This year saw continued turmoil, agitation, and evolution on the international drug policy front. While we don't have the space to cover all the developments -- the expansion of medical marijuana access in Israel, the rise of Portugal as a drug reform model, the slow spread of harm reduction practices across Eurasia -- here are what we see as the most significant international drug policy developments of the year.
The Mexican Tragedy
Mexico's ongoing tragedy is exhibit number one in the failure of global drug prohibition. This month, the official death toll since President Felipe Calderon deployed the military against the so-called cartels in December 2006 passed 30,000, with 10,000 killed this year alone. The multi-sided conflict pits the cartels against each other, cartel factions against each other, cartels against law enforcement and the military, and, at times, elements of the military and different levels of law enforcement against each other. The US has spent $1.2 billion of Plan Merida funds, mainly beefing up the police and the military, and appropriated another $600 million this summer, much of it to send more lawmen, prosecutors, and National Guard units to the border. None of it seems to make much difference in the supply of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine coming over (under, around, and through) the border, but the horrorific violence of Mexico's drug war is eroding public confidence in the state and its ability to exercise one of its essential functions: maintaining order. The slow-motion disaster has spurred talk of legalization in Mexico -- and beyond -- but there is little chance of any real movement toward that solution anytime in the near future. In the mean time, Mexico bleeds for our sins.
San Malverde, Mexico's patron saint of narco-traffickers
The Rising Clamor for a New Paradigm and an End to Drug Prohibition
The critique of the international drug policy status quo that has been growing louder and louder for the past decade or so turned into a roar in 2010. Impelled in part by the ongoing crisis in Mexico and in part by a more generalized disdain for failed drug war policies, calls for radical reform came fast and furious, and from some unexpected corners this year.
In January, the former French Polynesian President Oscar Temaru called for Tahiti to legalize marijuana and sell it to European tourists to provide jobs for unemployed youth. Three months later, members of the ruling party of another island nation spoke out for reform. In traditionally tough on drugs Bermuda, leading Progressive Labor Party members called for decriminalization.
In February, an international conference of political figures, academics, social scientists, security experts, and activists in Mexico City called prohibition in Mexico a disaster and urged drug policies based on prevention, scientific evidence, and respect for human life. By August, as the wave of violence sweeping Mexico grew ever more threatening, President Felipe Calderon opened the door to a discussion of drug legalization, and although he quickly tried to slam it shut, former President Vicente Fox quickly jumped in to call for the legalization of the production, distribution, and sale of drugs. "Radical prohibition strategies have never worked," he said. That inspired Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to say that he supported the call for a debate on legalization. The situation in Mexico also inspired two leading Spanish political figures, former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales and former drug czar Araceli Manjon-Cabeza to call for an end to drug prohibition in the fall.
Midsummer saw the emergence of the Vienna Declaration, an official conference declaration of the World AIDS Conference, which called for evidence-based policy making and the decriminalization of drug use. The declaration has garnered thousands of signatures and endorsements, including the endorsements of three former Latin American presidents, Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia. It has also picked up the support of public health organizations and municipalities worldwide, including the city of Vancouver.
Great Britain has also been a locus of drug war criticism this year, beginning with continuing resignations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Several members of the official body had quit late last year in the wake of the firing of Professor David Nutt as ACMD after he criticized government decisions to reschedule cannabis and not to down-schedule ecstasy. In April, two more ACMD members resigned, this time in response to the government's ignoring their recommendations and banning mephedrone (see below).
The revolt continued in August, when the former head of Britain's Royal College of Physicians joined the growing chorus calling for radical reforms of the country's drug laws. Sir Ian Gilmore said the government should consider decriminalizing drug possession because prohibition neither reduced crime nor improved health. That came just three weeks after Nicholas Green, chairman of the Bar Council (the British equivalent of the ABA), called for decriminalization. The following month, Britain's leading cannabis scientist, Roger Pertwee called for cannabis to be legalized and regulated like alcohol and tobacco, and the chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officer's drug committee said marijuana should be decriminalized. Chief Constable Tim Hollis said decrim would allow police to concentrate on more serious crime. The following day, the Liberal Democrats, junior partners in a coalition government with the Conservatives, were lambasted by one of their own. Ewan Hoyle called for a rational debate on drug policy and scolded the party for remaining silent on the issue. And just this past week, former Blair administration Home Office drug minister and defense minister Bob Ainsworth called for the legalization of all illicit drugs, including cocaine and heroin.
From Mexico to Great Britain, Vancouver to Vienna, not to mention from Tahiti to Bermuda, the clamor for drug legalization has clearly grown in volume in 2010.
Opium and the Afghan War
More than nine years after the US invaded Afghanistan in a bid to decapitate Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban, the US and NATO occupation drags bloodily on. This year has been the deadliest so far for Western occupiers, with 697 US and NATO troops killed as of December 20. And while the US war machine is fueled by a seemingly endless supply of borrowed cash -- another $160 billion was just authorized for the coming year -- the Taliban runs to a large degree on profits from the opium and heroin trade. In a Faustian bargain, the West has found itself forced to accept widespread opium production as the price of keeping the peasantry out of Taliban ranks while at the same time acknowledging that the profits from the poppies end up as shiny new weapons used to kill Western soldiers and their Afghan allies. The Afghan poppy crop was down this year, not because of successful eradication programs, but because a fungus blighted much of the crop. But even that is not good news: The poppy shortage means prices will rebound and more farmers will plant next year. The West could buy up the entire poppy crop for less than what the US spends in a week to prosecute this war, but it has so far rejected that option.
The Netherlands Reins in Its Cannabis Coffee Shops
Holland's three-decade long experiment with tolerated marijuana sales at the country's famous coffee shops is probable not going to end under the current conservative government, but it is under pressure. The number of coffee shops operating in the country has dropped by about half from its peak, local governments are putting the squeeze on them via measures such as distance restrictions (must be so far from a school, etc.), and the national government is about to unveil a plan to effectively bar foreigners from the shops. The way for that was cleared this month when the European Court of Justice ruled that such a ban did not violate European Union guarantees of freedom of travel and equality under the law within the EU because what the coffee shops sell is an illegal product that promotes drug use and public disorder. Whether the "weed pass" system contemplated by opponents of "drug tourism" will come to pass nationwide remains to be seen, but it appears the famous Dutch tolerance is eroding, especially when it comes to foreigners. Do the Dutch really think most people go there just to visit the windmills and the Rijksmuseum?
Russian Takeover at the UNODC
In September, there was a changing of the guard at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), one of the key bureaucratic power centers for the global drug prohibition regime. Outgoing UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa, a former Italian prosecutor, was replaced by veteran Russian diplomat Yury Fedotov. Given Russia's dismal record on drug policy, especially around human rights issues, the treatment of hard drug users, and HIV/AIDS prevention, as well as the Russian government's insistence that the West resort to opium eradication in Afghanistan (Russia is in the throes of a heroin epidemic based on cheap Afghan smack), the international drug reform community looked askance at Fedotov's appointment. But the diplomat's first missive as ONDCP head talked of drug dependence as a disease, not something to be punished, and emphasized a concern with public health and human rights. Fedotov has shown he can talk the talk, but whether he will walk the walk remains to be seen.
US War on Coca on Autopilot
Coca production is ongoing, if down slightly, in the Andes, after more than a quarter century of US efforts to wipe it out. Plan Colombia continues to be funded, although at declining levels, and aerial and manual eradication continues there. That, and a boom in coca growing in Peru, have led to Peru's arguably retaking first place in coca production from Colombia, but have also led to increased conflict between Peruvian coca growers and a hostile national government. And remnants of the Shining Path have appointed themselves protectors of the trade in several Peruvian coca producing regions. They have clashed repeatedly with Peruvian police, military, and coca eradicators. Meanwhile, Bolivia, the world's number three coca producer continues to be governed by former coca grower union leader Evo Morales, who has allowed a limited increase in coca leaf production. That's enough to upset the US, but not enough to satisfy Bolivian coca growers, who this fall forced Evo's government to repeal a law limiting coca leaf sales.
Canada Marches Boldly Backward
Canada under the Conservatives continues to disappoint. When the Liberals held power in the early part of this decade, Canada was something of a drug reform beacon, even if the Liberals could never quite get around to passing their own marijuana decriminalization bill while in power. They supported Vancouver's safe injection site and embraced harm reduction policies. But under the government of Prime Minister Steven Harper, Canada this year fought and lost (again) to shut down the safe injection site. Harper's justice minister, Rob Nicholson, in May signed extradition papers allowing "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery to fall into the clutches of the Americans, in whose gulag he now resides for the next four years for selling pot seeds. And while Harper's dismissal of parliament in January killed the government's bill to introduced mandatory minimum sentences for a number of offenses, including growing as few as five pot plants, his government reintroduced the bill this fall. It just passed the Senate, but needs to win approval in the House of Commons. The Conservatives won't be able to pass it by themselves there, so the question now becomes whether the Liberals will have the gumption to stand against it. This as polls consistently show a majority of Canadians favoring marijuana legalization.
A New Drug Generates a Tired, Old Response
When in doubt, prohibit. That would seem to be the mantra in Europe, where, confronted by the emergence of mephedrone, a synthetic stimulant derived from cathinone, the active ingredient in the khat plant, first Britain and then the entire European Union responded by banning it. Described as having effects similar to cocaine or ecstasy, mephedrone emerged in the English club scene in the past 18 months, generating hysterical tabloid press accounts of its alleged dangers. When two young people supposedly died of mephedrone early this year, the British government ignored the advice of its Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which called for it to be a Schedule B drug, and banned it. Poland followed suit in September, shutting down shops that sold the drug and claiming the power to pull from the shelves any product that could be harmful to life or health. And just this month, after misrepresenting a study by the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Addiction, the EU instituted a continent-wide ban on mephedrone. Meet the newest entrant into the black market.
Heroin Maintenance Expands Slowly in Europe
Heroin maintenance continues its slow spread in Europe. In March, Denmark became the latest country to embrace heroin maintenance. The Danes thus join Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and, to a lesser degree, Britain, in the heroin maintenance club. In June, British scientists rolled out a study showing heroin maintenance worked and urging the expansion of limited existing programs there. The following month, a blue-ribbon Norwegian committee called for heroin prescription trials and other harm reduction measures there. Research reports on heron maintenance programs have shown they reduce criminality among participants, decrease the chaos in their lives, and make them more amenable to integration into society.
Opium is Back in the Golden Triangle
Okay, it never really went away in Laos, Burma, and Thailand, and it is still below its levels of the mid-1990s, but opium planting has been on the increase for the last four years in the Golden Triangle. Production has nearly doubled in Burma since 2006 to more than 38,000 hectares, while in Laos, production has more than doubled since 2007. The UNODC values the crop this year at more than $200 million, more than double the estimate of last year's crop. Part of the increase is attributable to increased planting, but part is accounted for by rising prices. While Southeast Asian opium production still trails far behind that in Afghanistan, opium is back with a vengeance in the Golden Triangle.