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Danger zone switches from poppy field to the internet
date: 01-March-2006
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Holistic approach to the war on drugs? What are these people smoking?

CAN the “War on Drugs” ever be won? History is not encouraging — nor is the latest United Nations report on the state of hostilities.
The lessons are particularly depressing for Afghanistan and for the role that Britain has shouldered there. The best news is that use of heroin and cocaine is dropping in the US and some other countries. But their place has been taken by pharmaceutical and prescription drugs, made in developed countries, traded over the Internet and delivered by post.

The most threatening “pandemic”, warns Hamid Ghodse, President of the International Narcotics Control Board (ICRB), is of “crystal meth”, an addictive drug popular among clubbers and gay men.

There are not many success stories in this “war”, as US politicians call it, an expensive assault stretching back over more than 30 years.

Only five stand out. Most opium production has been driven out of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, and cocaine from Bolivia and Peru. That’s about it, however, for all the billions of dollars spent. It is right to ask whether the tactics are wrong.

That is the central question posed by this year’s survey from the ICRB. The Board has the job of reporting to the UN on countries’ compliance with drug control treaties.

It is at the lower end of influence of UN agencies and boards, it can probably be said. Countries’ policies are firmly rooted in national politics; the Board disapproved of Britain’s decision to downgrade the seriousness of cannabis, with zero discernible impact.

But its annual report does provide a good, tough assessment of trends in the world’s use of banned substances — and of which policies work or fail. If the US displays first the pattern which Europe tends to follow, then there are a few encouraging signs. The report notes a decline in the use of cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy in the US, “particularly among adolescents and youth”.

But it adds that this “is partly counteracted by an increase in the abuse of prescription drugs, in particular painkillers, among young adults” — and of crystal meth. The use of Internet-based pharmacies is soaring, it says. The overall use of drugs in the US is still very high. A little under 8 per cent of people aged 12 and over have used drugs in the past month.

Any hope in the report is eclipsed by the pessmism on the old problem of illegal crops in poor and lawless countries.

In Afghanistan, the report notes, opium production in 2005 was thought to be about 4,100 tons, “only 100 tons less than the record harvest of 2004”. It says that opium is “among the greatest threats to establishment of the rule of law and effective governance” and that it generates over half the Afghan national income.

No one could argue with that, least of all Britain, which has just committed thousands of troops to Helmand province, the heart of the Afghan heroin factory. The controversy lies in what to do.

The Board will not make itself popular — or more influential — with its advice. It criticises the “simplistic model” of “crop substitution”, the aim of anti-drug efforts for 30 years (and of Britain’s policy in Afghanistan). This is the hope that if you give farmers an alternative crop, which yields at least as much income, then they will give up the illegal one.

“Unfortunately, experience has shown that this narrow and mechanical approach has not been very effective”, it says.

That is true. But the Board’s recommendation is too vague for the real world of budgets and troops. It wants to see “alternative development” of the country to provide “holistic legitimate alternatives to people”. The drug war should be fought “in the context of sustainable development efforts and within the framework of a comprehensive solution.”

Countries will rightly object to this, not just because of the jargon, but because it gives no guidance on where to start. Yes, development will help wean farmers off illegal crops. But as the taste for prescription drugs in Western Europe and the US has shown, development does not stop people using drugs — or making them.

Report of the ICRB for 2005 available at www.incb.org

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