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Analysis: Washington’s War on Opium

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US airstrikes have returned to Afghanistan with renewed vigour in the past few months, but their targets have switched, from insurgent bases to opiate storage and processing facilities. At least 11 airstrikes have been conducted between the 3rd and 4th of April alone in the Western Afghan provinces of Farah and Nimroz. The total number of airstrikes within the first two months of 2018 has tripled when compared to 2017.

This is not, however, a simple return to a hard-line counter-narcotics approach. These airstrikes are destroying these facilities and those caught within, effectively killing local Afghans for alleged drug offences. Attempts by the Bush administration to authorize such strikes in 2008 had faced considerable opposition from NATO allies. The current US administration has clearly shifted its priorities.

Such escalation ignores the historical and recent background of the opium trade. The rise of Afghanistan as the world’s primary producer of opium, sometimes accounting for 90% of the global total, has roots on other failed drug wars. Specifically, on those of the 1970s and 1980s that led to increases in drug production along with a spread of production centres.

The official NATO line justifies such strikes as a “counter-revenue campaign”, aimed at separating Afghanistan’s main insurgency group, the Taliban, from its alleged main source of revenue. Current estimates by US forces in Afghanistan for opium based revenue for the Taliban are of roughly $200 million annually. New guidelines that allow military strikes to consider any person alleged to be involved in the provision of revenue to terrorists also results in US claims that none of these incidents have resulted in civilian casualties.

Such framing of the local context is problematic. Many of these facilities may simply be opium storage facilities rather than heroin processing labs. Even those labs, however, are likely to have considerable levels of locals participating in the process. While there is a reasonable argument to be made towards connections between such facilities and criminal networks, the link between such facilities and the larger insurgency movement is tenuous.

Even if every single one of these facilities are indeed heroin processing labs, Afghan opium expert David Mansfield insightfully summarizes the issues with relying on airstrikes. These labs can only have a negligible role on Taliban revenues, with US revenue estimates often grouping disparate criminal and insurgent networks. Opium market profits and revenues at the local level are also much lower than after value is added by other criminal smuggling networks which are unlikely to be affected by these airstrikes at all.

If one does accept the argument that such facilities have a non-negligible role in funding Taliban activities, one must wonder about the overall impact of the resulting death toll. Late 2017 saw 44 “drug smugglers” being killed as part of a concerted effort to target such facilities in Helmand province alone. Inflicting casualties on locals, particularly income-earning members of rural families, is likely to severely undercut any counterinsurgency efforts in that area. Such an approach becomes even harder to justify when alternative hard-line but less indiscriminate options are available. A raid in the Marja district in Helmand on the 14th of April 2018 exemplifies such options, where over 9 tons of opium poppy and 1.25 tons of heroin were seized. While such alternatives are considerably riskier for counterinsurgents to conduct, they keep local casualties to a minimum.

The fact is that there are no easy solutions to the currently vast opium market in Afghanistan. Typical suggested solutions are an amalgamation of economic development and agricultural revitalization. Unfortunately, programs meant to improve local agricultural production, such as improved irrigation networks and market access roads, often feed into increased opium production levels. Such solutions ignore the problematic approach at the core of counterinsurgency failures in Afghanistan, an insistence on treating problems in isolation of one another. The agricultural market, the opium trade, the insurgency are deeply interconnected dimensions of the country. In order to undertake successful state-building, policies meant to address any individual issue need to take these other ones into account. Otherwise, addressing them in isolation or simply failing to strike a balance in responding to them can be worse than useless, it can be actively counterproductive.

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Taking cocaine will not cure people struck down with the coronavirus, French government warns public

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taking cocaine will not cure people infected with coronavirus

Authorities in France have been forced to inform the public that taking cocaine will not cure people infected with the coronavirus.

Taking to Twitter on Sunday, the French Ministry for Solidarity and Health told its followers that cocaine is not only ineffective when it comes to fighting the coronavirus, but is also a highly addictive drug that can cause serious harm to users’ health.

The government department was seeking to counter fake news circulating on social media that taking the drug could cure or prevent the virus, including doctored news stories that appeared to confirm the drug’s effectiveness at fighting the disease.

The ministry’s Twitter post included a link to a government information page that provided further guidance on disinformation circulating about the coronavirus outbreak.

As well as encouraging those worried about the coronavirus to start taking cocaine, online trolls have also suggested that bleach can also help fight the disease.

In a post on Twitter that has attracted many thousands of engagements, @Jordan_Sather_ told his followers: “Would you look at that. Not only is chlorine dioxide (aka ‘MMS’) an effective cancer cell killer, it can wipe out coronavirus too.

“No wonder YouTube has been censoring basically every single video where I discuss it over the last year.”

In August of 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about that dangers of consuming bleach, noting: “Drinking any… chlorine dioxide products can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and symptoms of severe dehydration.”

As well as warning about cocaine’s inability to fight the coronavirus, the French government has also told members of the public that spraying bleach or alcohol on their bodies will not neutralise viruses they have already been infected with.

Elsewhere, US Vodka maker Tito’s Homemade was last week forced to urge people not to make DIY hand sanitiser out of its products.

Responding to one of its customers who said they had done just that, the company said on Twitter: “Per the CDC [Centres for Disease Control and Prevention], hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60% alcohol. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is 40% alcohol, and therefore does not meet the current recommendation of the CDC. Please see attached for more information.”

For its part, the World Health Organisation, which today officially categorised the coronavirus as a pandemic, has published a webpage dispelling misinformation about the disease, noting that the virus cannot be killed of avoided by taking a hot bath or using hand dryers.

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Californian border officers catch Mexican man with enough fentanyl to kill 1.2 million people

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enough fentanyl to kill 1.2 million people

Customs workers in California have arrested a Mexican man after finding enough fentanyl stashed in his vehicle to kill 1.2 million people.

Officers from US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) pulled the man over during a traffic stop while he was travelling in a Toyota Camry close to the city of Escondido.

During a search of the man’s vehicle, a sniffer dog indicated that the car contained illicit drugs.

After investigating further, CBP agents discovered several secret compartments that had been created in both the front and rear seats of the vehicle.

These were found to be concealing 18 foil-wrapped packages that tests later confirmed to contain nearly 19kgs of cocaine and just over 2.4kgs of fentanyl.

In total, the drugs found in the man’s vehicle had an estimated street value of almost $560,000.

The 49-year-old Mexican was handed over to officers from the US Drug Enforcement Administration, while the vehicle was seized by US Border Patrol.

Last week, CBP said agents working in Arizona close to the US border with Mexico had detained two 15-year-old US nationals who were alleged to have been attempting to smuggle fentanyl through a checkpoint while travelling as passengers in a van.

The occupants of the vehicle were referred for searches after a sniffer dog alerted its handlers to the fact that drugs might be present.

On further inspection, officers found the two teenagers had a combined total of more than 1kg of fentanyl taped to their legs, roughly equal to 540,000 lethal doses.

The two juveniles were held by police on drug smuggling charges, while the fentanyl they were carrying and the vehicle they were travelling in were seized.

As little as two milligrams of fentanyl can prove fatal for humans if absorbed through the skin, inhaled or swallowed.

In April of last year, an internal memo obtained by military news site Task & Purpose revealed that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was considering reclassifying  fentanyl as “a weapon of mass destruction”.

The DHS said in its memo that the toxicity of the drug made it a suitable candidate to be categorised as a non-conventional chemical weapon, adding: “Fentanyl’s high toxicity and increasing availability are attractive to threat actors seeking non-conventional materials for a chemical weapons attack.”

DHS Assistant Secretary for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction James McDonnell wrote: “In July 2018, the FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate assessed that… fentanyl is very likely a viable option for a chemical weapon attack by extremists or criminals.”

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European crackdown on illicit pharmaceutical traffickers breaks up 12 organised crime networks

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European crackdown on illicit pharmaceutical traffickers

A Europe-wide operation targeting illicit pharmaceutical traffickers has resulted in the dismantling of 12 organised crime networks and 165 arrests.

Supported by Europol, the third iteration of Operation MISMED involved customs, law enforcement and health and regulatory authorities in France, Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, Britain and the US, among other countries.

In total, the third Operation MISMED saw investigators seize almost 36 million units of medicine, including pseudoephedrine, anti-cancer drugs, antihistamines, anxiolytics, erectile dysfunction tablets, hormone and metabolic regulators, narcotics, painkillers, antioestrogens, antivirals, hypnotics and doping substances.

The initiative, which took place between July and October last year, saw assets worth almost €1.5 million ($1.66 million) recovered, and some €7.9 million confiscated from the criminal organisations targeted in the operation.

In a statement outlining the success of the effort, Europol outlined a range of worrying new trends in the trafficking of illicit pharmaceuticals across Europe, including a growing market for oncologic medicines stolen from hospitals.

The agency also said that Asia remains the main source of illicit medicines and doping products that are sold in Europe.

“Medicines are diverted from the legal supply chain by wholesalers and resold to criminal groups,” Europol said.

“Medicines are illegally obtained with forged or stolen medical prescriptions, with or without the help of doctors and pharmacists, and then resold to criminal groups or individuals directly.”

Over the course of the three years it has been running, Operation MISMED has resulted in 123 million units of illegal medicines and doping substances worth €500 million being taken off the streets, the arrest of 600 suspects, and the breakup of 49 organised crime groups.

The first iteration of the initiative, which took place back in 2017, resulted in the seizure of 75 million units of medicine and doping substances with a combined estimated street value of over €230 million.

The operation also led to the launch of 205 separate investigations and the identification of 277 suspects, of whom 111 were arrested.

Operation MISMED 2, which as carried out between April and October in 2018, saw the seizure of smuggled medicines estimated to be worth more than €165 million, as well as the arrest of 435 people suspected of being involved in the illicit trafficking of misused medicines.

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