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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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‘Golden Triangle’ countries must work together to stamp out growing meth production, UN urges

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stamp out growing meth production

The United Nations has warned that organised criminal networks operating in Asia’s Mekong region have boosted their production and trafficking of methamphetamine to “alarming levels”.

Senior drug policy officials from Cambodia, China, Lao, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam yesterday attended a UN-backed regional conference on the issue, where delegates heard how the groups are extending their illegal trade into countries including Australia, Japan and New Zealand.

At the conference, which opened in Burmese capital Nay Pyi Taw on Monday, officials were told that while production of heroin and opium in the region had fallen recently, organised crime gangs have hiked their production and distribution of both low grade yaba methamphetamine, and high-purity crystal methamphetamine.

The UN told officials from “Golden Triangle” countries they must work closely together to crack down on the record amounts of both drugs that are being produced in and exported out of the region, and take action against the crooked law enforcement agents and customs officers who allow the illicit trade to thrive.

UN officials said the region’s heroin and methamphetamine market is worth an estimated $40 billion a year, and noted that a number of Mekong countries have already surpassed the total number of drug seizures they made during the whole of last year, despite being less than hallway through 2018.

Organised crime groups in the region are thought to have boosted drug production in illicit laboratories in locations such as Burma’s conflict-ridden Shan State, with a view to shipping their product to new markets with the help of corrupt officials.

Addressing the conference, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Representative Jeremy Douglas said: “Responding to the situation requires acknowledging some difficult realities, and agreeing to new approaches at a strategic regional level.

“Here in Myanmar it means focusing on peace and security in the Golden Triangle and places where conflict and the drug economy are connected.

“Ensuring governance and the rule of law will be crucial to any long-term reduction in drug production and trafficking.

“To be candid, it also means addressing the corruption, conditions and vulnerabilities that allow organised crime to keep expanding operations and exploiting the region.”

In April, a Vietnamese national who attempted to smuggle methamphetamine worth an estimated NZ$11.6 million ($8.53 million) into New Zealand concealed inside a home drinking water system was jailed for 10 years.

Than Qui Phan, 25, was told he must serve a minimum of four years after he admitted smuggling multiple packages of methamphetamine into the country.

Back in October of last year, Australian law enforcement agents seized nearly four tonnes of a precursor ingredient used to make methamphetamine which had been concealed in green tea bottles imported into the country from Thailand.

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Australian police find heroin worth A$8 million hidden in shipment of children’s clothes

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Australian police find heroin

Law enforcement authorities in Australia have arrested a 45-year-old man after they discovered heroin worth an estimated A$8 million ($6 million) concealed in a shipment of children’s clothing that had been imported into the country from Thailand

Sixteen kilos of the drug were found as a result of an ongoing NSW Police Force and the Australian Border Force (ABF) investigation into the trafficking of narcotics and guns into the country.

The shipment was found after officers from the State Crime Command’s Drug and Firearms Squad received a tip-off about a conspiracy to import the drugs into Australia.

The heroin, which had been disguised as “copy paper”, was discovered amongst the children’s clothing after border force officers X-rayed the contents of the consignment.

Detectives established that the drugs had been delivered to a holding location in the south west of the city of Sydney before it was picked up by the 45-year-old suspect on Wednesday this week.

Investigators conducted a search of the man’s home in the suburb of Cabramatta West, where he was arrested and taken into custody.

The raid on the man’s home resulted in the seizure of the drugs, a number of mobile devices, paperwork, and 27 cases of Johnny Walker Blue Label, which had a retail value of more than A$30,000.

Police said the suspect was charged with commercial drug supply and was refused bail ahead of a court appearance in July.

More arrests are expected to follow.

In a statement, Detective Chief Inspector Jason Weinstein, of the NSW Police Force Drug and Firearms Squad, said detectives are now focusing on the supply chain, both in Australia and overseas.

“With the seizure of 16kg of heroin, we know we have put a decent dent in availability on the street, but we can’t stop there; we will continue our inquiries into where it came from and where it was going,” he said.

“Further to that, we will harness the skills of our partner agencies, including the Australian Border Force, to stop the importation and large-scale supply of drugs which continue to plague our community.

“The most important thing we need is a commitment from the community to change the perception and acceptance of drugs, and dramatically reduce the demand for all illicit substances.”

Garry Low, ABF Superintendent Investigations NSW, added that heroin is a destructive drug that harms the users, their family, friends and the Australian community.

 

 

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British Medical Journal calls for legalisation, regulation and taxation of illicit drugs

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British Medical Journal calls for legalisation

The British Medical Journal (BMJ), one of the most highly-respected peer-reviewed research publications in the world, has joined a growing number of experts and campaigners calling for the legalisation, regulation and taxation of illicit drugs.

Noting that the war on drugs costs every taxpayer in the UK £400 ($540) in an article for the Journal, BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee observes that the global trade in illicit substances is worth £236 billion, and that this money fuels organised crime and human misery.

Godlee tells readers that while Britain is the largest exporter of legal cannabis in the world, users who take for the drug for recreational or medicinal purposes in the UK are needlessly criminalised.

She notes that huge sums of money are spent on prosecuting drug users in Britain, where illegal substances are increasingly sold by vulnerable young people from marginalised sections of society who are exploited by ruthless “county lines” drugs gangs.

“This is not about whether you think drugs are good or bad. It is an evidence based position entirely in line with the public health approach to violent crime,” she writes.

“The BMJ is firmly behind efforts to legalise, regulate, and tax the sale of drugs for recreational and medicinal use. This is an issue on which doctors can and should make their voices heard.”

Godlee’s intervention came after a senior British police officer argued in March that the war on drugs had failed, and that cannabis should be sold in shops in a similar fashion to alcohol.

Speaking after he urged MPs at Westminster to legalise drugs, North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones said: “A lot of the problems around drugs are caused by prohibition and strong enforcement.

“It just doesn’t work. I think prohibition kills a lot of people unnecessarily and if we did regulate, we could divert police resources towards harmful behaviours like child sexual exploitation, domestic abuse and modern slavery.

“Prosecution for minor possession of drugs is a waste of time.”

In December last year, lawmakers in Norway voted to decriminalise all drug use in a move designed to provide users with treatment rather than punishment.

Under plans that received cross-party support from Norwegian MPs, representatives from the country’s Conservative (Hoyre), Liberal (Venstre), Labour (Ap) and Socialist Left (SV) parties agreed to make the nation the first in Scandinavia to approve such a move.

Portugal’s decision to decriminalise the use of all drugs in 2001 has widely been seen as a success, despite initial concerns that removing legal punishment for the possession of narcotics might lead to an explosion in drug use.

The country is beginning to see the positive effects of its programme of decriminalisation, with evidence emerging of a slow downward trend in the amount of harm caused by drugs across the nation.

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