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The UK drug problem in global perspective: the current international anti-drug model - subscribed to by the UK - results in far more harm than good.

A mid recession and the credit crisis, one sector of the British economy continues to thrive - the trade in illicit drugs. Worth an estimated [pounds sterling]5.3 billion, the booming UK drugs market is dynamic and ever expanding. Over the last decade it has made the UK a European leader in Class A drug consumption (cocaine, heroin and Ecstasy), cannabis use, home production of cannabis and in the numbers of 'harm causing' drug users. This is an inglorious domestic picture, and it is overlaid with a rise in drug-related violence and organised crime. But Britain's drug problem does not end here. Foreign policy engagement in Afghanistan and Colombia, the world's leading producers of opium and cocaine respectively, has coincided with a rise in both states in drug crop cultivation, drug manufacture and drug trafficking. This has financed insurgency in both countries, while undermining prospects for security, peace and development - the initial justification for UK military and financial assistance. The picture in Afghanistan is particularly dire. According to the United Nations World Drug Report, in 2001 - the year that the US led Operation Enduring Freedom was launched - Afghanistan produced 185 metric tonnes of opium. By 2007 the country was producing 8,200 metric tonnes, or 92 per cent of global opium supply. The sharpest rise in opium poppy cultivation and opium production was in Helmand Province, the centre of UK deployment, which has received over [pounds sterling]250 million in UK counter-narcotics assistance.

There is something clearly wrong with the UK's anti-drug strategy; and over the last decade increasingly cogent critiques of national drug policy have emerged. Articulated by think tanks and charities, academics and policy units, and by parliamentarians such as Paul Flynn, Harry Cohen, Lembit Opik and Evan Harris, these feed into a broader international wave of concern that the model of international drug control overseen by the UN through its Office on Drugs and Crime, and of which the UK is a part, is doing more harm than good. From this critical perspective, we are currently locked into an archaic international control model that has set unachievable goals, and which is counter-productive, anti-developmental, unjust and profoundly iatrogenic - the cure is worse than the disease. Those most harmed by current national and international strategy are the poor, the vulnerable and the socially marginalised, from Southern Afghanistan to Southern England. There is now growing pressure for a rethink of the guiding principles of drug control, principally from the countries of Latin America, Europe and Asia.

The urgency of reform has become all the more pressing since the end of the cold war. The narcotic drug trade has thrived in global free markets, prospering amid the deregulation of transport, finance, travel and employment. New markets and trafficking routes have opened up, with countries and regions such as the old Soviet block, China, the Caribbean and West Africa presenting lucrative new opportunities for illicit business expansion. The drugs trade has also become embedded in transnational crime and - after a fall off in superpower financing - 'narco' funding for insurgency, conflict, paramilitary violence and terrorism. A surge in HIV Aids infection linked to the injecting of heroin has followed in the trade's wake; an estimated 10 per cent of new global HIV infections are linked to injecting drug use. Environmental degradation due to illegal planting of drug crops and the production of cocaine and heroin has also increased exponentially. It is estimated that 600 million litres of chemicals are used annually in drug production in South America. According to the US Department of State, two metric tonnes of chemical waste is generated for every hectare of coca processed into cocaine in Peru. Figures released by the Colombian National Police show that conversion of one hectare of coca into cocaine base and cocaine requires 10 litres of sulphuric acid, 38 litres of acetone and 2 kilos of permanganate, and the total amount of gasoline required for annual cocaine production is equivalent to 6.8 days of gasoline consumption for the whole of the country. The current international control model, structured by 13 international conventions signed since 1912, but principally guided by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, is simply not up to the task of addressing the new, more complex challenges of the modern world.

These are daunting times that require informed and objective debate. Unfortunately this shows no sign of emerging in the UK, where parliamentary discussion of drugs is naive, the recommendations of expert commissions are routinely rejected by policy-makers, and the majority of the print media propagate a strong, sensationalist anti-reform message. A reflective position on drugs is seen as a no-go for politicians and national government. As the Home Affairs committee noted in its Third Report, The Government's Drug Policy: Is it Working?: 'with a handful of brave exceptions ... drugs policy is an area where British politicians have feared to tread'. The end result is a vicious cycle of populist rhetoric, which panders to the prejudices and fears of a nation that is, by European standards, poorly educated about drugs. The recent national debate on the increase in cocaine use encapsulated this problem. MPs made a strong link between the rise in cocaine consumption and its (very public) use by celebrities. This view was echoed in the media, by the police and in government anti-drugs campaigns. Discussion of the main and more complex drivers of the increase, such as the fall in price and increased availability of supply, went largely ignored. As the UK was impacted by changing international supply routes and reconfigurations of the international supply chain, Kate Moss was the epicentre of our national debate on cocaine.

The international drug control model

The idea that nation states should work collectively together to limit the harm caused by intoxicating substances was first set out by US Evangelical Christian missionaries more than a century ago. They found the unregulated trade in opium - in which the UK had traditionally been the dominant actor - morally repugnant and an impediment to conversion in the South East Asian countries in which they were operating. After the US acquired the Philippines from Spain following its victory in the Spanish American war of 1898, the Roosevelt government came under strong pressure from the evangelical lobby to ban the retail trade in opium that had been operated by the Spanish in the territory. It conceded to these demands, and also to the missionaries' request that it should engage in 'narco-diplomacy' and convene an international conference to explore restrictions on the opium trade.

The principles and objectives of drug control that were set out by the US at the first international drug conference in Shanghai in 1909 frame the contemporary control system of today. These include the goal of prohibition - a world free from the cultivation, production, trafficking and consumption of harmful substances; criminalisation of the non-medical use and trade in harmful, controlled substances; and multilateral cooperation. From this has flowed an emphasis on punishment and enforcement in drug policy (thereby institutionalising the police and security services as the primary actors in drug control), underpinned by strategies that include the incarceration of individuals, forced eradication of drug crops and the destruction of production facilities and trafficking networks. Importantly, the orientation of drug control from the outset was towards supply rather than demand-side control. Eliminating the market in harmful and intoxicating substances was seen to be achievable by terminating the supply of opium poppy, coca and their derivative products at source in countries such as China, India, Turkey, the Balkans, Peru and Bolivia. The role of demand was not addressed, and with drug use simplistically conceptualised as a failure of moral will, repression was prioritised over treatment and prevention.

Approaches framed in a period of colonialism, racism and Social Darwinism, and before the professionalisation of medicine, still shape the international response to the complex globalised drug markets of the contemporary period. Across the course of the last one hundred years, there has been no revisiting of these basic concepts. On the contrary, the six international drug control conventions and protocols that came into force during the inter-war period, and the seven that followed after the second world war, have reasserted and reinforced founding assumptions. This is deeply problematic given the accumulation of evidence that a drug-free world is an unrealisable objective, and that the costs of continuing to pursue it far outweigh any net attainable benefits.

Prohibition as utopia

Civilisations have ingested intoxicating and hallucinogenic drugs for thousands of years. With the exception of the Inuit, all societies have a social and cultural history of drug use. This has prompted anthropologists to consider the extent to which the desire for 'out of body' experiences is as innate to human nature as breathing, sex and eating. The US-led puritan drive for abstinence and godliness sits uncomfortably alongside this reality of human enquiry and free will. For it is arguable that achieving prohibition would require a fundamental transformation of society and individuals, a goal that is impossible to achieve without social reprogramming or brutally intensive surveillance.

Aside from debates over human nature and freedom of choice, a more fundamental problem with prohibition is that it is trumped by basic market forces. Consider the following. Coca, opium poppy and cannabis are essentially weeds and shrubs that are easy to produce and which can be cultivated in the most marginal of environments. Prohibiting them (except for medical and scientific research) has served to create a flourishing illicit market, which is unregulated, which cannot be taxed, and in which contracts can only be enforced through violence or the threat of violence. Today's illicit trade is estimated to be worth $94 billion at the wholesale level and $322 billion at the retail level. This is higher than the GDP of all sub-Saharan African countries combined, and the figure is larger than the total global market for meat ($52.5 billion), tobacco ($21.6 billion) and coffee ($5.7 billion). The incentives to engage in the illicit trade are high, particularly for the estimated 4 million men, women and children who are engaged in drug crop cultivation because of poverty, marginalisation and insecurity. At all levels of the illicit drug chain, engagement in production, trafficking and distribution is more lucrative and reliable than employment in the formal economy. The risks are high, but the rewards are substantial.

It is precisely because of the profit incentives generated by the illegality of drugs that any one step forward, or short-term success, in the 'war on drugs' leads to two steps backwards and long-term defeat. The market logic here is simple. Programmes to eradicate drug crops, such as the US-sponsored Plan Colombia in Colombia, or seizures of drug trans-shipments, have the effect of reducing supply. This in turn drives prices up, increasing the incentive for new sources to come into a global market characterised by low entry costs and few barriers. This reality contradicts the flawed premise of drug control, that supply reductions will drive up cost, thereby making drugs unaffordable for users and leading to market collapse. In the UK, where we have laboured under the illusion that enforcement is effective, ever-increasing custom seizures (for example, the doubling of Class A drug seizures in England and Wales between 1996 and 2005) have had no impact on price, purity or availability. UK drug markets, as with drug markets in other countries of the world, have proved resilient, adaptive and impervious to law enforcement.

A related problem here is the 'balloon effect'. Because of the price incentives in the illicit trade, successful suppression in one area causes the trade to be displaced, resurfacing elsewhere. Squeezing the trade is just like squeezing a balloon - the drugtrade, like the air in a balloon, simply pops up elsewhere. This phenomenon has been observed repeatedly in all areas of the drug trade chain. The end result - and the situation that we inherit in the current period - is one of fragmentation of the illicit market, which has become more complex and more difficult to control.

For example, and starting with the cultivation of drug crops, 'success' in reducing opium cultivation in the traditional producer states of the Golden Triangle (Thailand, Myanmar and Laos) in the 1970s and 1980s has been offset by a rise in cultivation and production in the Golden Crescent (Pakistan and more specifically Afghanistan). Similarly, coca cultivation eradication exercises in Peru and Bolivia served only to shift the locus of the cocaine trade to Colombia. This ballooning is observable within, as well as between, states. For example, progress in reducing opium poppy cultivation in Northern Afghanistan has led to the relocation of cultivation to the country's Southern provinces. In Colombia, reductions in coca cultivation in the traditional growing areas of Putumayo, Norte de Santander and Guaviare has been countered by rising cultivation in Boyaca, Meta, Antioquia and Bolivar. And the balloon effect in cultivation also helps to account for the surge in the home cultivation of cannabis in the UK. Traditionally, the British cannabis market has been supplied by cultivating states such as Morocco, Lebanon and Afghanistan. However, success in reducing supply from these countries (through customs seizures in the UK and the provision of development assistance to the source countries) led to a decline the availability of cannabis. This was rapidly filled by home production, with the use of hydroponic growing kits and imported seeds. A study by South Bank University's Criminal Policy Research Unit and the National Addiction Centre at King's College London, estimated that as much as half of the cannabis consumed in England and Wales may now be grown here. And in contrast to the milder forms of cannabis, with lower psychoactive THC content, that was previously imported from overseas, home-produced cannabis is stronger and more potent, as a result of economies of scale and seed supply. So while Moroccan cannabis has a THC content of about 5 per cent, UK grown skunk has a 15 per cent THC content.

Ballooning in cultivation patterns has had knock-on implications for drug trafficking routes and trafficking organisations. It has enabled geographically dispersed actors to enter the illicit trade while opening up new and populous markets. For example, with the centralisation of opium and heroin production in Afghanistan in the 1990s and 2000s, Central Asia, the Balkans and eastern European countries emerged as new corridors of access to buoyant Western European markets, with ethnic ties and migration patterns transforming organisational and trafficking structures across continents. These transit regions have also become important consumer states in their own right, part of a new post cold war trend of drug consumption increasing in developing countries that were formerly insulated from the trade. Problematically, this pattern of displacement and fragmentation has been accelerated by enforcement efforts. A cogent example here is the situation in the cocaine markets. In an effort to halt the traffic of cocaine (as well as cannabis and heroin) from South to North America, US counter-narcotics efforts over recent years have focused on sealing the transit corridors in Central America, and, with the help of the UK Royal Navy, the Caribbean. The impact of this strategy has been a reorientation of drug trafficking routes. These now run from Colombia, through Venezuela and Brazil, to West Africa. From the poor, fragile and post-conflict states in this region, the drug then transits to markets in Europe through entry points in Spain and the Netherlands. This, rather than Kate Moss's social life, is the context of the UK cocaine 'surge'.

Just as eliminating one supply source or transit route creates a plethora of new ones, so eliminating a major cartel or trafficking gang creates space for rivals. Over the last two decades, international drug control agencies have enjoyed success in removing drug 'king pins' such as Pablo Escobar in Colombia, Khun Sa in Myanmar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Afghanistan. But this has had no impact on volumes of traffic. On the contrary, the volume has increased, as large, hierarchical organisations have been supplanted by smaller, more compact, agile and diffusely organised supercartelitos or boutique cartels, which criss-cross the globe and which are intermeshed with transnational criminal organisations. Running parallel with this, there has been a sharp rise in drug-related violence, as smaller gangs fight for control of market share, and as the lines of authority and control, which were traditionally exercised by major cartels, disintegrate. Mexico is a tragic example of the disintegration and bloodshed that ensues from conflict between rival factions competing for lucrative illicit market share. In the last year, more than 5700 people have been killed in drug-related violence in the country, a doubling of the drug-related mortality figures recorded in 2007. According to Adam Thompson, writing in the Financial Times, the trafficking market in Mexico is worth some $13.8 billion ('Mexico helpless as drugs war rages', FT 4.12.08). Efforts by US and Mexican authorities to curtail the traffic through military force, as financed by the US-sponsored Merida Initiative, have served only to exacerbate the violence. In Mexico, as in countries as diverse as Brazil, Thailand, Sierra Leone, the US and the UK, trafficking gangs have responded to state violence by increasing their own defensive capabilities. The end result is a chronic deterioration in security and stability.

In terms of consumption, the drug control model has also proved utterly ineffective. More people are consuming drugs today than at any point in the previous one hundred years. There are an estimated 165 million cannabis users worldwide, 23.7 million ATS users, 16 million cocaine users and 16 million opiate users (of which 11 million are heroin users). More woman consume drugs today than ever before, people are initiated into drug use at a younger age, and drug 'careers' now last longer. In sum, drugs are no longer something that rich, white, young western males briefly experiment with before their entry into the responsible world of marriage and work - as was the case in the 1960s. Consumption patterns have proved remarkably adaptive and resilient. Punitive responses, as outlined in the international conventions and implemented through national legislative frameworks, have had no impact on drug use or intention to use. Moreover, enforcement - and eliminating the supply of one type of drug - has not reduced overall consumption levels. The increase in prices resulting from a shortage of supply rarely acts as a deterrent to purchase and consumption, undermining a key premise of the control system. When it does, users simply switch to a different drug (such as amphetamine), or, as in the case of heroin, dependent users turn to acquisitive crime in order to increase their purchasing power. This explains the often observed pattern in UK communities of successful drug raids generating an increase in crime, drug-related violence and ultimately the local supply of drugs.

'Successful' enforcement against drug users and distributors also has serious and negative public health impacts. For example, a diminution of supply typically leads to the 'cutting' or dilution of drugs such as heroin with other (sometimes lethal) substances. As a result of prohibition approaches, users are already ignorant of the content, quality and quantity of the drugs that they are ingesting; and market disruption serves only to heighten susceptibility to illness, infection, overdose and death. Similarly, 'clampdowns' on users through stop and search techniques also increase the risk of individual and public harm. Heroin users tend not to carry injecting equipment if they think they may be approached by the police. This in turn results in increased sharing of needles, which results in a heightened risk of HIV Aids, Hepatitis B and C and other blood born diseases.

More harm than good

As discussed at the beginning of this article, the impacts of unsuccessful drug control are disproportionately born by the most vulnerable sections of global society. Despite growing evidence of the regressive and counterproductive effects of drug policy, the UN Office for Drugs and Crime has significantly failed to address or mitigate these impacts; the international community remains wedded to a model that exacerbates problems of underdevelopment, poverty, social breakdown and deprivation. Some factual examples illustrate this argument.

The bulk of counter narcotics spending continues to be focused on enforcement and interdiction, in line with the supply orientation of the Christian missionary lobby a century ago: it is security sector agencies (private and public sector) that benefit from the bulk of counter-narcotics financing. Demand-side issues - such as treatment, rehabilitation, education and prevention - suffer a deficit in spending, even though these interventions have been repeatedly shown to be more cost effective and successful in reducing drug use. According to the Rand Corporation, $12 has to be spent on enforcement to have the equivalent effect to $1 spent on treatment.

The UK currently spends roughly equal amounts on enforcement and treatment: a 2003 report by the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit put the allocation of spending at [pounds sterling]480 million per year on demand prevention and [pounds sterling]450 million on reducing the supply of class A drugs (monies to the police, Serious Organised Crime Agency, Customs and Excise, etc). In the US, the world's leading consumer nation, 70 per cent of federal resources are ring-fenced for supply-focused activities and just 30 per cent for demand-side initiatives. But the supply-side orientation has failed to reduce the supply of drugs, in part because it does not address the profit incentives to engage in supply but also because enforcement activities are disproportionately directed at the least important elements of the drug chain: peasant cultivators, petty dealers and drug addicts. For example, in the UK, 74 per cent of heroin seizures, 70 per cent of crack seizures and 61 per cent of cocaine seizures between 1996 and 2005 were of less than one gram in weight. Further to this, supply-focused activities (drug crop eradication, interdiction) are concentrated in source countries. However, the value of the global illicit market at the producer levels is just $12.8 billion. The majority of profits - an estimated 90 per cent - is realised at the wholesale and retail end. The value of drugs such as cocaine and heroin increases by a staggering 2412 per cent between the farm gate in Colombia and Afghanistan and the consumers in the UK and the US. And yet it is the source countries that are the focus of intelligence, eradication and interdiction efforts.

Moreover the impact of these external interventions in source countries is deeply problematic and structurally imbalanced. The majority of drug crop cultivators are impoverished and marginalised peasants, whose livelihoods and security depend on drug crop cultivation in the absence of legitimate, viable economic alternatives. However, addressing the development needs of these communities has not been a primary concern for the UNODC or consumer nations, despite rhetoric of shared responsibility. Financing for alternative development programmes that would allow for the integration of cultivating communities into the formal economy on a sustainable basis has been chronically low. The bulk of funding continues to be reserved for (Western-defined) security imperatives, to the detriment of source country development. The most notorious example of this skewing of budgets is the US sponsored Plan Colombia, which was launched by US president Bill Clinton in 1999. Of the initial budget allocation of $1.6 billion, just 8 per cent was dedicated to development and justice sector reform. The remainder was allocated to the military and police for training, weapons purchases and enforcement activities. A similar pattern is observable in Afghanistan, where UK and international assistance for alternative development has been massively overshadowed by security sector support and technical training. This is justified on the basis that security has to be established in order to create an enabling environment and entry points for development assistance.

The fundamental flaw here is that ongoing cultivation finances insurgency and conflict, in turn increasing pressures to allocate more funding to the security sector. In addition, the type of security support financed and proffered by countries such as the UK is 'hard' security, focused on strengthening a weak and usually illegitimate state. It does not focus on 'soft' security', which is to say the localised security needs of cultivators. In this context, efforts to eliminate drug crops through strategies of forced eradication have served only to increase cultivator support for insurgent groups, which are seen as the protectors of cultivator security, interests and livelihoods.

Another example relates to trafficking. It is increasingly recognised that the majority of arrested 'mules' and smugglers coming into the UK are typically poor young women, single mothers from poorer countries. These are operators on the lowest rung of the smuggling chain, increasingly used by trafficking gangs in order to minimise the risk of bulk consignment seizure. The majority are unaware of the severity of the penalties that they face on arrest (up to fourteen years imprisonment), and when they are incarcerated in foreign jails their children are left vulnerable and sometimes abandoned back in the home country. But it is to be noted that the UK spends five times more money imprisoning female mules from Jamaica than it allocates to the country in development assistance.

The issue of imprisonment also leads to debate around the utility and impacts of criminalisation. The punishment and incarceration of drug 'offenders' has damaging implications for their families, their children and their own long-term opportunities, particularly for the majority of drug users, who are non-problematic, occasional consumers. Imprisonment is also morally and medically questionable in relation to drug addicts. Chronic limitations in referral and support services mean that prisons internationally are not positioned to offer treatment or support to drug users, or assistance in breaking the cycle of damaging and problem behaviour that drives problem drug use and crime. In the UK, for example, where drug-related crime costs an estimated [pounds sterling]13.5 billion per year, the UK Drug Policy Commission found in its March 2008 report Reducing Drug Use, Reducing Offending, that 1 in 8 arrestees (equivalent to about 125,000 people in England and Wales) were problem heroin and/or crack users, compared with 1 in 100 of the general population. Of arrestees who used heroin and/or crack at least once a week, 81 per cent said they had committed an acquisitive crime in the previous 12 months, compared with 30 per cent of other arrestees. One third reported an average of at least one crime a day. In recognition of the link between problem drug use (by a small minority of drug users) and crime, the UK government has placed more emphasis on treatment and integrated referral services in its last two Ten Year Drug strategy papers. Investment in prison treatment in England and Wales increased from [pounds sterling]7 million in 1997/98 to [pounds sterling]80 million in 2007/08; the number of prisoners on maintenance-prescribing or detoxification programmes in prison in England and Wales increased from under 14,000 in 1996/97 to over 51,500 in 2006/07; and there are now a number of integrated interventions available. However, the UKDPC found that prison drug services: 'fall short of even minimum standards', and new strategies had been poorly monitored. As a result: 'we know remarkably little about what works and for whom'.

Community provision is also well below need. In its 2003 report, the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit put the number of harm causing problematic users at 280,000 (mainly heroin and crack consuming) people, causing [pounds sterling]5bn of health and social harm and [pounds sterling]16bn of crime harm - including 80 per cent of burglaries, 54 per cent of robberies and 45 per cent of fraud. Each user was estimated to cause [pounds sterling]75,000 of harm each year, of which [pounds sterling]60,000 was crime related. Only 20 per cent of these 'harm causing' drug users were in treatment, and of the 130,000 problematic drug users that entered the criminal justice system, only 17,000 ended up in treatment. The Home Affairs committee concluded its enquiry into the government's drug strategy by stating that General Practitioners 'are, for the most part, inadequately trained to deal with drug misuse'.

While efforts to address treatment needs should be welcomed, a sobering concluding finding is that, according to the RSA Drugs Commission Report of 2007 (Drugs: Facing the Facts), those most vulnerable to problematic drug use in the UK are those who have been in care, in trouble with the police, excluded from school, or who are unemployed or homeless (one in three problem drug users are homeless or in need of housing support). Nearly two-thirds of female drug users contacting treatment services had been physically abused, and more than one-third sexually abused by a family member or family friend. Given this, an alternative approach to current strategy would be one that addressed problematic drug use through social investment, effective welfare provision and employment creation, not incarceration. Deprivation, not deviance, is the driver of our current national drug 'problem'.


Stricter, tighter and better enforcement of drug laws, as frequently called for by backbenchers, cabinet ministers and government officials, simply will not work. There needs to be a realistic and comprehensive re-examination of the guiding principles of drug control, and serious questioning of the workings of the UNODC. Informed, evidence-based analysis, which locates the UK drug problem in global context, needs to be brought to the table, and policy responses must be more attuned to the factors of poverty, inequality and exclusion that drive the illicit trade. At a more basic level, it has to be recognised that it is only the illegality of cheap shrubs and weeds that makes them so lucrative and destabilising. Nothing epitomises the tragic failure of officials and elected representatives to get to grips with the challenges we face than the recent, absurd debate on the reclassification of cannabis from a class C to a class B drug. That, and Jacqui Smith's arrogant dismissal of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommendations, demonstrates how far we have to go in having an informed public debate, and the seriousness of the threats that officials expose us to.
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Author:Buxton, Julia
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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