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Is drug policy a human rights abuser?

In Latin America, washed along by the flow of blood, a feeling that the ‘war on drugs’ may have been lost has stirred, and has caused a reassessment of prohibition, a policy that a new report claims “is driven by moralism rather than empirical research”.

‘Narcophobia: drugs prohibition and the generation of human rights abuses’, authored by Dick Hobbs from the UK’s London School of Economics (LSE) and Brazilian journalist Fernanda Mena, further states that drug “prohibition enforcement has hindered the advancement of democracy and led to violence and increases in human rights abuses”.

The report attempts to demonstrate that there are global implications for drug laws as this huge global industry has devastating effects on poor producer nations, such as Burma.

Burma is the second largest producer and exporter of heroin in the world after Afghanistan. Coupled with this, the country has witnessed a dramatic increase in the production, export and consumption of methamphetamine. Australia-based Burma expert Desmond Ball estimated that the trade could account for as much as 50 percent of the country’s foreign currency earnings; needless to say little of this finds its way towards developing the country.

In growing and producing these two valuable, addictive commodities, Burma is in the grip of a drugs war that despite efforts by numerous countries and international bodies sees no sign of abating. In fact, it is arguably Burma’s most robust industry, with farm gate prices of opium rising at around 15 percent year on year.

Prohibition, meanwhile, has occurred on an international scale ever since the 1909 Shanghai conference at which global leaders, lead by the West, instigated the approach. But, Mena tells DVB, “the idea of banning drugs from the contemporary world is a utopia that was raised one century ago based on moral and commercial grounds much more than on evidences that it was wrecking societies”.

In the intervening century drug use and abuse has sky-rocketed globally. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that the prevalence of opiate addiction in Burma’s northern Shan and Kachin states rose by 47 percent between 2007 and 2008.

The award-winning British investigative journalist, Nick Davies, noted in the Guardian newspaper that: “In the case of heroin, all of the side effects which are associated with the drug – all of the disease and death and misery and depravity – are the effects not of the drug itself but of the black market on which the government insists that it is sold”.

All this has gone on in juxtaposition to intelligence agencies and militaries using the vast profits that the black market can make to fund causes, most often in poor producer nations, such as the Burma-based Chinese Nationalists or Kuomintang (KMT) forces that the US armed to fight the Mao government.

US scholar Alfred McCoy notes in his groundbreaking work ‘The Politics of Heroin in South East Asia’ that: “American involvement had gone far beyond coincidental complicity; embassies had covered up involvement by client governments, CIA contract airlines had carried opium, and individual CIA agents had winked at the opium traffic. As an indirect consequence of American involvement in the Golden Triangle until 1972, opium production steadily increased….Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle grew 70 percent of the world’s illicit opium”.

Despite such nefarious interventions the mainstream actions of prohibition, arrests, seizures and other police initiatives have led to an inflated global commodity price. This in turn causes places with less-than-desirable law and order situations to become primed for the production of commodities such as heroin. “In any market, if a demand exists, it will find a way to fulfil it. It will corrupt (especially because products in a black market have their value increased by the risks of the business),” says Mena.

The more that is spent policing or ‘fighting’ a commodity, the more the value will increase, and in turn, greater numbers of people will be robbed or new addicts inducted to pay for a habit. Indeed, the more money that exported heroin can make a junta crony or warlord in Burma, for example, the more money that a criminal has in order to control their society in rural Burma.

These industries in places such as Burma then start to dominate. With no recourse to accountability or laws, a rough justice develops which can be witnessed in the cocaine blood bath on the Mexico-US border or the warlords controlling the heroin and ‘yaba’ (methamphetamine) trade in the Golden Triangle, not to mention the decades of feuding that northern Burma has witnessed and the human cost that has come with it.

Meanwhile, global efforts to stem the ‘shock’ seen in the media become a priority, a ‘moral’ crusade, epitomised by successive US president’s declaring a ‘war on drugs’ with seemingly endless financial war chests, and telling producer nations to do everything possible to ‘fight’ these commodities.

“When you read the treaties on drugs eradication, it does not mention human rights, [which allows] states to take whatever measures they see fit to try to get closer to the ‘utopian’ objective of eliminating drugs production, trade and consumption from their territory,” says Mena. “That’s why we’ve already had crops eradicated by poison sprays (which have poisoned the local population as well); that’s why we’ve had summary executions of people suspected of being involved in drug trafficking; that’s why militarization of the war on drugs is not only legitimatised but also requested in order to try to achieve a very unlikely objective, condemning whole societies to live in such an environment in which there is an ongoing war between different drug factions and between them and the police/military forces.”

In their paper Mena and Hobbs compare UN prohibition treaties and the UN’s fundamental charter, and state that “it could be argued that those ‘unintended and unexpected’ consequences [of the war on drugs and ‘doing whatever it takes’] entail breaches of fundamental human rights (namely articles 3, 5, 13 paragraph 1, and article 28 [of the UN Charter). Death (art.3), torture (art.5) and displacement forced by guerrilla warfare (art. 13 paragraph 1) all seem to be generated, in one way or another, by the black market nature of current global and local drug flows.”

Spending only $US1.25 per person each year on both health and education, it is clear that the Burmese junta has little will to improve living standards of those most vulnerable to the ravages of the industry, while the resources to educate and treat people appear not to exist in government coffers.

Ironically, $US1.25 is roughly the same amount that a jade miner in Kachin state earns each day, and the cost of single syringe of heroin, according to shocking reports from the Kachin News Group. But the question remains as to how can the harms associated with narcotics and the black market in poor, producer nations be minimised?

Portugal provides an effective model of how decriminalisation in a more developed country can be effective. After a surge in heroin use in the 1990s the Portuguese government decriminalised possession of all narcotics for personal use. Hobbs and Mena note that following decriminalisation, “The number of newly reported cases of HIV/AIDS among drug users also decreased significantly, along with drug-related mortality, and decriminalization freed up resources that were channelled into treatment and other harm reduction programs”.

But in Burma the years of global prohibition and absence of law, education and healthcare create substantially more difficult questions, while the resources simply do not exist at the moment to educate young people and treat addicts. And while prohibition supports war and violence, the UNODC estimates that more than 800,000 people are employed in growing opium poppy alone in Burma, and thus are themselves supported by the narcotics industry.

In many countries taxing such a lucrative industry would seem like a logical step. In Burma this probably already happens to an extent already, and predictably those resources merely go as far as the wallet of the local generals or authorities to be spent supplementing their own incomes. The issue then is really how can the global community aid producer nations like Burma to minimise the harm that is and has been sewn by prohibition, which according to Hobbs and Mena is detrimental to human rights and the search for democracy.

Could some of the billions of dollars that are spent every year chasing marijuana-smoking teenagers around parks in affluent nations be spent on health and education in producer nations? Could those commodities be taxed in affluent nations to be spent similarly on giving people in countries like Burma the chance to look beyond the narco-economy and to give their societies a glimmer of civility that may improve policy, governance, law and order?

If commodities such as heroin were decriminalised to the extent that addicts were given their ‘hit’ on prescription by doctors in safe environments, then the impact these commodities have on affluent consumer nations would be minimised as the experiences of Holland and Switzerland demonstrate. Here, addict populations are ageing as new addicts are no longer recruited, but globally commodity prices would most likely come down. This in turn would lessen revenues that drug producers in countries like Burma would make.

So in these nations what could agencies like the UNODC do to aid this process? In countries like Afghanistan patients suffer needlessly in the shadow of vast poppy fields because the price of medical morphine is prohibitively expensive. Could the UNODC, instead of using satellite imagery to count poppy fields, set up co-operatives to produce medical morphine? The farm gate price of opiates is a far cry from the prices that are paid by junkies on the streets of London, so the UNODC or World Health Organisation (WHO) could probably offer more to Burmese farmers than drug dealers do, and still have a viable business.

If they offered an extra dollar on a kilo, for example, using models and principles of the fair trade movement, existing farmers could have a better livelihood, whilst alternative crop schemes are also still active and criminal middle-men could be bypassed. Their produce could be used to produce medical grade morphine to be prescribed to those suffering needlessly in the Third World or to be given safely to addicts in clinical surroundings, taking the substance out of the back alley and into clinics.

There is no quick cure. Violence has proved to be like an addictive drug: it helps no one but spirals out of control for virtually everyone involved. Actions like the one above, if taken in all developed nations, would have positive effects on a nation like Burma as prices came down, but not overnight. A moralistic position on ‘drugs’ – the simple equation that one thinks a substance evil – incorrectly suggests that one can simply fight it and it will go away. A more complex approach is needed – a development paradigm needs to take prohibition out of the schoolyard think tank and into the harshness of reality.


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