The High Costs of the War on Drugs

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The High Costs of the War on Drugs

An armed man stands guard at a checkpoint set up in Antunez, Mexico. (Photo: Eduardo Verdugo/Reuters)

Global drug policy involving crop eradication contributes to poverty, hunger, and displacement, said Open Society Foundation (OSF) in a new report released here.

The report, Drug Crop Production, Poverty, and Development, illustrates the consequences of the controversial, decades-long ‘War on Drugs’ in supply countries.

According to the 2014 World Drug Report, from the UN’s Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the global area of illicit opium cultivation in 2013 was 296,720 hectares, the largest area since 1998 when estimates became available. In Afghanistan, the largest opium producer, opium cultivation increased by 36 percent between 2012 and 2013.

Julia Baxton, author of the OSF report, notes that this is, in part, due to its economic benefits. The farming of opium poppy, coca, and cannabis, which requires little input and produces high-yields, offers livelihood security for many low-income, vulnerable communities, especially in conflict-stricken nations such as Afghanistan, Myanmar and Mexico.

Quoted in the report was political scientist Tom Kramer from the Transnational Institute who says: “For many people in this country [Myanmar], opium is not a problem, it’s the solution—a way for small-scale farmers to increase incomes to buy salt, rice, medicines, and other essentials.”

In Myanmar’s Shan State, the livelihoods of 240,000 households were tied to poppy production in the mid-2000s. In Afghanistan, approximately 5.6 jobs are generated in the rural non-agricultural economy for each hectare of opium poppy cultivated.

However, Baxton remarked that drug production has been framed as a “conflated” threat alongside migration and terrorism, resulting in policies focusing on its eradication.

According to the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, state parties must prohibit, criminalise and destroy drug crops including coca, opium poppies and cannabis.

Nations such as the United States have since addressed the issue of drug supply and use with full force, employing militarized approaches.

“We have seen a raft of development programmes and initiatives in cultivating states and communities – but these are framed by counter narcotics concerns and not development goals, they infrequently align with best practice approaches in development…and may be causing more harm than good,” Baxton told IPS.

In the mid-2000s, approximately 1.2 million people faced starvation and death following opium production bans and eradication. Similarly, in Bolivia, drug crop purges pushed 50,000 families into poverty and malnutrition in the early 2000s.

Eradication policies, such as the chemical spraying of crops and military interventions, have also led to displacement. In Colombia, an estimated five million are displaced while 65,000 are displaced in Laos.

In the report, Baxton added that the loss of livelihood stability may additionally cause communities to join insurgent or criminal groups for protection.

When asked if the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may help address the issue, Baxton told IPS that the SDGs fail to engage with the complexity of drug cultivation.

“The poorest of the poor will continue to be underserved by grand international commitments and declaratory statements,” she remarked.

“The current system of international drug control, enables violation of some of the most basic international rights obligations and as such, is wholly incompatible with the SDGs,” she continued.

The report urges for further evidence-based discussion and understanding of drug cultivation in different contexts. Baxton recommended the engagement of farmers to discuss their needs and the formulation of an expert international panel to explore alternative strategies for regulation.

“The unacceptably high costs of the ‘war on drugs’ on consumers is increasingly acknowledged, we need to similarly extend these concerns and considerations to traditional supply countries of the Global South,” Baxton added.

Tharanga Yakupitiyage

Tharanga Yakupitiyage is a writer for IPS News.

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