Skip to main content

Book Review: Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States: The Problems of Prohibition

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #748)

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.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


war vet (not verified)

Sounds like a good read . . . we already have Hundreds of government studies and university studies from various nations proving that drug money was what financed 9/11 . . . so that means we spend $394.5 Million a day to keep drugs illegal since 9/11 according to the NY Times and Brown University and the Drug Clock stats combined . . . fighting drug money in Iraq or the Stan and cleaning up 9/11 is a part of our drug enforcement bill of sale.  That's why the CIA told us in Iraq that organized crime was the number one reason American troops are in Iraq . . . if they didn't have drug money, then we wouldn't be fighting them and if we didn't fight them, we would have left long ago . . . If I'm wrong, then we still had battles in Germany and Japan in the late 40's.  You cannot defeat an enemy who is well supplied . . . they have no factories or railroads, yet they have more munitions than most armies -how else do you explain a decade long war on two fronts with so many allies fighting the same terrorist enemy and funding the same war.  We should have learned from the U.S.S.R's sad experiment with Afghanistan.

Wed, 08/29/2012 - 7:50pm Permalink
CJ (not verified)

any readings or press stuff going on in NYC? ill come.....then again, not sure if my prescence is wanted... uhm i would honestly not say a word i would love to read this book. i am gonna get it. i am a voracious reader actually. as a matter of fact, after using heroin everyday that is my foremost hobby. in person i am actually a very quiet person, i cannot guarantee i wont nod out and this may raise eyebrows, it usually does and people think i dont notice but its ok i mean i dont mind it at all i find it a way to keep drug issues on the forefront of peoples minds wether they like it or not. nevertheless, if you guys are doing any press stuff or readings or whatever in NYC post it on this site and i shall find thee and nay i shall not be sober but mayhaps there be-ith some solitude in the acknowledgement of this beforehand.

Thu, 08/30/2012 - 6:38am Permalink

All card-carrying members of the DEA need to read: Shoulda Robbed a Bank
Here is one of its reviews:

5.0 out of 5 stars... If David Sedaris had written 'Catcher in the Rye'..this would be it, June 30, 2012

Amazon Verified Purchase

This review is from: Shoulda Robbed a Bank (Kindle Edition)
I have never smoked pot in my life...nor do I ever care to.
I read about this book in numerous Huffington Post comments. Thought I would read it because I know nothing about marijuana or the people involved with it. I am ecstatic that I did. Funny, Funny, Funny!!!
The chapters are like short stories. Stories about unloading boats with helicopters, close encounters with law enforcement, traveling through the jungles of South America. The chapter about the author's first time smoking marijuana made me feel like I was with him...coughing.
All of the characters were just a group of loveable, nice guys and girls. Not what I had been raised to believe...hysterical maniacs high on pot bent on death and mayhem. They were nothing like that.
If you have ever read any of David Sedaris' books, and like will love Shoulda Robbed a Bank.
And the crazy things happening reminded me of Holden Caufield in 'Catcher in the Rye' and the way he staggered through life.
The way the words are put together are like nothing I have ever heard. I am sure I will use many of the sayings found in this book just to dazzle my friends. A terrific read. I love this book.


Thu, 08/30/2012 - 2:06pm Permalink
sicntired (not verified)

Save us all from these zealots and their persecution of doctors that have compassion.After a seven year long battle I am still waiting to find a doctor that will prescribe me the pain medication I need.The neurosurgeons,two groups,agree that I need pain medication for life.Yet I am stuck in an ideological quagmire where only methadone is used for long term pain supression.That it doesn't work is of no consequence.I have gone back on the list for a pain doctor and hope that this time I will get one that understands the proper use of opiate medications and isn't ideologically fixed or so scared of the college that they won't dare prescribe.My doctor says it's not worth losing his license over.That is the kind of fear that exists in this Province.If I need opiate medication for pain,why can't I be allowed to look for one that works for me?Now the US isn't satisfied with persecuting just the general public.Now they want to scare the hell out of doctors.I had success with dilaudid and to a lesser extent with morphine.Had I been able to quit the methadone I would have had even better results.I tried cannabis but got no relief,though it does work for some.What it proves is that no one answer works for everyone.Too bad the methadone ideologues from the college are so financially tied to that drug that they refuse to see any options.Even where a medical need is obvious.

Tue, 09/11/2012 - 3:07am Permalink

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.