by Sarah McCulloch

Sarah McCulloch investigates how the war on drugs has shaped the world, the international costs of the billion–dollar trade and attempts to combat it.

“A drug-free world, we can do it!” was the slogan created by countries around the world when in 1998 they assembled at the UN to create a 10-year drug strategy. That strategy finished in 2008. Looking back over the past 10 years, the question must be asked: what has been achieved? Have the barons been beaten? Have drugs vanished from our streets? Have we now a “drug-free world”? Clearly the answer is no. In fact, the production, supply, and use of drugs have increased every year for decades, and the global drug trade is currently worth £160bn. Drugs now affect virtually every region of our planet.

The War on Drugs
The current “war on drugs”, as it has become known, began in America in 1969. Prior to this, drugs had been subject to varying degrees of regulation, with the US having a particularly restrictive drugs policy. As a result of the Opium Wars with China (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) and increasingly prohibitionist attitudes at home, America severely restricted the sale of opium, banned alcohol, restricted cannabis and began an international campaign for others to follow. By the 1930s, nearly all member states of the International Opium Convention had anti-cannabis laws. In 1969, to distract people from Vietnam, Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” and banned most of the drugs which remain illegal today. Efforts, both in America and across the world, to restrict the production and supply of drugs really took off in the 1970s and today billions of dollars is spent on law enforcement alone. However, the global drug trade has continued to flourish despite efforts to stamp it out; it is the third largest trade in the world, behind oil and arms.

America itself is the world’s largest consumer of drugs, as well as its harshest policeman, with over 40% of the USA’s 2.3 million prison population jailed for non-violent drug offences. Almost one in three black men have been through the criminal justice system because of this. The stigma was not helped by the Higher Education Act, which banned anyone with criminal convictions from receiving federal student loans, though campaigning by Students for Sensible Drug Policy USA has been partially effective: now only people convicted during their studies have their funding withdrawn. This has affected over 200,000 students. Worse still, Derek Copp, a student in Michigan, was shot in the chest by police in March during a drugs raid on his apartment – a small amount of marijuana was subsequently found in his possession

A Global Phenomenon
The American trend has been reflected worldwide. Afghanistan was invaded in 2001 in retaliation for 9/11. Unfortunately this backfired on the invading countries as opium, which had been banned by the Taliban, suddenly became much more lucrative than wheat, and production exploded. Afghanistan currently supplies more than 90% of the world’s heroin. Occupying forces have tried everything from destroying poppy fields, thereby fuelling support for the Taliban, to buying the crops up and then destroying them, which was expensive and resulted in even more farmers cultivating opium to cash in. No strategy has yet succeeded in reducing opium production in Afghanistan.

Colombia is similarly dependent on cocaine. The government has effectively been dismantled as drug money is used to bribe and corrupt in favour of powerful drug cartels. The US has taken to spraying coca crops with herbicides in an effort to destroy the trade but has only succeeding in reducing poor Colombian farmers to even greater poverty, as their cash crops and food crops are destroyed in equal measure. And this misery is all for nothing – coca crop production has actually risen by 23% since crop spraying began.

Breaking the habit
Once the cocaine is produced in Columbia, it is smuggled through the Caribbean to be distributed all over the world. British efforts to wipe out the gangs which operate there have had a devastating effect, with almost £3bn being poured into supporting anti-drug campaigns every year. However, as soon as a crackdown begins on one Caribbean island, the trade simply moves elsewhere, taking its turf wars, blood feuds and gang violence with it. Every so often, British-sponsored drug squads target and eliminate the gang kingpins, which results in mass homicides as the lieutenants fight it out to take over. Even though the local populace strongly support measures to end drug use and trade, the government’s strategies have simply resulted in more violence, more deaths, and greater profits to the crime lords. Cocaine addicts can actually seek treatment at a residential cocaine rehabilitation center there, but not too many ever do.

A spreading poison
Nevetheless, drug dealers in the Caribbean are starting to feel the heat. The trade hasn’t been killed off however – it‘s simply starting to move elsewhere, to places such as Africa. Although some countries have been favourites for years (the UN estimates that Nigerian syndicates control 50% of the world’s heroin supply), gangs have begun to move into many other countries in Africa, such as the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Senegal in West Africa and Ethiopia, Kenya, Botswana and Zambia in the East and South. These countries have become new and burgeoning drug trafficking centres, with little legal consequence: civil strife, wars, poverty, crime and corruption are all major barriers to law enforcement and excellent conditions under which drug smugglers thrive. Africa Renewal, a UN publication, believes that “although in global terms Africa’s drug problem is insignificant, it is threatening to add another impediment to the continent’s development efforts.” It remains to be seen how Africa’s future will be affected by the global drug trade.

And so the drug wars continue to rage on all over the world. While the damage done by the misuse of drugs themselves seems to be limited to the individual and their immediate communities, the efforts to stamp out the drug trade are far more widespread, exacerbating existing problems associated with the trade as well as producing new ones. Prohibition of drugs, like the prohibition of alcohol, needs to be rethought if we are to have a real effect. The new UN drug strategy has wisely dropped any slogans, but has kept the same strategy, even though the drug trade has flourished under it. A drug-free world – did we do it? Nowhere near.

For other articles on activism or drug law reform, please visit my pages on Activism.