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Drug Trafficking

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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Drug Trafficking

Britain’s Monkey Dust ‘epidemic’ will likely continue until the UK changes its regressive drugs laws

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Britain’s Monkey Dust ‘epidemic’

Police and emergency workers in the UK have warned addicts over the growing availability of a synthetic drug that seems to give users super-human strength and leaves them in a dangerous zombie-like state. Similar to PCP, the substance is said to have caused some users to jump off high buildings and others to rip the flesh from other people’s faces with their teeth. Monkey Dust, which gained notoriety under the moniker “Bath Salts” in the US several years ago, is the street name for Methylenedioxy-α-pyrrolidinohexiophenone (MDPHP), a synthetic cathinone stimulant. It can be bought for as little as £2 ($2.54) per dose on the streets of Britain, where it is reported to have left many users in a state of psychosis, roaming around towns and cities at night, throwing their bodies about the place while screaming and shouting incoherently.

In a statement issued last week, Staffordshire Police Chief Superintendent Jeff Moore said his force had recorded 950 incidents involving the drug over a three-month period, noting how the highly-unpredictable substance makes users difficult to deal with, and poses a risk to both addicts and those around them. Moore said people who take the drug can be affected by it for several days, and that emergency workers often struggle to provide them with treatment, due to the differing effect the substance can have on people. The police chief spoke out after the death of two drug users was linked to the consumption of Monkey Dust by West Mercia Police last month. Speaking with the BBC last week, North Staffordshire health worker Debbie Moores described the substance as one of the most harmful drugs she and her colleagues have ever encountered, noting: “The impact on agencies is huge and it takes us away from what we are supposed to be doing.”

While Monkey Dust is classified only as a Class B drug in the UK, suggesting it poses a similar threat to users as cannabis, and could be purchased legally until the introduction of the New Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016, it is known to reduce users’ perception of pain, remove inhibitions and cause vivid hallucinations and acute paranoia. Also referred to as “Cannibal Dust” and “Zombie Dust”, the drug causes users’ body temperatures to rise rapidly, and is said to make their perspiration smell of seafood. Police have described attempting to restrain Monkey Dust users as akin to trying to deal with the Incredible Hulk, noting how the drug appears to imbue those who take it with super-human strength. “People can remain in this state for two or three days, which is putting a significant strain on our resources, and that of our partners, such as the ambulance and the hospital,” Moore said.

The devastating effect the drug can have on people has been attracting high levels of media attention for years in the US, where its use has been widely documented from around the turn of the decade. In 2012, a naked man who was reported to have consumed Bath Salts was shot dead by police after ripping off a homeless man’s face with his teeth. Ronald Poppo lost an eye and most of his facial features when he was attacked by Rudy Eugene, during an attack witnesses described as looking like something out of a zombie film. In May of this year, police in Florida said they had arrested a woman who gouged her mother’s eyeballs out with glass shards before killing her while high on the drug. Camille Balla, 32, is said to have admitted murdering her mother when officers arrived at the property they shared. While Britain has yet to witness cases as depraved as these linked to the use of Monkey Dust, the fact that the substance appears to be growing in popularity in the UK only makes these types of incidents more likely.

Some drug workers have expressed the hope that the growing use of Monkey Dust across the UK is part of a passing fad, and that the drug’s increasing popularity will soon wane. This is unlikely. Much in the same way that other new psychoactive substances such as synthetic cannabinoids including Spice and Black Mamba have, Monkey Dust will likely grow in popularity among vulnerable groups such as the homeless and prisoners, who will remain attracted to it thanks its potency, low price and the ease with which it can be obtained. The sad truth of the matter is that these types of substances have become more attractive to many addicts than more traditional drugs such as heroin and cocaine. While curious casual users will likely soon realise that consuming Monkey Dust is not a good idea, those seeking oblivion will view it as an easy and cheap way to achieve their goal.

Unfortunately, substances such as these will likely remain popular all the while countries such as the UK refuse to ditch their regressive drugs policies. While the debate around legalising or at least decriminalising substances such as heroin and cocaine is extremely complex, dealing with addicts as individuals who require treatment rather than punishment, as countries such as Norway are doing, might go some way to ensuring these types of substances are unable to trap our most vulnerable citizens in a stranglehold from which some of them will be unable to escape.

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Overdose deaths linked to fentanyl up by nearly a third in England and Wales

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overdose deaths linked to fentanyl

The number of drug overdose deaths in which synthetic opioid fentanyl played role increased by 29% in England and Wales last year, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

There were 75 fentanyl-related deaths in 2017, up from 58 the previous year.

The ONS also noted that carfentanyl, a derivative of fentanyl that is said to be up to 10,000 times more potent than morphine, was mentioned for the first time in death certificates in England and Wales last year, and was recorded to have played a role in 27 deaths, 87% of the 31 deaths related to fentanyl analogues in 2017.

Overall, the data showed there were 3,756 deaths in which drug poisoning played a role in England and Wales last year, equivalent to a rate of 66.1 deaths per one million people, a similar level to that which was recorded in 2016.

Deaths from new psychoactive substances such as synthetic cannabinoids halved in England and Wales in 2017, while heroin and morphine-related deaths decreased for the first time since 2012.

Meanwhile, deaths related to the consumption of cocaine hit a record high last year, nearly quadrupling since 2011.

There were 432 deaths related to the use of cocaine in England and Wales in 2017.

Police have warned that falling prices and rising purity levels are fuelling an explosion in cocaine use across the UK, which is contributing to spiralling levels and gang violence throughout the country.

Ellie Osborn, Health Analysis Statistician at the ONS, said: “The figures published today show that the level of drug poisoning deaths in 2017 remained stable.

“However, despite deaths from most opiates declining or remaining steady, deaths from fentanyl continued to rise, as did cocaine deaths, which increased for the sixth consecutive year.

“Our new in-depth study of coroners’ records report shows that there are common characteristics of drug-related deaths.

“These findings combined can be used to develop initiatives and policies that are targeted to support those at greatest risk of drug addiction.”

Drug policy reform campaigners said the “near-record” figures highlighted the Government’s failure to protect vulnerable addicts, and called on ministers to boost funding for drug treatment and to stop criminalising users.

“[The Government is] responsible for vulnerable people dying in droves, because they are blocking, or refusing to fund, measures proven to save lives in other countries,” Martin Powell from the Transform Drug Policy Foundation said.

“No one has ever died from an overdose in a supervised drug consumption room or heroin prescribing clinic, anywhere. In Portugal – where drug use is decriminalised – the drug death rate is less than a tenth of ours.

“So Government claims that these deaths are all the result of an ageing population of drug users is a lie.”

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Two tons of cocaine seized from boat off coast of Costa Rica

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cocaine seized from boat

Police in Costa Rica have seized two tons of cocaine from a “low-profile” boat found some 80 nautical miles off the country’s coast.

Costa Rican law enforcement authorities, who described the massive shipment as one of the largest drug confiscations ever made at sea, said they began tracking the vessel in the Pacific Ocean after being handed a tip-off from the US Coast Guard on Wednesday.

Some 2,000 packets of cocaine, each weighing around 1kg, where found when authorities searched the four-motor boat known as a low-profile vehicle (LPV), a type of vessel that is commonly used by drug trafficking networks because they can be difficult to detect using radar.

Speaking before the operation took place last week, Costa Rican Security Minister Michael Soto revealed that cocaine estimated to be worth around $500 million has been seized across the Central American country so far this year.

Announcing that Costa Rican law enforcement agencies had intercepted more than 15 tons of cocaine since the beginning of the year, Soto is reported to have said: “It is important to highlight the joint work carried out by the different police bodies, among them the Judiciary Investigative Police (OIJ), the Direction of Intelligence and Security (DIS), the Frontier Police, Drug Control Police (PCD), Aerial Surveillance Service, National Coast Guard Service, and Public Police Force as well as the assistance of United States in joint patrolling.”

Soto also said police last week found 256kgs of cocaine concealed inside the wall of a container truck that was attempting to leave the country through its border with Nicaragua.

The truck, which had Guatemalan license plates, was transporting metal rubbish and other waste and was stopped at the Peñas Blancas border.

The driver of the vehicle, a 38-year-old Guatemalan national, was arrested and remains in custody.

Costa Rica’s location between South and North America makes it a popular smuggling route for cocaine cartels looking to traffic their product to the US.

Cocaine typically costs around $600 per kilo in the countries in which it is produced, according to Soto.

Once the drug reaches Costa Rica, the price rises to $6,000, before soaring as high as $35,000 per kilo once it arrives in the US.

In its assessment of drug trafficking in Cost Roca, the US State Department said: “Costa Rica ranks third highest in the Western Hemisphere for transshipment of cocaine.

“Once a problem mostly confined to fast boats operating miles off shore, the drug trade has morphed into a proliferation of illegal air tracks, warehousing operations, land smuggling networks, and tainted shipping container traffic.”

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