Wednesday's United Nations General Assembly session saw not one, not two, but three Latin American heads of state call on it to promote debate on alternatives to the war on drugs. The presidents of Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico all used their 15-minute addresses at the Assembly to call for exploring new paths.
Otto Pérez Molina
Outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who has presided over a drug war that has left more than 55,000 people dead during his six-year term, told the General Assembly the UN should lead "a profound international debate" about ways to reduce drug trafficking and its consequences. The UN itself should do more to intervene if wealthy Western countries that consume "tons and tons of drugs" cannot bring their demand down.
The US and other drug consuming countries need to "evaluate with all sincerity, and honesty, if they have the will to reduce the consumption of drugs in a substantive manner," Calderon said. "If this consumption cannot be reduced, it is urgent that decisive actions be taken."
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos also called for a "frank, and without a doubt, global" discussion on alternatives to the status quo. "It is our duty to determine -- on objective scientific bases -- if we are doing the best we can or if there are better options to combat the scourge," he said.
According to the UN News Network, Calderon hinted without quite suggesting an examination of legalization alternatives, stating, "The enormous profits from the black market due to prohibition have exacerbated the ambition of criminals, increasing the massive flow of resources to their organizations and allowing them to create powerful networks," adding "thousands and thousands of young people in Latin America have died because of drug trafficking-related violence, and, in particular, the nations that are suffering the most are the ones located between the drug-producing zone in the Andes and the main drug market: the United States."
There was speculation that Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina would actually call for the legalization of the drug trade, as he has in the past, but he didn't go that far in New York.
"We must seek new avenues with responsibility and perseverance, with the cooperation of all: producing, consuming and transit countries," he said, adding that his government "would like to establish an international group of countries that are well disposed to reforming global policies on drugs" and would consider "new creative and innovative alternatives."
A concerted call for discussing alternatives to the drug war, yes. A clarion call for drug legalization, not yet.
"I hereby designate Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela as countries that have failed demonstrably during the previous 12 months to make substantial efforts to adhere to their obligations under international counter-narcotics agreements," President Obama said in the determination.
That marks the fourth year in a row the US has singled out Bolivia and Venezuela, which are left-leaning regional allies highly critical of US influence in Latin America. But while the US has once again put the two countries on its drug policy black list, it is not blocking foreign assistance to them because "support for programs to aid Bolivia and Venezuela are vital to the national interests of the United States."
Despite that caveat, Bolivia and Venezuela were having none of it.
"Venezuela deplores the United States government's insistence on undermining bilateral relations by publishing this kind of document, with no respect for the sovereignty and dignity of the Venezuelan people," the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry said in a communique last Friday.
Venezuela "rejects in the most decided manner the accusations of the government of the United States," the communique said, adding that the presidential determination is "plagued with false statements, political preconceptions and veiled threats," which only repeat its "permanent line of aggression against independent sovereign governments."
Venezuela also counter-punched, accusing the US of allowing "a fluid transit" of drugs across its borders" and "the laundering of capital from drug trafficking through the financial system."
"The government of the United States has become principally responsible for this plague that is the scourge of the entire world," it said.
The foreign ministry added that Venezuela's anti-drug efforts improved after it kicked out the DEA in 2005, that it has been free of illegal drug crops since 2006, and that it has actively pursued leading drug traffickers, including 19 it had extradited to the US since 2006.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, for his part, said the US, home of the world's largest drug consumer market, had no grounds on which to criticize other countries about its war on drugs.
"The United States has no morality, authority or ethics that would allow it to speak about the war on drugs. Do you know why? Because the biggest market for cocaine and other drugs is the United States," Morales said in a Saturday speech. "They should tell us by what percentage they have reduced the internal (drug) market. The internal market keeps growing and in some states of the United States they're even legalizing the sale of cocaine under medical control," the Bolivian president said.
It's unclear what Morales was trying to say with that latter remark. Although as a Schedule II drug, cocaine can be and occasionally is used medically in the United States, there are no current moves by any US state to take that further. Some 17 US states and the District of Columbia have, however, moved to legalize the distribution of marijuana under medical control.
"I'm convinced that the drug trade is no less than the United States' best business," Morales added, noting that since the first international drug control treaties were signed in 1961, drug trafficking has blossomed, not declined. He said he has suggested to South American leaders that they form a commission to report on how well Washington is doing in its war on drugs.
Morales also took the occasion to lambaste the US for opposing Bolivia's request before the United Nations to modify that 1961 treaty to acknowledge that chewing coca leaf is "an ancestral cultural practice" in the Andes.
Like Venezuela, Bolivia protested that it, too, has been fighting drug trafficking. The Bolivian government said that it had seized 182 tons of cocaine since Morales took power in 2006, compared to only 49 tons confiscated in the previous five years. Bolivia has seized 31 tons of cocaine so far this year, most of it from Peru, the government said.
The US presidential determination named the following countries as major illicit drug producing or trafficking countries: Afghanistan, the Bahamas, Belize, Bolivia, Burma, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela.
Chronicle Book Review: Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States: The Problems of Prohibition by Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli (2012, Adelphi, 163 pp. PB, $12.50)
Longtime readers of Drug War Chronicle likely are already familiar with many -- but not all -- of the topics in Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States. The Chronicle has been on the ground and reported back from Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico -- all of which get individual chapters in this new book -- on the problems generated by drug prohibition in those producer and/or transit nations.
We've also reported to a lesser extent on the drug war's impact on Central America, but almost not at all on its impact in the countries of West Africa, which has become an important staging ground for drug flows from Latin America to Europe and the Middle East. Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States has individual chapters on these two regions as well.
Even though some of the information is new, the book's thesis should also be familiar to Chronicle readers: The present drug prohibition regime is not only failing to win the war on drugs, it is also setting off and prolonging violent conflict -- both political and criminal -- in producer and transit countries.
We have certainly seen that in spades in the past few decades. In Mexico, which is both a producer and a transit state, the multi-sided drug wars pitting the so-called cartels against each other and the state have left more than 50,000 dead in six years and shaken public confidence in state institutions. In Colombia, profits from the illicit coca and cocaine trade fund leftist guerrilla armies -- one of which, the FARC, has been at war with the state since 1964 -- and rightist paramilitaries alike. In Afghanistan, which supplies almost 90% of the world's opium and the heroin derived from it, both the Taliban and elements of the Afghan state are profiting handsomely from the illicit trade.
Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States provides succinct, yet fact-filled overviews of the deleterious effects of prohibition in all three countries, as well as West Africa and Central America. In all of them, the lure of the profits of prohibition exceed the threat of law enforcement or the ability of the state to suppress the black market economy. That's not news.
What is newsworthy about Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States is who has produced it. The authors, Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli, are, respectively the director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) and a research analyst at that august institution. Not only that, Inkster is a veteran of the British Secret Intelligence Service who spent his last two years as the Assistant Chief and Director for Operations and Intelligence.
The IISS, which was founded to manage the Cold War for the West more than half a century ago, describes itself as "the world's leading authority on political-military conflict." With many former US and British government officials among its members, IISS very much is the establishment, an organ of the global security elite.
When the IISS says a policy has not only failed but has produced counterproductive results, governments tend to listen. Now, we have the IISS quite clearly and vehemently saying that drug prohibition has done both. And that's what makes Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States so remarkable -- not that we want to give short shrift to the cogent analysis in the book.
It is noteworthy that the authors also take on the international drug control bureaucracy based in UN agencies such as the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) and the Office on Drugs and Crime. They chide the INCB for not only failing to control the illicit drug traffic, but also with failing to uphold the other part of its mandate: ensuring an adequate supply of opiate-based pain medications. Noting that a handful of Western countries account for a staggering 80% or more of all opioid pain medication usage, Inskter and Comolli clearly think vast portions of the planet are not getting sufficient pain medications, and they blame the INCB. To be fair, though, they also acknowledge other obstacles to the effective treatment of pain in developing nations.
Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed Statesis also useful for its discussion of the alternatives to prohibition and what decriminalization or legalization would and would not achieve. Decriminalization would be a benefit to drug users, they argue, citing the Portuguese experience, but would not address black market profits. And legalization would certainly weaken, but is unlikely to eliminate, the violent criminal organizations running amok in places like Mexico and Central America.
For politically motivated actors, such as the FARC in Colombia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, for which the profits of the drug trade are not an end in themselves, but a means to achieving political goals, legalization would have little impact, except on their revenue streams. Such groups would find other means to continue, Inkster and Comolli suggest.
The book also discusses the prospects for trying to change the global prohibition regime, which is based on the 1961 Single Convention and its two successor treaties. The outlook is not sunny, the authors suggest, given a distinct lack of interest in reforms by such major players as the United States, China, and Russian, not to mention the lack of a hue and cry for change from regions including Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast and East Asia.
But even within the ambit of the global prohibition regime, there is a bit of room for experimentation. The INCB could try to find less restrictive interpretations of the treaties, and the Office on Drugs and Crime could shift its emphases. That could result in some small openings, perhaps for supervised injection sites or heroin maintenance and the like, but not in major changes and not in an end to global drug prohibition.
Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States concisely restates some old arguments and adds a few new ones, and it provides handy overviews of the problems of prohibition in producer and transit countries. One can only hope that members of the policymaking circles at which it is aimed actually pick it up and read it because the global security establishment is telling them in no uncertain terms that not only is prohibition not working, it's making matters worse.
Coca cultivation in Colombia was on the rise again last year for the first time since 2007, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) latest annual Colombia Survey. The survey, which is based on satellite and aerial surveillance photography, estimated that coca planting spread to 158,000 acres last year, up 3% over the previous year.
coca plant (UNODC)
While representing a new tick upward, last year's acreage devoted to coca cultivation was still well below the 403,000 acres planted in 2000, the year President Bill Clinton's Plan Colombia kicked in. Since then, the US has spent more than $7 billion in its effort to wipe out the coca crop and the cocaine traffic derived from it.
Despite the US assistance, Colombia has been unable to eliminate either the coca crop or the cocaine trade. Powerful armed groups, including the peasant guerrilla army of the FARC on the left and various paramilitary groups on the right, continue to profit from the trade while battling (or colluding with) the Colombian state.
UNODC also found that despite the increase in the area under cultivation, the amount of cocaine produced last year was 1% less than in 2010. Colombia produced 345 tons of cocaine last year, almost exactly as much as Peru did, leaving the two countries in a dead heat in the race to be named the world's number one cocaine producer. Bolivia was third.
The biggest increases in coca cultivation were in Putumayo and Caqueta departments near the border with Ecuador, where the FARC still maintains a strong presence. And more than 60% of cultivation is located in only four departments -- Narino, Putomayo, Guaviare, and Cauca -- where the FARC and the paramilitaries fight for control over crops and smuggling routes.
"That area has always been pretty ungoverned, it is basically wired for getting drugs out," said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America. "The 2011 results make apparent that momentum toward reduced coca-growing has once again stalled," he told Reuters.
Delegates to the 55th session of the UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND) in Vienna unanimously approved a resolution to promote measures to prevent drug overdose deaths last Friday. The resolution calls on the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and other international organizations to work with individual countries to address and reduce drug overdoses. Crucially, the resolution included mention of naloxone, an opioid antagonist that can effectively reverse opiate overdoses and which does not carry any danger of abuse.
Naloxone can save lives, the CND recognized Friday (wikimedia.org)
The resolution was introduced by the Czech Republic and cosponsored by Israel and Denmark (the latter on behalf of the European Union). Earlier in the week, Gil Kerlikowske, head of the US Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) affirmed US support for overdose prevention. In his opening statement at the week-long session, Kerlikowske endorsed training public health and medical personnel in overdose recognition and response, as well as the use of naloxone and other overdose reversal medications.
"Every life is worth saving," said Dasha Ocheret, policy and advocacy program manager for the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network. "Everyone knows someone who has died from an overdose. It's thrilling that the United Nations recognizes this is a problem to be taken seriously and something can be done."
"This represents a critical step towards improving global public health," said Donald McPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and former drug policy coordinator for the city of Vancouver. "The global overdose epidemic can be addressed with meaningful, evidence-based interventions to reduce the immediate potential harms associated with opioid use, and prevent unnecessary death. It is heartening to witness CND member countries take this step together to save lives."
The biggest risk of fatal overdose is around opiates and opioid pain medications. According to the UNODC, "the ingestion of opioids accounts for nearly half of the global drug-related deaths, and the majority of deaths could have been prevented." The UNODC puts the number of user of opium derivatives, both medical and non-medical, at around 21 million worldwide.
Opioid overdose deaths are generally preventable for three reasons: The deaths occur gradually after drug use, there are typically other people present, and the effects of overdose can be reversed with naloxone, also known under its brand name, Narcan.
"Naloxone is a safe and effective medication that has been available for more than forty years," said Sharon Stancliff of the New York City-based Harm Reduction Coalition. "It's exciting that the UN has officially recognized the importance of making this life-saving medication more widely available. It is vital that it is made accessible to people who need it, both inside the hospital setting and outside, through emergency services and to family members of opioid users."
Holding a coca leaf in his hand, Bolivian President Evo Morales Monday told a United Nations anti-drug meeting that Bolivians had the right to chew coca leaves, saying coca was not cocaine and that its use by Bolivians was an ancient tradition.
Bolivian President Evo Morales (wikimedia.org)
"We are not drug addicts when we consume the coca leaf. The coca leaf is not cocaine, we have to get rid of this misconception," he said in a speech that generated applause in the hall. "This is a millennia-old tradition in Bolivia and we would hope that you will understand that coca leaf producers are not drug dealers," the one-time coca growers' union leader added.
"We are very much aware of the damage that can be done by cocaine and we are working against drug trafficking... but we want the recognition of these ancestral rights," Morales said.
Morales was speaking at the annual meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. Bolivia has taken issue with coca's inclusion in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Last year, it announced it was withdrawing from the treaty over the issue, and on January 1, Bolivia rejoined, but with the reservation that it recognized coca chewing.
Whether Bolivia will gain support from enough other countries to do that remains unclear. Under the treaty, the other countries that are signatories have one year to consider Bolivia's reservation. Unless one-third of them -- 62 countries -- object, the reservation "shall be deemed to be permitted."
In remarks reported by Reuters, Yury Fedotov, head of the UN Office on Crime and Drugs (UNODC), told a news conference in Vienna there was substantial opposition to Bolivia's move.
"We know that some countries already conveyed to us their strong opposition," he said, adding that he feared allowing Bolivia to make an exception for coca could cause "a domino effect."
Fedotov's fellow countryman, Victor Ivanov, head of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service, also spoke against the Bolivian move, saying "[w]e need to do everything we can against legalizing drugs."
Bolivia is the world's third largest coca and cocaine producer, behind Peru and Colombia. The Morales government has been trying to promote coca-based industries, with everything from coca tea and chewing gum to coca bread, while at the same time it is cooperating internationally with efforts to suppress the cocaine trade.
Bolivians have chewed coca leaves for thousands of years. Its mild stimulant effects take the edge off hunger and mitigate altitude sickness, and Bolivia is adamant that its traditional uses be recognized and the plant removed from the Single Convention.
The Norwegian-based human rights group Iran Human Rights (IHR) has presented its annual report on the death penalty in the Islamic Republic and announce that at least 676 people were executed there last year. Of those, 480, or 71%, were executed for drug offenses, IHR said.
public mass execution in Iran, 2008 (ncr-iran.org)
The count of 676 executions was based on information reported by official Iranian news, other independent sources, or high-ranking officials in the Iranian judiciary. IHR said that the actual number of executions is "probably much higher" than that figure.
Of the 676 executions tallied by IHR, only 416, or 62%, were reported by official media or high-ranking officials. The group said some executions are not announced by state media, but lawyers and family members were notified prior to the execution. In other cases of "secret" executions, not even family and lawyers are notified. IHR left more than 70 additional reported executions off its tally because of difficulty in confirming details.
Drug offenses were far and away the most common death penalty charges. More than five times as many people were hung for drug crimes as for rape (13%) and more than 10 times as many as for murder (7%). Some 4% were executed for being "enemies of God," 1% for acts against chastity, and in 3% of the cases, no charge was made public.
Situated next door to Afghanistan, supplier of nearly 90% of the world's illicit opium and heroin, Iran has been waging a fierce "war on drugs" against smugglers and traffickers transiting the country on the way to European markets. But much of that opium and heroin is destined for Iran itself, which suffers one of the world's highest opiate addiction rates.
While China, the world's leading executioner state, may execute more drug offenders -- the numbers are hard to come by because China doesn't report them -- Iran leads the world in executions per capita, both for drug offenses and all offenses combined.
Drying the leaves in the warehouse. The sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08'' (photo by the author)
In its 2011 Annual Report, the International Narcotics Control Board, which monitors the implementation of international drug control treaties, has attacked Bolivia over that country's effort to defend the traditional uses of the coca plant. The INCB "noted with regret" that Bolivia had withdrawn from the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs because the treaty considers coca a drug and rejoined the treaty in January with a "reservation" saying it would not honor the portion of the treaty dealing with coca.
Coca is the plant from which cocaine is derived, but Bolivians have been using the coca leaf for thousands of years and consider it part of their national patrimony. Bolivia is the third largest producer of coca and cocaine, after Peru and Colombia.
Under the treaty, the other countries that are signatories have one year to consider Bolivia's reservation. Unless one-third of them -- 62 countries -- object, the reservation "shall be deemed to be permitted." That would mark the first chink in the armor of the UN anti-drug conventions, the legal backbone of global drug prohibition.
The INCB said it was "concerned that, while the denunciation itself may be technically permitted under the Convention, it is contrary to the fundamental object and spirit of the Convention." If other states were to follow Bolivia's "unprecedented" rejection of portions of the treaty, "the integrity of the international drug control system would be undermined and the achievements of the past 100 years in drug control would be compromised," the INCB said.
"Why does the board consider the international drug conventions to be so fragile?" asked WOLA senior associate John Walsh. "How do one country’s legitimate efforts to reconcile its treaty obligations with its own constitutional requirements represent an existential threat to the entire system in the eyes of the INCB?"
lime spoons, coastal Inka, Peru, mid-15th to 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art
"The INCB operates under a completely misplaced and self-inflated sense of infallibility that they apparently believe absolves them of any responsibility to base their inquisitorial judgments on rational arguments," said Martin Jelsma, coordinator of TNI's Drugs & Democracy program.
The two groups noted that a stance such as the one Bolivia is taking is legal under the convention and cited the official commentary on the 1961 Single Convention: "A Party may reserve the right to permit the non-medical uses as provided in article 49, paragraph 1, of the drugs mentioned therein, but also non-medical uses of other drugs, without being subject to the time limits and restrictions provided for in article 49."
"The INCB response is another clear sign that the UN drug control regime is under strain and that the cracks in the so-called 'Vienna consensus' are approaching a breaking point," said Jelsma."It is a sign that its principal guardian, the INCB, is in distress and no longer capable of responding to challenges in a rational manner."
Actions organized by the European Drug Policy Initiative in Sofia, Bucharest, Warsaw, Oslo and Porto -- part of the "Count the Costs of the War on Drugs" campaign, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs:
Click here for more information, including a short promo video for the campaign.
The Bolivian government will buy up legally produced "excess" coca to prevent it from leaking into the cocaine trade, Vice Minister of Social Defense Felipe Caceres said last week. The government will use funds from the treasury to make the purchases, Caceres said in remarks reported by the Bolivian newspaper La Razon.
Cultivating coca in the Chapare. (photo by the author)
The announced plan is part of a broader strategy to combat cocaine trafficking. It seeks to reduce coca cultivation from the estimated current 30,900 hectares (only 12,000 of which are legal under existing law) to 20,000 hectares.
A government study of licit coca consumption, which would provide the basis for estimating the size of the licit coca crop, is set for release in September, but Caceres said the study will estimate the area of licit cultivation at about 16,000 hectares.
For political reasons -- to keep President Evo Morales' power base among Chapare coca growers happy -- the government will allow the excess production up to 20,000 hectares and just buy it up.
"We will buy all that coca so that it is not diverted to the drug trade, to become raw material for drugs, with resources from the general treasury of the nation," Caceres said. Cultivation above 20,000 hectares would be manually eradicated, he added.
Bolivia is the world's third largest coca producer -- behind Peru and Colombia -- and some significant portion of that crop is destined to become cocaine smoked in the favelas of Brazil or snorted in the drawing rooms of Europe. While actively combating the cocaine traffic, the Morales government is determined to support traditional coca consumption and cultivation as part of Bolivia's national heritage.
Earlier this year, Bolivia withdrew -- at least temporarily -- from the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs because of its inclusion of the plant in its list of proscribed substances. Coca is not a drug, it's a plant, Bolivia maintains. The government indicated when announcing its withdrawal from the treaty that it would rejoin in a year, signing on to all the treaty provisions except the proscription on coca.