There are some high profile diplomatic meetings coming up regarding Afghanistan, but in Vienna over the past two weeks, a conference took place that could have far more of an effect on success or failure there. The United Nations’ Commission on Narcotic Drugs has convened for the last two weeks. Reuters reported on the first week of the conference:
U.N. members are expected to sign a declaration this week extending for another 10 years a “war on drugs” policy critics say is flawed and only feeds organised crime, helps spread HIV and undermines governments.
The U.N. drug strategy declaration, due to be signed in Vienna on Wednesday or Thursday, marks the culmination of a year of divisive talks among member states to try to agree a unified counter-narcotics policy for the next decade.
At the last convention in 1998, the slogan “A drug free world — we can do it” launched a campaign to eradicate all narcotics, from cannabis to heroin, by using law enforcement to tackle producers, traffickers and end users globally.
Needless to say, this effort fell far short of its goals. Hundreds of millions of people across the globe still use and sell illegal narcotics. As the Reuters article points out, the real consequences of this international circus act have been disastrous:
Drug policy campaigners, social scientists and health experts argue that strategy has failed, with statistics showing that drug production, trafficking and use have all soared during the decade, while the cost of law enforcement, both financially and socially, has rocketed, with vast numbers imprisoned.
In the United States, where illegal drug use is highest, the government spends around $70 billion a year to combat drugs. But illegal drug use has risen steadily over the past decade and a fifth of the prison population is there for drug offences.
Of course, that’s only a small part of the disaster. It has turned Mexico and our inner cities into war zones. It has created an atmosphere of fear and hostility between law abiding citizens and the police. And on the world stage, it threatens to undermine NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan.
One of the promises of the Obama Administration was to restore a commitment to science-based policy over ideological posturing. When it comes to drug policy, they’re moving in the right direction, but still have a way to go before truly fulfilling that promise.
Within international drug policy, the sticky point is the term “harm reduction.” Ideas like needle exchanges, safe sites, decriminalization for users and addicts, and the legal markets for cannabis are the main examples of harm reduction. In areas where these harm reduction methods have been tried, the negative overall effects of drug abuse – from overdoses to petty crime to street violence – have been reduced. It’s virtually impossible to find public health experts who’ve studied this subject who will say that these tactics don’t work. While the Obama Administration has been willing to endorse needle exchanges, they’ve been balking at endorsing other proven strategies:
In a statement explaining the White House opposition to harm reduction, Geoffrey R. Pyatt, deputy chief of the U.S. mission to the U.N. in Vienna, emphasized the administration’s support for needle exchange programs and “other evidence-based approaches to reduce the negative health and social consequences of drug abuse, including access to medication-assisted treatment for narcotic addiction.”
“However,” Pyatt continued, “the United States continues to believe that the term ‘harm reduction’ is ambiguous. It is interpreted by some to include practices that the United States does not wish to endorse.”
Such practices, according to State Department spokeswoman Laura Tischler, include drug legalization, drug consumption rooms, heroin prescription initiatives and programs to provide drug paraphernalia that has no tangible health benefit to the user.
By claiming that heroin prescription initiatives, drug consumption rooms, and legalization have no benefits, Tischler is very blatantly putting ideology ahead of science. Vancouver’s IN-SITE program, which allows for drug addicts to have a safe medical setting to feed their addictions, has been such a success in helping people get clean (and to reduce the collateral damage that generally comes with addiction) that an official from the Harper Government last year publicly rebuked the government’s attempts to close it. Everyone from Vancouver city officials to the police to health experts have been fighting to keep the program running. In Switzerland, their heroin prescription program has been so successful that voters there overwhelmingly voted to continue it. In Zurich, the number of new heroin addicts has plummeted by nearly 90% since they launched their program in the mid-90s.
Glenn Greenwald traveled to Portugal last year for the Cato Institute to study the effects of drug decriminalization in that nation. The Portuguese didn’t just decriminalize marijuana either, they decriminalized all personal drug use, including cocaine and heroin. Here’s what he found:
Evaluating the policy strictly from an empirical perspective, decriminalization has been an unquestionable success, leading to improvements in virtually every relevant category and enabling Portugal to manage drug-related problems (and drug usage rates) far better than most Western nations that continue to treat adult drug consumption as a criminal offense.
Yet in Vienna this past week, the United States sided with Cuba, China, Russia, and Iran in preventing the declaration from containing anything about harm reduction. In the eyes of the world’s most authoritarian regimes, “harm reduction” is seen as an encouragement to do drugs, even though the reality has long been that harm reduction methods have not led to greater amounts of drug use. This decision was made under the direction of the outgoing interim Drug Czar, Ed Jurith, and not the recently appointed Gil Kerlikowske.
The proper analogy here, as this Students for Sensible Drug Policy post on the conference points out, is that harm reduction is to drug use as birth control is to sex. The pursuit of both sex and drugs is a part of human nature. The idea that institutions can establish effective barriers against these human impulses has repeatedly been shown to be folly. The role that institutions should play is to ensure that these impulses have the least negative impact on others. That’s the point of harm reduction, and by every measure, it works far better than trying to use law enforcement to stamp out the behavior altogether.
This failure in American policy isn’t just resulting in more crime and more wasted taxpayer dollars. It’s also undermining our efforts in Afghanistan. As we continue to strong-arm our European allies to take a more hard-line (and ineffective) approach to reducing drug use, the Taliban increasingly profit from the inflated prices. They profit both by protecting traffickers (and farmers) from the law and by participating in the trade directly. Afghanistan still produces around 90% of the world’s heroin, which accounts for somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the entire nation’s GDP. Much of this profit goes towards weapons used to kill coalition troops.
Much of the exported heroin from Afghanistan heads west through Iran or northwest through Russia on its way west. As a result, Russia and Iran now have two of the largest heroin addiction problems in the world. Those two notoriously authoritarian regimes both make attempts to downplay the problem while also demanding the most authoritarian response. In fact, Iran’s drug war solutions tend to look a lot like ours:
According to the figures released by Iran’s Drug Control Headquarters, Tehran spent over 600 million dollars in the two years leading to October 2008, to dig canals, build barriers and install barbed wire to seal off the country’s borders.
The result is that while the troops who fight alongside us in Afghanistan are Canadian, Dutch, French, and British, our approach to dealing with the illegal opium trade is more in line with what Russia and Iran advocate. As a result, the number of coalition troops who’ve lost their lives there has steadily risen over the past five years, and our relationship with NATO allies has been strained. When it comes to how to deal with the opium, we’re agreeing with nations we tend to consider enemies, while our strongest allies are seeing their brave young men and women being killed every day as a result.
The Taliban of today is not the Taliban of 2001, which used both religious sentiments against drugs and western aid to massively reduce the amount of opium produced there. The Taliban today is much more driven by nationalism and much more willing to profit from this trade. As a result, they’re once again threatening to overtake the regime in Kabul. They also have strong ties to anti-western radicals within Pakistan, which has the potential to turn the problem in Afghanistan into something worse altogether.
It’s been encouraging to see more and more media outlets correctly illustrate the dynamics of what’s currently happening in Mexico. There seems to be a growing understanding that the alarming amount of violence there is driven by American demand for illegal drugs and cannot be defeated with a military response. What we can’t afford to have right now is the same dynamic playing out in the lawless areas of Pakistan, where a populace largely sympathetic to radicalism has been put in a position to profit handsomely from the opium trafficking that we’re trying to push out of Afghanistan.
Up until now, the residents of the border area of Pakistan have been able to keep themselves isolated from Islamabad’s reach, but they don’t currently threaten the government itself. That could change if control of the opium trade ends up in their hands. And that’s exactly what our strategy in Afghanistan appears likely to do.
Just as the drug crackdown in the United States – the one that has filled our prisons to record numbers – has done nothing more than create a war south of the border, our ongoing belief that victory in Afghanistan comes from defeating the opium traffickers rather than building up stable Afghan institutions will only result in the same thing over there – a war south of that border as well.
Limiting the amount of money being made through the opium trade can only be done one way – by limiting the demand. A number of nations, including some of our closest allies, are figuring out how to do this effectively. Unfortunately, America’s anti-drug officials are still fighting them on purely ideological grounds. They’re ignoring evidence and avoiding debate. It’s time that we have an administration that allows for a fully open discussion on these issues that values empirical evidence over fear mongering. If not, Afghanistan will most certainly be to Obama what Iraq was to Bush.