RALPH SECCOMBE. Drug Reform series-Production of illicit drugs – the balloon effect

Policy on illicit drugs should be developed on the basis that supply can never be cut off. Production is like a balloon: squeeze it in one place, but it will only bulge out elsewhere. This applies all the way to the consumer. There is no pricking this balloon under the present prohibition regime. While we naturally focus on harm suffered in Australia, we should not lose sight of the harm which international policies cause in countries from which we source the illicit drugs consumed here.

According to its website, the Australian Federal Police has the lead role relating to importing or exporting border-controlled drugs. This is certainly a job for life—for generations, in fact. The “war on drugs,” declared by President Nixon in 1971, continues unabated. The website of the AFP maintains the military terminology, proclaiming: “Complementing effective border control within Australia, the AFP works collaboratively with international jurisdictions to take the fight against drugs offshore….”

With what success? A high price is the most obvious indicator of shortage of a product. According to the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre, the price of a gram of cannabis remained stable over the period. For amphetamines, arrests and the number of detected laboratories rose but the price of powder decreased. The price of heroin showed a decrease, perhaps partly explained by low purity.

The evidence shows no success in the war on drugs. Efforts at seizure of illicit drugs are barely more than a charade. They are a nuisance and a cost to suppliers, but supply is not interrupted.

The war was never based on rationality or evidence. The attorney-general of South Australia has recently announced harsher penalties for possession of cannabis, citing a murder by a youth affected by alcohol, ecstasy and cannabis. Curiously, she did not call for penalties for the possession of alcohol. That is an example of the way in which the war on drugs is highly selective, avoiding substances which are embedded in Western culture. Imagine a different course of history leading to a solemn International Convention against Wine, Spirits and Other Alcoholic Substances. It would be no more arbitrary than the present international regime.

The outlawing of classes of drugs has pushed much of the production offshore, into countries with poor effectiveness of law enforcement (without suggesting that Australia’s is anything to boast about, as indicated above). For me in the early 1990s, Swat Valley, Pakistan, was a place where I could relax after a day’s work as a UN drugs official amid hillsides covered with opium poppy—illicit but no secret—in neighbouring Dir District, where the crop helped to fund guns which inhibited law enforcement. The heroin labs in nearby Khyber Agency were said to provide a steady sweetener for the top officials there. There was a vicious cycle in which the drug industry, corruption and violence (actual or threatened) promoted each other. It was a microcosm of the system which operates generally, for other drugs and other countries. Meanwhile, leaders of the UN drugs body made speeches about “ridding the world of the scourge of drugs”.

Fast forward: opium poppy cultivation in that area of Pakistan has declined—but what sort of triumph can the UN celebrate?

The 2018 World Drug Report refers to the work of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to improve capacities “to dismantle organized criminal groups and stop drug trafficking.” These aims are in the realm of fantasy. The same publication reported that total global opium production jumped by 65 per cent from 2016 to 2017, to 10,500 tons, easily the highest figure ever recorded by UNODC; it places in context the “successful” crop reduction in Pakistan. World cocaine seizures were at record levels—but so was use. The balloon effect, whereby a squeeze on production or supply in one area is answered by an increase elsewhere, operates perfectly.

As for Pakistan, that country remains among the 22 major illicit drug-producing and/or drug-transit countries, according to the United States International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2018. Another is Mexico, the drug country dominating our headlines. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, president-elect, is reported as committing to rethink Mexico’s devastating and highly militarised war on drugs, which experts blame for at least 200,000 deaths since 2006. And Sri Lanka has announced that it will hang drug dealers, to replicate the “success” of the campaigns of summary executions under President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Human rights were never a priority in the war on drugs.

The picture is not all bleak, with plenty of signs of emerging pragmatism in drug policy-making in jurisdictions from Portugal to California. It is therefore absurd of the United States to claim in that report, “fortunately, there is a strong global consensus in favour of vigorous enforcement efforts and sustained international cooperation to dismantle the transnational criminal organizations responsible for fueling drug addiction….” Another example of stark realism in drug policy-making.

On opium production in the world’s leading producer, the US report comments, “Illicit cultivation, production, trade, and use of illicit drugs undermine public health and good governance in Afghanistan, while fuelling corruption, providing significant funding for the insurgents [the Taliban], and eroding security.” That just about sums it up, the only major omission being that it is the illegality of the drugs under the present international regime which is the ultimate condition for all the resultant evils. Our policies are harming the international environment in which Australia seeks to carry out its foreign policy objectives.

It has long been clear that the war on drugs is an expensive failure. Illicit drugs will never be eliminated. What we need is some hard thinking about new policies to reduce the harm caused by drugs.

Ralph Seccombe is a former official of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and of the then United Nations International Drug Control Program (now the UN Office on Drugs and Crime), for which he was Field Adviser in Pakistan. He published “Squeezing the Balloon: international drugs policy” (Drug and Alcohol Review, 1995) and “Troublesome Boomerang: Illicit Drugs Policy and Security” (Security Dialogue, 1997).  ralphseccombe.com

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