of the Uruguayan researchers Rosario Queirolo and Maria Fernanda Boidi, who explained the details of the emerging phenomenon of cannabis associations in Uruguay and how they are legally regulated. It was striking to find out how wide and detailed CSC regulation is in Uruguay -a country where barely a dozen of them are registered- while in Spain almost one thousand of these associations exist, and regulation is limited, insufficient and contradictory. As noted, despite cannabis’ prominence, other issues where discussed in Ghent as well. The Mexican researcher Laura Atuesta, from CIDE Drug Policy Program in Aguascalientes, presented a fascinating work on ‘narcomantas’ (narco-messages), increasingly utilized by ‘drug cartels’ in Mexico, which leave them close to the bodies of people executed. Through the study of how these groups communicate and behave, Laura explained the characteristics and recent evolution of Mexican drug trafficking organizations: territorial presence, violence methods and diversification of activities. During the same session, entitled ‘Organized Crime’, other studies focused on estimating the size, characteristics and organization of illicit drug markets were also presented. These works were conducted through innovative and original research techniques like interviews with people imprisoned for drug trafficking offenses. Jonathan Caulkins explained how the cocaine market in Italy is highly structured and organized, where three or four transactions separate users from large importers in contact with foreign networks, and in which retailers retain a large portion of the profits. Instead, the heroin market seems much less tidy, and operators often jump between wholesale and retail level. As mentioned above, there was much discussion on cannabis, and a lot on its regulation. Might it be too much for the political stage we still live in? Or are we, the people working for drug policy reform, falling into a trap? My impression from this last ISSDP Conference, shared by some other participants, was that a bit too much attention was given to regulation and related technical issues -such as percentages of THC that should be permitted, assessment of regulatory experiences that are being in place only a few months, or cannabis access model in regulated markets. All of these are very important issues of course. But perhaps putting too much emphasis on technical issues is moving the most substantive policy issues to a less prominent place within the debate. In particular, a more solid critique of prohibitionism was missing -with the exception of a few sessions such as “European drug policies and international reforms”, which included the participation of Alex Stevens (University of Kent) and Ann Fordham (IDPC). And, I would suggest, it was missed because we are living times of drug policy change, eevn though this change has not yet been crystalized. It is important not to forget that in most countries regulation is not a reality. What prevails is prohibition, repression and human rights abuses in the name of drug control. Leaving this aside, the conference was a fascinating experience. It’s hard to imagine a more interesting group of experts sharing impressions, and a more charming place than the city of Ghent for discussing drug policy issues and facing the future with a fresh outlook. And, its always nice to return home with a renowed sense of enthusiasm; something so vital in our efforts to champion evidence and rights based drug policies.

View From the Ground: Heading for the Hills; Cannabis in Malana

By Romesh Bhattacharji (GDPO Technical Advisor)

Cannabis use in India is thousands of years old. It is traditional, cultural and linked to many indigenous rituals. As such, to believe that modern, and largely externally imposed, laws can prevent its cultivation and use is little more than wishful thinking.  Until 1985 Indian law essentially ignored cannabis. Then came the extremely severe Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act that was inspired by the UN drug control conventions, specifically the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Overnight millions of cannabis users became culpable, and thousands ended up in jail every year. Despite this severe law, cannabis cultivation and use has increased all over India. Today the plant grows alongside country roads, major highways, in villages, towns and cities.

The Parvati Valley, in the mountainous Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh (HP) (See map 1), was once known for apples, peaches, hydro-electric (hydel) projects and mountaineering. However, for the past two decades Parvati, and all its side valleys, have become better known for hashish-cannabis resin. One of its tributaries is the rowdy Malana River, which has, about half way to its glacial source, the only village along its course.


Map 1: Location of Malana

Malana village, perched on the mountainside 2,652 metres above sea level, is about an hour’s steep walk above the River.  Authorities in HP have linked all but nine of its 17,495 villages by motor roads.  Eight of them remain inaccessible by car because the imposing terrain is still to be subdued.

Malana does not have a road, not just because of the terrain, but also because its inhabitants do not want it. It would, after all, allow authorities access to the village without warning and risk the increasingly profitable cannabis trade. Moreover, and somewhat ironically, the State Government is not too keen to force a road as it wants to preserve a myth of Malana being one of the oldest so-called democracies in the world. Malana has a presiding deity called Jamlu Devta. This deity used to ‘appoint’ an all male village council of eleven, who then administered the village. In reality, there was clearly little democratic about this council, but it was a good story. A few years ago, the State Government superseded this council with an elected one. The present pradhan (head) is a woman, which could never have happened under the earlier ‘democratic’ dispensation.

Change is in the air; some might say, at last. A modern school building is being constructed and it seems that the village will soon be accessible by motor vehicles. Despite continued opposition from the village, a road has now come to within three kilometers. So, have three multi megawatt hydro-electric projects called Malana I, II and III.

I first visited this village in October 1964. At that time, friends and I had to trek from Bhuntar, about 45 kilometres away. We were going over the Chanderkhani pass (3660 metres above sea level) to Nagar in the Beas Valley.  Malana was steeped in the superstitious ignorance of the stone-age. Even leather was not allowed inside the village. Subsistence farming and shepherding were their only sources of livelihood.  We did not know what cannabis looked like, but our guide pointed out these plants growing wild above the village, and said that they were offered to Jamlu Devta.

By the early 1970s, cannabis in the village was getting attention from elsewhere.  At that time and in the midst of the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s and 1970s, travelling ‘hippies’ noticed that these cannabis plants were superior to others elsewhere, and soon there was a steady demand for it amongst the ‘hippie’ community within and passing through India.  As a result, many villages in Kullu district organized cannabis cultivation to meet this new external demand.  Cultivation consequently spread up all of the valleys within the vicinity.  People from Malana, perhaps because of its soil and climate, produced high quality cannabis resin (THC : 11-12%), which, known as Malana Cream, soon became popular abroad, including, sometime later, within the coffee shops of the Netherlands.  Lesser quality cannabis resin is produced in the rest of the Parvati Valley.

During my time as Commissioner of Customs in Amritsar (2001- 3), this area was part of my responsibility.  Even then it was clear that eradication did not work. Indeed, seizures of hashish and arrests of traffickers did not check production. Trafficking increased.

Seven years ago, and after retirement, I joined a group who, influenced by the buzz around Alternative Development (AD), wanted to convince the people of Malana to give up cultivation of cannabis and switch to some alternative crops, business or employment.  The group held a meeting in 2008 in Malana to discuss what alternatives the village could accept. The proponents of AD included bankers and bureaucrats, and agro-economists and scientists from Himachal Pradesh Agricultural University in nearby Palampur. In a survey around Malana the agro-scientists had found several valuable herbs, amongst them artemisia and cinchona. The bankers said that they would finance the picking of these herbs and their marketing with subsidies and interest free loans (see photo).


Photo: An introduction to the concept of AD and the invaluable (non-cannabis) herbs of Malana (September 2008)

In 2009 when the AD group met again in Malana (see photo), the villagers listened to us, gave us lunch, and then quite gently were amused by us for being idiotic! Could anything compare with the profits made from cannabis?


Photo: Another try at AD  – and another rebuff (November 2009)

These days the expansion of cannabis fields to meet the rising demand has resulted in the cutting of protected forests. Moreover, the plant has suffocated all those rare herbs. Indeed, nearly every house in Malana produces cannabis resin, or hashish as it is better known here.

In October 2014, along with colleagues from TNI and others from South East Asia, Dave Bewley -Taylor and I visited this village. Hashish samples were being openly offered to prospective customers. Upon entering the village, a young man shouted to Dave, ‘Malana Cream?’ While walking around Malana and going about their daily business, other villagers were casually rolling cannabis in their palms to extract slowly the resin (see photo).


Photo: Not a minute to waste: Extracting resin on the go (October, 2014).

It was also a common sight to see mothers and their young children rolling out resin while sitting in the sun or on the balconies of the ancient buildings (see photo).  Even foreigners and Indians from other states were helping in the process.  At the same time our group was in the vicinity, other visitors were walking up to Malana, searching for the well-known dark brown resin.


Photo: Extracting resin: A family affair (October 2014)

On the way up from the River, I met a couple of engineering students from South India. They were going to buy a couple of kilograms of hashish to sell it at home. This is how the demand for the sought after ‘product’ increases.

The demand is now so high that inferior hashish from other districts of Himachal Pradesh, from the neighbouring hill state of Uttarakhand, and from as far away as Nepal is used to swell the stocks of Malana Cream. It sells for Rs, 4000/- (or £ 44) per tola (11 grams) in the village, and for twice as much in the closest towns in the plains.

On the way back from Malana, a man, who was pradhan there in 2008 and 2009, joined me.  Smiling somewhat smugly about the boom in their cottage industry, he was happy that their clientele included many Indians now.  The former pradhan said, however, that the law must be reformed because no one bothers about it. Offering one explanation for such a lax approach to enforcement, cannabis growers, he said, are a large ‘vote bank’ in HP!

So, if the former pradhan is right, what should happen to the law?  Should the possession of cannabis for personal use be formerly, as opposed to what is effectively de facto, decriminalized in India, with hashish resin remaining illegal?  Cannabis is after all smoked by millions of manual labourers in India to keep hunger at bay. But then, what should happen with resin and cultivation in general?  In light of significant policy shifts in other parts of the world – specifically Uruguay and US states – should the Indian government consider a legally regulated market?

These difficult questions are compounded by the fact that little is known about either cannabis markets within different parts of the country or how policies within various India states where cannabis is cultivated are applied, or not.  On the former point, no survey has been done to estimate the area under cannabis cultivation in Himachal Pradesh or elsewhere in India. For this reason, the United Nations’ World Drug Reports consistently show that India does not produce resin (See for example, page 39 of 2014 Report). Were a survey to be done and some sort of ‘ground truth’ established the results would be shocking and surely lead to the inevitable query: isn’t it time for the law to change?







Ketamine secured for medical and veterinary use!

Originally posted here

By Willem Scholten

On Friday 13th March, the Commision on Narcotic Drugs discussed the possible bringing of ketamine under international drug control. Initially, China proposed to add the substance under Schedule I of the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Such a scheduling means that the substance can be used for medical purposes only under direct governmental supervision, and in very limited situations. The proposal was very inappropriate for an essential medicine. However, thanks to the efforts of many, China amended its proposal to the less strict Schedule IV of the same convention. Again we opposed this and thanks to our opposition, China withdrew this morning its entire proposal. The CND then decided to postpone its decision on scheduling ketamine to a future date to allow more information to be gathered. A transcript of the debate is available on the CND Blog.




This is a very good result and I want to thank everyone who was involved in the lobbying to keep access to ketamine as a human and veterinary medicine for his or her efforts. In the end we had 87 endorsements on the fact sheet and several organizations came to Vienna to convince the delegates personally. Many went to their governments to convince the ministries of health and the drug controllers that any scheduling of ketamine was not a good idea.

Over the past few weeks it became more and more clear that we were successful, and many countries declared that they would oppose the scheduling. Initially, we were able to find over 19 CND members opposing schedule IV, and once we had these, we continued to  convince more CND Member countries to oppose all scheduling. This became clear only gradually toward last weekend. In my messages you may have seen the countries I recommended to focus your lobby on. On purpose we decided not to be transparent on the countries we had convinced. I hope for your understanding, as such transparency would have made it easy for China to lobby these countries back into its camp.

During the week at the CND (which started last Monday), we discussed with country delegations the possible ways forward, being afraid of unwanted precedents in the procedure. But finally today, it happened as some had predicted: China withdraw its proposal while saving face by saying that this allows for more data collection. How serious this “more data collection” is, is in this stage not completely sure. It may be that we never hear back about ketamine scheduling, but some vigilance is needed in the coming years.

What further to do? There are over 50 countries who have scheduled ketamine in their national legislation (i.e. independent form the international drug control conventions). In several of these countries, veterinarians and physicians may have experienced reduced availability of ketamine already. They and their organizations may want to discuss the issue now with their governments in order to re-increase availability. Because of this CND and Chinas proposal, the climate may have changed now. After some of the preparatory meetings, someone mentioned that this was the first time ever that the countries at the CND discussed medicines availability for over three hours. Never before there was such a focus at the internaitonal levle on the relation between drug control and medicines availability. Therefore, this is the moment that most drug controllers around the world are seeing that drug control has also the negative side for public health of medicines unavailability.
Medical and veterinary organizations may also want to use the opportunity for discussing the availability of medicines controlled as drugs more in a general way, e.g. the availability of opioid analgesics, long-acting opioids for the treatment of opioid dependence, phenobarbital and other controlled medicines.

For those who want to take action in this regard, I also refer to the WHO Guidelines on this issue, available in multiple languages, including English, French and Spanish.


Another UN agency savages the drug war

Originally posted here

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the UN agency charged with developing strategies to reduce global poverty, has strongly criticised current international drug policy, highlighting the disastrous costs it is producing – particularly for the world’s poor.

In the agency’s formal submission to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs (PDF), launched at the annual UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs which began last week in Vienna, the UNDP argues:

"While drug control policies have been justified by the real and potential harms associated with illicit drug production, trafficking, and use (e.g., threats to safety and security, health problems, crime, decreased productivity, unemployment, and poverty), evidence shows that in many countries, policies and related enforcement activities focused on reducing supply and demand have had little effect in eradicating production or problematic drug use."

The agency goes on to say:

"As various UN organizations have observed, these efforts have had harmful collateral consequences: creating a criminal black market; fuelling corruption, violence, and instability; threatening public health and safety; generating large-scale human rights abuses, including abusive and inhumane punishments; and discrimination and marginalization of people who use drugs, indigenous peoples, women, and youth".

With regard to the harmful impacts on international development specifically, the UNDP states that international drug policy is having a negative effect on “poverty and sustainable livelihoods; governance and the rule of law; human rights; gender equality; the environment; and on indigenous peoples and traditional and religious practices.”  Detailed sections on each of these topic areas follow in the body of the report.

View From the Ground: Rosario, Argentina

In early January around 2,000 members of Argentina’s military-style border force – known as the gendarmeria – left the country’s second city of Rosario.  They had arrived 9 months earlier, on April 9th, carried clandestinely into the city as part of an elaborate rouse involving a fake climate change conference.  In a surprise display of force the local press justifiably described as “cinematic”, six helicopters hovered above while more than 80 raids were launched on known ‘bunkers’, the one room buildings that serve as illicit drug dispensers and are almost wholly located in the villas, the poor neighbourhoods that form a loose rim around the city centre.  At the forefront of proceedings was the National Security Secretary, Segio Berni.  “This was the largest operation in the history of Argentina, with the objective of pacifying the area of Rosario,” he told the press.

Since 2012 drug trafficking and violence have become issues of public debate in the city.  The violence and the trafficking had been going on in isolation in the villas, separate from the affluent heart of the city, but the issue was forced into the public eye and onto the political agenda thanks to the dedicated work of the activist organisation Frente Popular Dario Santillan after three of its members were killed on New Year’s Day 2012 by a local drug gang who mistook them for rivals.  Since a spike in mid-2010, violence has been spiralling upwards.  The city’s homicide rate is now the highest in the country.  Overwhelmingly, the victims are young men and boys; confrontations between rival gangs involved in the drug trade – generally small outfits, and often family-run – are considered to be behind a sizeable proportion of the deaths.  In response, “insecurity” has become the buzzword among politicians and the media.  It’s election time here at the moment and the posters blanketing every advertising space promise to combat insecurity, to bring back security, to make Rosario normal again.  Official mentions of the root causes – poverty, exclusion, corruption – are rare.  Policies designed to address them are even rarer.  (I know an activist group that struggled for a year and a half just to have lights put above a football pitch so the kids in one villa could have something to do in the evenings.)  The growing use of Argentina as a transit point for cocaine headed to Europe has increased the stakes and likely contributed to the violence, as have a provincial police force heavily involved in the trade and the lacklustre efforts of the judiciary and the government.  But in the public mind, and according to government policy, the embodiment of insecurity, the cause and the consequence, is a drugged-up 16 year old with a gun (a forthcoming GDPO Situation Analysis will discuss the treatment of children here involved in the trade).  “What these kids need,” local journalist, author, and political candidate Carlos del Frade told me, “is education, sport, art, activities.  They don’t need the gendarmeria in the neighbourhood.”  But that’s what they got.

It was something of an omen of things to come that while the mega-operation of April 9th looked impressive, the haul that day – 25 low-level actors involved in small-scale selling, “three guns, a couple of thousand dollars and some drugs”, quoting the former governor of the province – was less so.  The gendarmeria continued the established trend of pursuing the lowest and most visible link in the trafficking chain. Over their 9 month stay they did reduce violence in certain areas of the city; when they were replaced by the provincial police, shootings resumed.  Their presence also resembled an occupation and abuses were reported.  A university study of one area found selling alcohol was not permitted after 10pm, shopping receipts needed to be kept at hand to show proof of purchase, youngsters were detained arbitrarily and prevented from gathering outside, and people riding motorbikes were constantly stopped and searched.  Drug traffickers, local sources suggest, responded by selling more at night, and switching from ‘retail’ selling to ‘delivery’ – a text message is sent and a motorbike appears with the goods.  After the bandage was ripped off in January the blood began flowing again – as would be expected.

Party politics is central to all this.  When the gendarmeria were withdrawn, Berni, of the ruling Frente Para la Victoria party, could not resist using the opportunity to fire some parting shots at the Socialists who govern Rosario and Santa Fe.  The Socialists blame the national government for not sealing up the borders and not acting on drug trafficking, which is a federal, not provincial crime.  The national government blame local corruption.  Both have a case.  Berni rightly took some flak for politicising the issue, but this was merely an open recognition of what previous actions have made clear.  Even major operations are largely reactive and serve to score political points: when the provincial government were impelled to move on the city’s biggest drugs gang two years ago, the national government sent their forces into the province to capture a powerful drug trafficker – “I’m caught in the middle of a political war”, he somewhat justifiably told the press.  Nice rhetoric aside, the national government, which has sworn not to follow a War on Drugs approach, has done exactly that with the sending of the gendarmeria.

For now there are few signs things will improve.  Post-gendarmeria, the public debate is focused on the narrow question of whether they should come back or not; the governor of the province, Antonio Bonafatti, is adamant they return.  The national government seems to be enjoying watching their provincial rivals suffer.  Not enough is being done or said, on a national or provincial level, about the conditions behind the violence and trafficking – present in many cities across the country – or about the corruption in the police, the judiciary and the government; some local experts are incensed the provincial government didn’t use the breathing space provided by the national forces to overhaul the notoriously corrupt police force.  The short term seems to be the sole consideration for parties focused on upcoming elections. “The long term exists only for theoretical dalliances,” remarked a local columnist while discussing the dominance of the “security” issue within local political campaigns.  But serious, sustained programs designed to address deep-rooted issues are imperative if the many youngsters growing up in the villas who feel helpless and excluded and angry, who have lost a sense of value for life, are to have a better future than the one offered to them today.  Youngsters like 23 year old Pablo Martinez, who died this February while playing russian roulette.

By Ross Eventon

Worrying proposals to discuss the international scheduling of Ketamine at the CND in March 2015

As noted in the 2014 TNI – IDPC report Scheduling in the international drug control system, although often viewed as an obscure technical issue, the problem of scheduling lies at the core of the functioning of the international drug control system. Scheduling – the classification of a substance within a graded system of controls and restrictions, or ‘schedules’ – must take place in order for a substance to be included in the international control framework, and determines the type and intensity of controls to be applied. For this reason, the topic is of central importance.  Within this context, recent years have seen ketamine become an increasing point of contention.  Concerned by ‘recreational use’, some states, China key among them, have been pushing for international control of the drug.  This goes against repeated recommendations from the WHO, the body responsible for providing expert guidance on scheduling decisions within the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND).  As the WHO points out, while some non-medical use certainly takes place within some parts of the world, international scheduling would likely have damaging consequences on medical access to the drug (a WHO listed essential medicine) in developing countries.  Here it is the only available anaesthetic for essential surgery in most rural areas.

This Fact Sheet on the Proposal to Discuss International Scheduling of Ketamine at the 58th CND – endorsed by a wide range of civil society organisations, including the GDPO – provides background on the issue and explains why international scheduling would go against all the scientific evidence on the issue, be procedurally unsound and generate considerable negative public health impacts in parts of the world where there is already an acute crisis in essential surgery.

GDPO Summer School Success

In July, Global Drug Policy Observatory staff Professors David Bewley Taylor and Julia Buxton delivered the 10 day intensive Human Rights and Drug Policy summer school, at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary. Funded by the Open Society’s Global Drug Policy Programme, the summer school was attended by 24 participants from across the world. This included colleagues from Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Lithuania, Tajikistan, Hungary, Jamaica, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, United States of America, Poland, Ireland and the United Kingdom. With backgrounds in journalism, social work, harm reduction, legal services, advocacy, political service and the security sector, the participants brought extensive professional experience to the course, which presented an excellent opportunity for global networking and knowledge exchange.

The summer school was delivered by academics and practitioners through lectures, discussion groups and workshops that enabled participants to analyse core issues and debates at the interface of human rights and drug policy. This began with David Bewley Taylor’s day-long session exploring the treaty framework and institutions of the international drug control regime administered by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Key questions included the remit and mandate of bodies such as the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), and the extent to which current reform of cannabis laws constitute a breach of the 1961 Single Convention. On the second day, participants considered international human rights conventions and obligations supported by key cases in human rights law. Delivered by Damon Barrett, Deputy Director and Head of Research and Advocacy at the Harm Reduction International and Director of the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy, the session incorporated a focus on the rights of children and of minority religious groups particularly Rastafari.

Niamh Eastwood, the Executive Director of the drug policy reform and legal services organisation Release delivered the third day’s session. This addressed racial disparities in drug policy enforcement, trends in incarceration for drug related offences, and, returning to a theme raised earlier by Bewley Taylor, the politics of drug scheduling. Course participants welcomed back Peter Sarosi and Denes Balazs from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) at the end of the week. The first engagement for participants at the beginning of the course had been an informative and moving visit to a needle injecting facility with Peter Sarosi. In this second session with HCLU, participants enjoyed a day of media training in drugs advocacy. This involved submitting to a recorded camera interview, which was played back to the class for comments.

As the summer school is an intensive course, designed to maximise the ability of professionals to take time from work to attend, participants were back in the classroom on Saturday with Dr Katherine Pettus, Advocacy Officer at the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care. This was a challenging session, requiring participants to focus on the impacts in poor and developing countries of lack of access to essential medicines. The session threaded with earlier discussions on the scheduling of controlled drugs and the role of drug control bodies (CND but particularly the INCB) in impeding access to medicines that are essential for pain relief in terminal illness. Participants did enjoy a break on the Sunday, with the majority taking the opportunity of a boat cruise along the Danube to Szentendre.

The final three days of the course were delivered by Kasia Malinowska Sempruch the Director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Programme and Julia Buxton. With Kasia, participants examined the record and principles of global harm reduction initiatives, including safe injecting facilities and methadone maintenance programmes. The impact on women of drug policy enforcement was considered, developing the argument forwarded earlier in the course by Niamh Eastwood relating to bias in the policing and treatment of drug-related offences. Julia Buxton examined why the international community focuses attention on naturally occurring (cocaine and opioid) drugs that are produced in the Global South, rather than more widely abused synthetic drugs manufactured in Europe, North America and China. Following this discussion, participants considered the cost paid by developing and conflict prone countries in their role as ‘front line’ states in the international drug war. The final session was applied in orientation, and focused on writing drug policy reports. Participants presented and discussed different topics for a Situation Analysis, supporting each other in constructing brief, focused analytical pieces.

Feedback from the course was extremely positive, with friendship and close working relations making for excellent group dynamics throughout the 10 day period of study. This was the final year Human Rights and Drug policy will be delivered at the CEU, with the course relocating to other institutions in India, Ghana and Mexico for 2015. With Julia Buxton’s move to the School of Public Policy at the CEU in January 2015, work will begin to develop a Masters level programme in Human Rights and Drug Policy; a programme that will aim to maintain a close relationship with Swansea University and the GDPO.

2014 The World Drug Report: The Titanic sails at dawn

This post was originally published here by the International Drug Policy Consortium.

As it its customary practice, the UNODC released its flagship publication on June 26th, the UN’s designated ‘International day against drug abuse and trafficking’ as well as the occasion of the ‘Support Don’t Punish’ day of action, which seeks to draw attention to the collateral damage of the ‘war on drugs’. So the growing debate over the failure of the international drug control system, which has now entered mainstream political discussion, provides the context for the publication of the most recent World Drug Report.

UNODC Executive Director Yuri Fedotov acknowledged that the Report is being published at a key moment for drug policy. As ever, the UN claims to be external to these disputes and to constitute a neutral source of data, the Report continues to position the UNODC as a supporter of the current drug control regime and the international treaties that underpin it. In his Foreword, Mr. Fedotov refers to the recent Commission on Narcotic Drugs as providing a ‘much needed forum for an open and inclusive dialogue’, and to ‘a shared understanding of a way forward’ to counter the ‘world drug problem’. This, at best, is wishful thinking. The Report’s fundamental terms are not up for negotiation. What exactly the ‘world drug problem’ is (i.e. the lack of access to essential medicines for billions of people, the alienation produced by drug law policing, the market opportunity the system offers to organised crime) is a question that the Report does not ask, let alone answer.

As to the main body of the 2014 World Drug Report, the most prominent headlining issue recalls a familiar narrative at the UNODC: the stability of global drug use, its containment by the present drug control arrangements, which restrict drug use to about 5 per cent of the world population – some 243 million individuals having illicitly consumed drugs in 2012. ‘Problem drug users’ have meanwhile continued to represent about 0.6 per cent of the global population, around 1 in every 200 individuals. Opium production in Afghanistan and Myanmar has expanded, while Novel Psychoactive Substances continue to proliferate. Global use of cannabis ‘seems to be down’, but has increased in North America. Although these data can inevitably only provide us with approximations, they are impressive enough, and will be analysed in depth when IDPC produces its annual response to the World Drug Report (to be released in early October).

But for now, in the build up to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in 2016, when the consensus of which the UNODC speaks is fast disappearing, a more clear-eyed recognition of the facts is needed. As countries around the world grow weary of a system devised in very different circumstances and that fails to meet the policy needs of the contemporary age, the time for platitudes is surely past.

Christopher Hallam, IDPC Research Officer

Peace Wins in Colombia

When the Colombian presidential elections headed into a run-off in May, and voters were given the choice between the right-wing incumbent Santos administration and Óscar Iván Zuluaga, a right-wing protégé of former President Alvaro Uribe Velez, journalist Mario López, writing in the local newspaper El Espectador, noted, “Whichever candidate wins the country is not going to change its economic model, this is the reason the establishment has supported and financed both candidates in the same proportion.  The only considerable difference is the peace process moving forward in Havana, and, perhaps, the personal style of leadership.”  The article was titled “War or Peace?”  Zuluaga’s stance softened slightly in respect to the talks, but for those opposed to both the right and the ultra-right an essential dilemma remained: vote to save the peace process in its current form, or submit a blank vote in protest at the constrained choice?  (A cartoon doing the rounds on social media showed a cow standing at the crux of two paths, one with a sign saying ‘Santos’, the other ‘Zuluaga’.  After a small distance the paths could be seen to converge and enter a dark tunnel, above which a sign read “Well-being”, replacing the scrubbed-out but still legible “Slaughterhouse”).   It looks like the decision by centre and left wing groups to support Santos may have been the critical factor in giving him a 5 point victory in the run-off, ensuring the survival of the peace talks and the tentative steps that have so far been made, including the agreed upon but not-yet-finalised commitments to radically alter the country’s approach to the questions of illicit drug production and consumption.  Leading opposition figures afterwards celebrated the victory under the banner “Peace Won.”   Left wing senator Ivan Cepeda Castro told local press that the vote for Santos was a pragmatic one. Those who made the choice, he said, would not forfeit their role as the opposition.

The elections have been a reminder of the conservative sentiments held by powerful sectors of Colombian society and a significant proportion of the population (a recent poll suggested only about half of Colombians thought democracy was preferable to authoritarianism, a result that maybe says more about the specific nature of what ‘democracy’ has entailed in the country rather than widespread anti-democratic sentiments among the people).  It also demonstrated the fragility of even minor progressive gains in the current political climate.

Just prior to the run-off, the government announced they would be opening peace talks with the second largest guerilla group in the country, the ELN (The National Liberation Army), in the near future.