What a year in drug reform! 2013 saw a historic breakthrough on the international front, as well as evidence that powerful currents are shifting inexorably away from the prohibitionist consensus of the last half-century. There were also new, innovative approaches to regulating drugs and new, innovative approaches to buying and selling them illegally.
But on the other hand, there were also continuities. Major drug producing regions kept producing drugs, major drug-related conflicts continued, and the global drug war continues to grind on. A bullet-point Top 10 list can't hope to offer a comprehensive review of the year on drugs internationally, but it can illuminate some key events and important trends. With apologies in advance for all those important stories that didn't make the cut, here is Drug War Chronicle top ten global drug policy-related stories of 2013:
No question about it; this has to be the top international drug policy story of the year. After a year and a half of laying the groundwork, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica and his ruling Broad Front pushed marijuana legalization through the legislature and Mujica signed the bill into law just before Christmas. Uruguay now becomes the first signatory to the 1961 UN Single Convention on Drugs to break decisively with the treaty and the global prohibition regime on marijuana policy. Uruguay's example is already causing reverberations in Argentina and Chile, and Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina called it "an important step" that could serve as "a pilot plan" in the regional war against drug trafficking. And that's even before the new law goes into effect in a few weeks.
#2 The Global Prohibition Regime is Under Increasing Attack
In May, the Organization of American States released a report that included an analysis of alternatives to prohibition, including regulation and legalization regimes. The report was an outgrowth of Latin American criticism of the drug war at the Cartagena Summit in 2012. In September, Latin Americans took the call for drug reform to the UN General Assembly, and in a consensus statement agreed to by Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, and others, called on the UN "to reevaluate internationally agreed-upon policies in search of more effective responses to drug trafficking, from a perspective of health, a framework of respect for human rights, and a perspective of harm reduction." And in December, a leaked draft document revealed even broader divisions among member states, with several European nations offering serious criticism of the drug prohibition status quo.
#3 Bolivia Reenters UN Drug Treaty, But Rejects Coca Chewing Ban
The UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the legal backbone of global drug prohibition, took a hit in January, when Bolivia successfully rejoined the convention, but only with the reservation that it would ignore the treaty's ban on coca leaf chewing despite the objections of the US and the International Narcotics Control Board. Bolivia had withdrawn from the treaty the year before to protest the inclusion of the ban on coca chewing, a traditional indigenous practice that had gone on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before Eurocentric treaty negotiators managed to criminalize it internationally under the Single Convention.
In July, New Zealand took a historic step away from drug prohibition and toward regulation when a new law went into effect to regulate and control new synthetic drugs. The law had breezed through Parliament on a 119-1 vote. Synthetic drug manufacturers who meet safety standards are now licensed and regulated, and their products are available legally at retail outlets. The law is designed to avoid the dangers of driving the trade underground and to end the perpetual game of prohibitionist catch-up played with synthetic drug makers, who, when one drug is criminalized, simply tweak a molecule or two to create a new one.
#5 The Dark Net Emerges as a Drug Marketplace
After quietly lurking in the dark corners of the Internet, the online illicit drug (and other goodies) marketplace Silk Road hit the big time in a big, bad way in October, when its operator, Ross William Ulbrict (AKA the Dread Pirate Roberts) was arrested by the FBI on drug trafficking, money laundering, and computer hacking charges. Silk Road and other "dark net" web sites require an anonymized browser (Tor) that was supposed to keep operators and users safe from prying government eyes, although the Ulbrict and related busts suggest that isn't entirely the case. Other sites, including Sheep Marketplace and Black Market reloaded, sprung up to replace it, but they have had their own problems. In November, Silk Road announced it was back, in Version 2.0. Meanwhile, the saga of the original Silk Road continued at year's end, with Ulbricht suing the federal government for the return of $30 million worth of bitcoins he argues were improperly seized. The battle between governments and Internet black marketers is doubtlessly continuing, even if most of us don't know about it until after the fact.
#6 Mexico: New President, Same Old Drug War
The wave of prohibition-related violence plaguing Mexico didn't garner the media attention last year that it did in 2012, a presidential election year in both the US and Mexico, but it continued nonetheless under incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office in December 2012. According to Milenio's annual survey of drug war deaths, there were more than 10,000 killed last year. That is down from over 12,000 the year before, but still unconscionably high. Pena Nieto came into office vowing to reform the government's approach, but so far the changes have been mainly rhetorical, with the government shifting emphasis from going after top capos to increasing public safety and security. And the top leaders of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico's most powerful, remain apparently untouchable.
Thirteen years after the Taliban virtually eliminated opium production in a bid to win foreign favor and US funding, and 12 years after the US invaded Afghanistan to drive the Taliban from power, Afghan opium production was at its highest level ever, about 5,500 metric tons, accounting for around 90% of global illicit production. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's 2013 Afghanistan Opium Survey, opium production increased a whopping 49% over 2012, while the area under cultivation increased 36%. The previous high was in 2007. US anti-drug policies have been consistently relegated behind US counter-insurgency imperatives during the US and NATO occupation of the country, leaving Afghanistan with little likelihood of significant changes after the bulk of Western forces are scheduled to leave at the end of this year.
#8 Peru Overtakes Colombia to Regain Title as World's Largest Coca Producer
Twenty years ago, Peru produced about 60% of the world's coca crop, from which cocaine is derived. But crop disease and aggressive anti-trafficking efforts in Peru hurt output there even as cultivation blossomed in Colombia, which took first place honors by the turn of the century. But this year, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that Peru was once again back on top. According to the UNODC, Peru had 151,000 acres under cultivation, compared to 125,000 for Colombia. The return to first place comes even as the government of President Ollanta Humala steps up eradication and enforcement efforts and suggests that 2014 could be a conflictive year in the coca valleys of Peru.
#9 Iran Continues to Execute Hundreds of Drug Offenders Each Year
Sharing a 1,300 mile long border with Afghanistan and its booming opium trade, Iran suffers one of the world's highest opiate addiction rates and battles mightily to suppress the cross-border drug trade. One of the grisliest weapons in the mullahs' arsenal is the hangman's noose. In recent years, the Iranians have executed hundreds of drug traffickers each year, and last year was no exception. Final figures are not available, but Iran began the year by executing 21 drug offenders in January alone and ended the year with more than 30 executions in December. It's not clear how many of those were drug offenders because reports from Iran are often sketchy, but it appears safe to say that 2013 was another year where Iran hanged hundreds of drug offenders.
#10 Colombian Peace Negotiations Progress
Forty years ago this year, the leftist guerrillas of the FARC rose up in armed struggle against the Colombian state. Based in the country's rural peasantry, the FARC generated enough wealth from the coca and cocaine trades to finance its insurgency, fighting the Colombian military, backed with US assistance, to a sweaty stalemate. Now, however, weakened by years of offensives by the Colombian military and convinced that the government of President Santos is willing to negotiate in good faith, the FARC has been engaged in a so-far months-long series of talks with government negotiators in Havana. Based as it is in the peasantry, one of the FARC's key concerns is agricultural reform; another is dealing with the coca/cocaine economy. The FARC is calling on the government to initiate alternative development and crop substitution programs, and wants to be involved, and in December, the FARC called for the decriminalization of drug use and coca cultivation. It's too early to tell if the negotiations will lead to an end to the world's longest insurgency, but the progress so far is a positive sign.