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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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Canada to pardon minor cannabis possession convictions as country legalises the drug

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pardon minor cannabis possession convictions

Canadians convicted of possessing 30 grams or less of cannabis are to be pardoned, a source from Justin Trudeau’s ruling Liberal Party has said.

Speaking as Canada became only the second country in the world after Uruguay to legalise the recreational use of cannabis, the source said Ottawa will allow anybody with a criminal record that includes any such charge to apply to have it removed from their files.

Revealing that the exact process people will need to follow to apply for a pardon will be announced in the near future, the official told Canada’s Star newspaper: “For people to whom this applies in their past, we’re going to give them certainty that there will be recourse for them… in terms of exactly how it gets rolled out, the steps that we take, how much time it will take them, we’ll lay that out in the coming days and weeks.”

The announcement was made after members of the New Democratic Party lobbied the Canadian government to pardon people who had been caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use, noting how such convictions can prevent individuals from marginalised communities from accessing housing and services.

The amnesty was announced after Canada officially legalised cannabis on Wednesday after the country’s parliament voted to do so back in June.

Long queues formed outside new cannabis shops across the country on Tuesday evening ahead of the first legally-sold marijuana being purchased from a store on the eastern island of Newfoundland at midnight.

Tom Clarke, 43, who owns the shop in Newfoundland, told reporters: “I am living my dream. Teenage Tom Clarke is loving what I am doing with my life right now.

“This is awesome. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this. I am so happy to be living in Canada right now instead of south of the border,” added Clarke, who told reporters he had been dealing cannabis illegally in Canada for 30 years.

“It’s been a long time coming. We’ve only been discussing this for 50 years. It’s better late than never.”

Despite the introduction of the new law, it will remain forbidden for Canadians to be in possession of more than 30 grams of cannabis while in public, grow more than four marijuana plants per household or buy the drug from unlicensed dealers.

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Bearded French hipster jailed for 20 years after admitting to being dark web drug dealer ‘Oxymonster’

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bearded French hipster jailed for 20 years

A French hipster who sports a distinctive long red beard has been jailed in the US after admitting to being a dark web drug dealer known online as “Oxymonster”.

Guy Vallerius was sentenced to 20 years behind bars during a hearing at a Miami federal court having pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges of distributing drugs and money laundering while acting as a “senior moderator” on dark web marketplace Dream Market.

The 36-year-old was arrested in August 2017 while travelling to a beard and moustache contest in the US.

Police who arrested him found Bitcoins worth $500,000 on his laptop, along with his log-in credentials for Dream Market and the Tor browser, which is used to connect to hidden sites on the dark web.

Vallerius avoided a much harsher sentence by striking a plea deal with prosecutors, who accused him of using Dream Market to sell cocaine, crack, fentanyl, methamphetamine, LSD, Ritalin and oxycodone to users all over the globe.

His lawyer said Vallerius is cooperating fully with investigators who are probing the dark web drugs market, and that his sentence could be reduced if the information he provides proves valuable.

The French drug peddler was caught during an operation in which undercover US investigators made multiple purchases of illegal drugs on Dream Market, which were sent via post by Vallerius to various locations in the Miami region.

Detectives examined Twitter and Instagram accounts run by Vallerius, finding that the writing style of “OxyMonster” on Dream Market bore similarities to that which he used on his social media profiles.

In a letter that was read out in court, Vallerius’ wife pleaded for mercy from the sentencing judge

“Gal is a very caring person, very loving, and friendly with everybody,” Yasmin Vallerius wrote.

“He is also a very fragile and sensitive man, who is now in a foreign country far away from any family members. His arrest has broken him mentally. He has lost everything.”

Vallerius’ sentencing comes days after prosecutors in New York revealed that an Irishman extradited to the US could also face up to 20 years behind bars after he admitted to helping to run the original Silk Road dark web marketplace.

Gary Davis, 30, who initially denied a range of charges that could have resulted in him spending the rest of his life in an American jail, began negotiations on a plea deal with prosecutors last month, the US Justice Department said in a statement.

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Australian drug users taking more cocaine, high-purity ecstasy and fentanyl, studies show

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Australian drug users taking more cocaine

Drug users in Australia are consuming cocaine in greater numbers, while young people in the country are increasingly turning to higher-purity forms of stimulants such as methamphetamine and ecstasy, according to a new study.

The 2018 Drug Trends Report from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at the University of New South Wales found that a record 59% of drug users had consumed cocaine over the past six months, while one in four had taken ecstasy once a week.

Based on interviews with drug users from all Australian capital cities who regularly consume ecstasy and other stimulants, the study revealed that 31% had taken new psychoactive substances during the sample period, with DMT, 2C and its derivatives, and synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice polling as the most popular.

The report also revealed an increase in consumption of crystal and capsule forms of ecstasy, which are typically reported as being of a higher purity than pills, with use of both types of the drug rising to record levels (72% and 62%, respectively).

Half of respondents said they had taken LSD over the past six months, while more than a third confessed to using ketamine.

One in five said they had consumed capsules containing unknown substances over the study period.

Commenting on the results of the study, Amy Peacock, Programme Lead for Drug Trends at NDARC, said the trend towards the consumption of higher-purity drugs is worrying: “Use of higher purity stimulants can increase the risk of experiencing acute and long-term negative health effects” said Dr Peacock.

“Acute effects may include dehydration, increased or irregular heart rate, agitation, headaches, and seizures. Use over long periods of time without sleep or in combination with other substances can increase the risk of these types of effects.”

Separately, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC)’s fifth National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program has revealed that use of deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl is increasing across the country, with consumption of the drug doubling in regional areas.

The study, which is compiled using analysis of samples of wastewater taken from the country’s sewers, showed that methamphetamine remains the most popular illicit drug in Australia, and that of 23 countries with comparable reported data for four common stimulants, Australia has the second highest total estimated consumption after the US.

“While fentanyl consumption measured by the programme reflects both licit and illicit use, increased consumption is of concern as the high potency of fentanyl greatly increases the risk of overdose,” the ACIC said.

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