As criticism of the world’s war on drugs grew louder, legalization and prevention made some strides—even as violence, poverty and other social ills afflicted countries from Mexico to Greece to Ukraine to China.
By Nick Alexandrov
2014 was an eventful year for the international drug war. Given that it consists mainly of violence, corruption, impoverishment, incarceration, addiction and other social harms, that is hardly good news, although a cynic might say that it makes for good drama.
The following 10 events were among the most dramatic. Not only did they make headlines but they reflect larger themes—the extent to which drug war issues intersect with economic policy, military funding, public health, natural resources and the like. Taken together, they also reveal why the policy of prohibition, which has given rise to a trillion-dollar industry run by terrorist cartels, fuels the very war it is allegedly intended to end.
Yet those looking for good news can find it in the growing consensus among global organizations and people in high places, especially in Latin America, that the entire 40-year-old enterprise is a boondoggle of historic proportions. Most Americans agree: 82% of US adults, according to one poll, believe Washington is losing the drug war.
1. Top Political Leaders Call for Drug War’s End
In May, the London School of Economics (LSE) published a report, “Ending the Drug Wars,” signed by notables including five Nobel prize-winning economists, Britain’s deputy prime minister and a former US Secretary of State.
“The pursuit of a militarized and enforcement-led global ‘war on drugs’ strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage,” the report concluded. A “new global drug strategy should be based on principles of public health, harm reduction…and human rights.”
Four months later, the Global Commission on Drug Policy upped the ante. Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) and Ruth Dreifuss (Switzerland), and others called for “governments to decriminalize a variety of illegal drugs and set up regulated drug markets within their own countries.”
On the one hand, these critiques draw crucial attention to the consequences of current drug policies. On the other hand, suggesting that the drug war is a failure misses the point. It’s true the current model “has produced enormous negative outcomes”—but not for everyone. The US prison system is thriving, for example. And the “drug war” is often invoked to rationalize repressive measures stemming from conflicts over, say, land or resources. That happened in Mexico in the 1990s, when Zedillo, now a Global Commission on Drug Policy member, was running the country.
If the aim is to identify the roots of prison booms and political violence worldwide, we need to ask: Should we condemn current policy as a wholesale failure? Or as an initiative that benefits people with power—the people these important reports want to persuade to abandon it?
2. Conflict in Ukraine Has Grim Consequences for Drug Users
“The annexation of Crimea by Russia is likely to have far-reaching consequences for an already much marginalized group within society,” Andriy Klepikov, head of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance in Ukraine, wrote in March. “Access to life-saving medical and HIV prevention services has been severely compromised [for the estimated 14,000 IV drug users].”
Ukraine has been a regional leader in needle exchange and substitution therapy, while Russia’s “extremely repressive drug laws [fail to] support any efficient programs for preventing HIV and hepatitis C among people who use drugs,” Klepikov said.
Russia’s policy is criminal. But US public health legacy in Ukraine is hardly laudable. Two decades ago, Washington “made aid in support of market reform” there “its chief priority,” George Mason University professor Janine Wedel said. The World Bank, the EU and USAID all helped administer this reform, and a 1998 USAID briefing indicated its “no. 1 objective was to transfer ownership of state enterprises to the private sector.”
This transfer exacerbated “the already difficult economic situation in the health care sector,” the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded. One outcome was “drastically reduced living standards for…pensioners, disabled people and other vulnerable groups, leading to further worsening of population health.”
The extent, then, to which Washington’s policies shaped the present conflict can certainly be debated—but not ignored, if we aim to get to the root of the problem.
3. “El Chapo” Is Captured in Mexico
A swarm of Mexican soldiers and cops closed in on a beachfront apartment in Mazatlán on February 22. Their target, Sinaloa Cartel boss and former Forbes list billionaire “El Chapo” Guzmán, surrendered easily. Not a single shot was fired.
The event made great copy. The Washington Post quoted Attorney General Eric Holder, who “called the arrest a ‘landmark achievement, and a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States.’” But it was likely less of a triumph than it seemed.
First, it’s unclear what impact Guzmán’s arrest has had. “The takedown of El Chapo is a thorn in the side, but not a dagger in the heart of the Sinaloa Cartel,” said George Grayson, an expert on Mexican drug traffickers. Drug-related violence has continued in recent months—for example, look at its recent expansion into Tamaulipas, just south of Texas.
Second, many have questioned the circumstances of El Chapo’s capture. Hector Berrellez, a retired DEA agent, believes the arrest was “arranged,” while ex-DEA director Phil Jordan commented that for Chapo “to be taken down without one gunshot, should tell you something right away.” And journalist Anabel Hernández told me that it’s “impossible to believe that El Chapo was alone in Mazatlán,” since the city “is not a territory of the Sinaloa Cartel. It is a territory of the enemies of El Chapo Guzmán.”
4. The WHO Strategizes to Fight China’s Tobacco Epidemic
The WHO, in an April 8 briefing, encouraged “China to use graphic warnings on cigarette packages to fight the tobacco epidemic,” The New York Times reported. The country’s tobacco habit is severe, killing around 1 million annually. Nearly 30% of adults there—53% of men—smoke.
Why did the epidemic emerge? A long-term change in US smoking patterns—thanks partly to federal and state regulations—helped prompt this Asian pivot, according to law professor Charles Whitebread. Cigarette companies, confronted with a restricted US market, began “shifting their operations out of the United States” and into China, Whitebread concluded.
But graphic warnings go only so far. How else does the WHO propose to curb smoking? At a 2012 conference, officials emphasized “price and tax measures to reduce the demand for tobacco,” among other initiatives.
China may adopt these proposals. Its government is considering a hike in cigarette taxes, for example, while Beijing intends “to ban smoking in all the city’s indoor public spaces, on public transport and in the workplace.” If a public health approach makes sense for a drug this addictive and deadly, then why not for less perilous substances?
5. Is Indigenous Extinction the Legacy of “Plan Colombia”?
“Plan Colombia” prioritized eradication, ostensibly to wipe out coca production. In this respect it failed miserably. A 2008 US governmental report noted that “coca cultivation and cocaine production levels [had] increased by about 15% and 4%, respectively” since the plan’s 1999 launch.
When “Plan Colombia” began, the Colombian government also desired to wrest national lands from guerrilla control. Empowered by billions of US taxpayer dollars, Colombian forces successfully held “full or partial control of about 90% of the country in 2007”—up from around 50% in 1998.
The government promoted mining activity on the newly secured land. Many mineral sites coveted by multinationals are on indigenous reservations, which are now at risk. Their residents’ fate is bleak, their cultures possibly slated to vanish. “Native communities affected by mining projects are moving to the city, where their culture and language is lost.” Cecilia Jamasmie explained for Mining.com.
6. The Greek Austerity-Driven Health Crisis Deepens
The impact of austerity measures on health care in Greece has been grave. Public health outlays plummeted 25% after a pair of bailouts imposed spending cuts. Unemployment is at 28%, and some 800,000 jobless men and women struggle to survive without unemployment coverage. The number of sex workers has also grown sharply in recent years.
Little wonder many Greeks turn to drugs and alcohol to escape. But because of health cuts, efforts to numb despair often dead-end in other nightmares. Tania M.’s story, related in a dramatic Al Jazeera report by Fragkiska Megaloudi earlier this year, is emblematic. Tania is in her mid-20s, and does sex work for drug money. She weathered sexual assaults. She had a son. He tested positive for HIV—Tania only then discovered she was ill. The news overwhelmed her, drawing her deeper into addiction. Her case reflects a national crisis, with condom and syringe supplies for injecting drug users down 24% and 10%, respectively, as new HIV and TB cases among this group surge.
University of Oxford Professor David Stuckler argues that Greece’s public health disaster “is not an inevitable consequence of economic downturns,” but instead “amounts to a political choice.” “Investing in programs that protect the nation’s health is not only the right thing to do, it can help spur economic recovery.”
7. Uruguay’s Pot Legalizers Roll Out Plans—and a Party or Two
Uruguay became the world’s first country to legalize the production and sale of marijuana a year ago. And in May, it publicized the regulations that will govern its marijuana market. President José Mujica contrasted Uruguay’s pot policies with Colorado’s, which he dismissed as “a complete fiction.”
The US marijuana model is one where “you prescribe it yourself,” he elaborated—as opposed to the Uruguayan system, which regulates consumers. “We aren’t going to promote smokefests [sic], bohemianism, all this stuff they try to pass off as innocuous when it isn’t. They’ll label us old reactionaries. But this isn’t a policy that seeks to expand marijuana consumption.”
To that end, residents 18 and older will be able to choose between three forms of access to non-medical weed; each buyer will register with the government and be restricted to 10 grams each week. By setting the price at $1 a gram, the state hopes to weaken illicit gangs by eliminating one of their revenue sources.
Although Uruguay’s pot legalization project has faced public and political opposition, leftist Tabaré Vázquez won last month’s presidential election, meaning the new government will proceed with Mujica’s plan. By December some 1,200 users had been registered, and its first smokefest—”Expocannabis”—took place on December 14.
8. Amphetamine Stimulant Use Accelerates in Asia
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s annual World Drug Report, “national experts have indicated that in East and Southeast Asia, the use of ATS [amphetamine-type stimulants] has both increased and diversified.”
A Brookings Institution paper published in March reinforces these findings, explaining that “China has become increasingly a producing country of new synthetic substances, amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) in particular, as well as a final consumption market.” Some “38 percent of registered drug users, almost 800,000 people, were identified as users of ATS.”
The ATS surge “has led to higher risks of contracting HIV and other blood-borne viruses,” the Guardian reported, citing a study concluding that Asia’s ATS users are “more likely to share and borrow needles than heroin users.” Punitive policies “and cloudy legalities surrounding needle distribution” only worsen the problem, promoting the risky conduct that helps spread disease.
Why the ATS boom? The Guardian lists “growing wealth inequality, population displacement, political upheaval and corruption among ruling elites, among other factors. These social and economic problems likely mean that the drug problem will get worse before it gets better.
9. Afghan Opium Cultivation Reaches Record Levels
In October, the US military noted that Afghanistan’s opium poppy cultivation is hitting record levels, and has almost tripled since 1994. “That’s despite more than a decade of American efforts to knock out the Afghan drug trade—at a cost of roughly $7.6 billion,” Mother Jones reported.
But has the US really been trying to curb Afghan drug production? “The last time opium trafficking and production was markedly reduced in Afghanistan was in 2000—the last year the Taliban was in power,” Al Jazeera’s Michael Pizzi writes. In 2001, only one of the country’s regions continued extensive cultivation: the 5% of the territory the Washington-allied Northern Alliance controlled. The US teamed with these warlords to assault the Taliban after 9/11.
Washington’s ensuing move to eradicate opium poppies failed to meet its publicized goals. In reality, “the US military was in the business of enriching warlords at the expense of others—and always at the expense of poor farmers,” said Jonah Blank, a RAND Corporation expert. Pizzi points out that the booming “illicit trade” is also “an important source of funding for the Taliban insurgency, and a major contributor to the country’s rampant corruption.”
Afghan activist Malalai Joya declares that her country “has become a world center for drugs” after years of US occupation. Afghan Women’s Mission co-director Sonali Kolhatkar argues that “the US is leaving Afghanistan worse off than before.”
But according to a recent disclosure, Washington “is preparing to increase the number of troops it keeps in Afghanistan in 2015.” What that means for reform of the poppy policies remains to be seen.
10. Drug-War Funded Mexican Authorities Attack, Abduct 43 Students
On September 26, Mexican police blocked three busloads of students from the Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa in Iguala, then started shooting. “By all accounts, law enforcement agents limited their activities to firing on the students,” Laura Carlsen reported. “No law enforcement officials protected the young people under attack.”
Authorities abducted 43 students in the end. The fate of the majority remains unclear, though earlier this month at least one of them, Alexander Mora, was “identified among remains largely burned to ashes,” The New York Times noted. The discovery lends “considerable weight to a theory by prosecutors that the students were killed after being abducted by municipal police and turned over to a drug gang.” The gang then allegedly murdered the students “and burned their remains in a garbage dump.”
Protesters flooded streets throughout Mexico—and beyond—in response to the kidnapping, demanding both “to learn the fate of the missing students” and “to bring those responsible to justice,” Al Jazeera reported. Demonstrators also had broader demands, calling for the resignation of the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, and for an end to corruption.
Ayotzinapa exposed the rot at Mexico’s core—a rot progressing with the aid of billions of US taxpayer dollars. The story evinces an apparent collaboration between Iguala’s police and the local drug traffickers. And an explosive recent story in the Mexican news magazine Proceso cites “leaked government documents” to show that “Mexican federal authorities had real-time information” regarding the attack, “but did nothing to stop [it],” the Guardian reported.
Some Mexican and US officials may want the abduction considered an isolated atrocity, if not forgotten outright. But this unprecedented act of state violence may yet yield a sustained, national movement for social justice in 2015.
Nick Alexandrov is a PhD student in history at George Washington University. He writes regularly for CounterPunch and has contributed to the Asia Times. His previous article for Substance.com was a roundup of the CIA’s 10 favorite drug lords.