Need for evidence-based, contextualised drug policy highlighted at SOAS expert debate

On May 12th the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London,   hosted a panel debate titled, ‘Rethinking Counter-narcotic Policies in Drug-producing Countries’.  SOAS professor Jonathan Goodhand, chair of the debate, opened the discussion with an outline of a “political economy” approach to the drugs issue, one that would take account of the broader context and rely on evidence-based empirical analyses to guide policy advocacy.  This idea – the need to contextualise the drugs issue in political and economic realities – was a constant in the presentations of the three experts who followed.  Julia Buxton, a lecturer at the Central European University and Senior Research  Officer with the Global Drug Policy Observatory at Swansea University, began her contribution by pointing out that for the first time in a century the global north is a substantial drug producer: the amphetamines market is thriving and the developed countries are self-sufficient in marijuana production. The US and the Netherlands can now be counted among the biggest producers of illicit drug in the world, although they have been spared the drug-related violence almost ubiquitous among the producers in the south. The reasons, Buxton argued, were the kinds of counter-narcotics policies used in the southern countries.  For more than a century now, supply-side approaches have dominated drugs policy without reducing the volume produced; illicit drugs are in fact cheaper and more plentiful than ever.  A focus on eradication and interdiction is today recognised as highly problematic, and in the past decade the conventional methods have been challenged by a new approach: treating drugs as a development issue.  The classic case, Buxton said, was a programme enacted in the 1970s in Thailand.  The Thai government linked drug production to poverty, and in turn adopted a novel legal definition of poverty as constituting a “citizen deficit.”  Later, in 1998, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem  stressed the importance of alternative development, and today it has become a “catchphrase” among the drug policy community.  But alternative development, Buxton said, was really nothing more than a plaster on a serious wound.  It could even be damaging to target countries: not only does it prevent concentration on deeper issues, alternative development attempts to change the socio-cultural-economic structure of the target community; supported by donors wanting quick results, it lacks sustainability; it is part of a prohibition strategy and is entirely market-led; it nationalises what is a transnational issue; it tries to change the individual rather than the context; and it is constrained by the refusal to work with people technically termed criminals i.e. the illicit drug cultivators.  Moving on to a more general discussion of a political economy approach, Buxton said this would imply the exploration of distributions of power, of informal networks, of how legitimacy is understood, and of micro-credit issues, among other areas.  By definition, such a study would be dense, long term, and require embedded researchers. The desire among donors to undertake such an initiative, Buxton said, is non-existent.  Drug policy, she ended her discussion saying, has never been evidence-based, meaning a political economy approach would be ignored.


David Mansfield, an independent consultant widely recognised as the world’s leading expert on illicit drug cultivation in Afghanistan, agreed with the importance of context, and warned against the common tendency to “fetishise” the drugs issue.  Counter-narcotics, he said, had become so conflated with other areas that he was no longer sure exactly what it meant. Metrics of success, like the picture of a strong state able to enforce opium bans and reduce hectarage, were also deeply flawed.  In Afghanistan, a ‘bad’ set of figures showing increased cultivation inevitably led to everyone coalescing around the issue, fixated on a sudden need to “do something about the metrics.”  Mansfield illustrated the importance of context with a video: viewed from a UAV, a group of perhaps a dozen tractors, engaged in an eradication effort as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team were driving in a haphazard way through poppy fields hidden inside a walled compound (an increasingly common precaution taken by cultivators).  Mansfield pointed out that according to the metrics this may have been a successful operation; tractors were used, petrol was expended. But in rural Afghanistan there are dynamics at play. Driving in a sporadic way, Mansfield said, is not a reflection of Afghan’s inability to drive – as he had heard argued – but is often something drivers do to prevent themselves becoming easy targets for potshots from disgruntled owners of the opium.  Local power relations are an enormously important factor and in the majority of cases eradication is a negotiated process.   Where the state’s authority is weak, it is cautious to go too far to upset local power brokers.  A sub-par effort at eradication like the one in the video is the result, although the metrics might suggest otherwise.  The war in Afghanistan is often seen through the prism of drugs, Mansfield said, but in reality, every community, with their varying resource endowments and power relations, needed to be considered in their socio-economic context.  Moreover, counter-narcotics policies have been used to achieve a myriad of objectives in the country, like building patronage, and, for local actors, drugs have been used as a gateway for development assistance – regional officials have pushed eradication and then asked for international funds to fill the gap.  Counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency have become intertwined: the former can have a political impact, serving to marginalise rivals.  Mansfield gave the example of the National Solidarity Program (NSP), which began as a community development initiative as part of Karzai’s political campaign, was later touted as a Counter-Narcotics effort, and then became an element of the Counter-Insurgency war. The NSP’s policies remained the same, but the stated purpose shifted to fit the needs of the time.  Mansfield ended with a warning: “CN is not what it says on the tin. Beware the numbers, the narrative, and the statistics.”


Working as an economist in Colombia in the 1980s, Francisco Thoumi realised that economic theory was not able to explain the rise of drug trafficking in his home country.  As the theory went, every country capable of producing an illicit but highly profitable crop should do just that.  This didn’t happen in the real world, and in an effort to discover why Thoumi decided to immerse himself in drug research – he is, in his own words, a “recovered economist”.  Thoumi is now a university professor with experience in the research departments of the World Bank and the Interamerican Development Bank.  Since 2012 he has been on the board of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a body tasked with overseeing compliance with international drugs conventions, although too often, Thoumi said, the INCB acts as an apologist rather than an overseer.  Addressing the simple-minded approach to the complex issue of illicit drug production, he recounted how he had once heard the US ambassador to Colombia state, “Americans are a plain people, we like simple solutions.”  Drugs, Thoumi said, have brought international attention to the violence in Latin America, a region suffering from a number of inter-related tragedies: corruption, organised crime, social exclusion and inequality. When 2% of Colombia’s population died in an undeclared civil war during the period known as La Violencia, “no one cared.” But drug related violence in the country has grabbed headlines around the world.  And now there is the growing problem of consumption in a region where addiction is generally considered a family issue, not a social one.  Thoumi then discussed the way violence can spike when there is a sudden drop in authority and control.  In Mexico – for a long time “a one party system where corruption had been institutionsalised” – friction developed when the state lost control of some peripheral regions during the 1990s.  Colombia was offered as another example: Pablo Escobar’s murder in Medellin led to a rise in violence which subsided when the drug trade was again dominated, by Don Berna, only to jump again when he was extradited to the United States.  Prevalent drug policies neglect the roots of the problem, said Thoumi, they are like a static bicycle, going nowhere despite all the effort.  There had been some progressive developments, he said, but he predicted most countries would resist serious change.  Russia, backed up by China, Japan, Sweden and most of the Muslim world, would in particular seek to defend the prohibitionist agenda.


The expert presentations gave way to a floor discussion.  Julia Buxton mentioned the economic liberalisation programmes which have swept the globe since the 90s, facilitating the drug trade by making illegal investment and money laundering far easier. Francisco Thoumi pointed out that trafficking organisations in Latin America have been diversifying their portfolios – illegal gold mining in Colombia is now considered a bigger industry than the drug trade.  David Mansfield commented on the remarkable technological advancement of drug production in Afghanistan over the past three years and was cautious in predicting the future outlook for opium cultivation in the country.  And, concluding, Julia Buxton warned that while the United States has long been at the centre of drug policies, their recent fall-back has shown that “the grass is not always greener,” as Russia steps in to perpetuate or even deepen the most damaging elements of the dominant approach.  While there was agreement across the panel on an urgent need for change in the international drug policy framework, there was also agreement that, regardless of the benefits of a new contextualised, evidence-based approach, instutitionalised factors stand in the way of such alternatives receiving serious consideration by policy makers.