COMENTARIO: Desde la famosas Guerras del Opio la Gran Bretaña ha estado a favor de la despenalización del uso de drogas. Por ello, no debe llamarnos al atención de este artículo de "The Economist" basado en la vieja premisa mafiosa: "si no puedes vencerlos, únete a ello."
The new drug warriors
As one side of the world softens its line against illegal drugs, another is getting tougher—and more vocal.
THE war on drugs, it seems, is edging towards a truce. Half of Americans want to lift the ban on cannabis, the world’s favourite illicit drug. Four states have legalised it, as has Washington, DC. Latin American presidents whose countries once battled narcos with helicopter gunships now openly wonder if prohibition was a mistake; Uruguay has legalised weed. Much of Europe has decriminalised it; Portugal has decriminalised all drug-use (though not drug-dealing). Heroin addicts in Western countries usually have access to clean needles, substitutes such as methadone and, in parts of Europe, heroin prescriptions. Many governments are starting to believe that managing drug use causes less harm than trying to stamp it out.
In Indonesia, things look very different. On April 29th eight convicted drug offenders, seven of them foreign, were executed by firing squad. Joko Widodo, the president, became convinced of the need for a hard line on drugs as mayor of Solo, a city in central Java, and governor of Jakarta, the capital. Since taking office he has promised “no clemency” for traffickers, despite intense lobbying by other governments and the UN. His seven months in office have seen 14 executions, more than twice as many as in the previous 15 years.
Indonesia is only the highest-profile example of a trend across Asia and the Middle East, the only regions that routinely execute drug offenders. Saudi Arabia beheads smugglers of cannabis, a drug which is not conclusively linked to a single fatality among the 200m or so who use it each year. China’s president, Xi Jinping, called last year for “forceful measures to wipe [drugs] out”. In the first five months of 2014 nearly 40,000 people were sentenced for drug offences in China, 27% more than in the same period in 2013. In June most countries will mark the UN’s “international day against drug abuse” with speeches; China often celebrates it with a round of executions.
More enthusiastic still is Iran, where the government is increasingly alarmed about high rates of addiction. Since 2011 possession of as little as 30g of some drugs has been a hanging offence. According to Harm Reduction International (HRI), a drug-focused NGO, in 2008 Iran executed at least 96 people for drug crimes. In 2011 the figure was 540. Amnesty International has counted 241 so far this year. Drug offenders account for a “large majority” of all those put to death in Iran, says HRI; the country may execute as many drug traffickers as China, despite having a population only 6% as big. Afghan smugglers of heroin, some as young as 15, have been hanged near the border as a cautionary spectacle.
Over the past two decades Singapore has reduced its drug executions from several dozen a year to one or two; and Malaysia is using the death penalty less. But these are rare bright spots in a darkening picture. Execution-watchers are now nervously eyeing Pakistan, which in March ended an informal moratorium on the death penalty (having lifted it last year for terrorism offences). It is not known whether drug offenders among the 8,000 on its death row will have their sentences carried out.
Somebody lighting a legal joint in Colorado or Washington might not care that, in a faraway country, a person selling the same substance could suffer beheading. After all, Saudi Arabia executes people for adultery and sorcery without impeding extramarital flings or witchcraft elsewhere. But the cross-border nature of the drug trade means countries have tried to reach basic agreement about what to ban. Nearly all UN members have signed conventions in 1961, 1971 and 1988, which mandate prohibition of the main recreational drugs.
Western countries have been the chief enforcers. America, in particular, has taken the fight beyond its borders. In the early 2000s it helped fund Plan Colombia, a multi-billion-dollar military-focused crackdown on Andean coca growers, briefly making Colombia the third-largest recipient of American aid. Failure to co-operate has meant “public shaming, economic sanctions, or back-channel punitive uses of American influence with international funding agencies like the World Bank and IMF,” writes Moises Naim, a former executive director of the World Bank. Each year America names the countries it regards as having fallen short of their counter-narcotics obligations. In 2006 Mexico’s congress voted to decriminalise the possession of fairly large quantities of drugs. The president at the time, Vicente Fox, had supported the bill. But he vetoed it after George W. Bush made clear that decriminalisation would jeopardise longed-for immigration reform in the United States.
Now America’s own inconsistent drug laws are forcing it to soften its line. Marijuana is prohibited by the federal government, but legal according to a growing number of states. William Brownfield, the assistant secretary of state for drugs, has performed linguistic acrobatics in an attempt to reconcile America’s legalisation of cannabis with its obligation to uphold the UN conventions that ban it. “The conventions are not rigid…We are allowed to interpret them so long as our interpretation is still consistent with our universal desire to reduce the misuse and abuse of harmful products throughout the world,” he said last year. Increasingly America is turning a blind eye to measures elsewhere that it once would have excoriated. In February Mr Brownfield said that Jamaica’s plan to legalise cannabis for medical and religious purposes was “Jamaica’s own business and Jamaica’s sovereign decision”.
America’s change of heart has led many to wonder if the UN conventions might be reformed to legalise some drugs and treat the use of others as a problem requiring health measures, not criminal or military ones. But as America has drawn back from prohibition, new drug warriors are stepping up to defend it.
Russia is foremost among them. “The Russians have taken over the hard-line role that the US used to play,” says Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute, an NGO based in Amsterdam. Though Russia does not apply the death penalty, for drug-trafficking or any other crime, it is ultra-strict in other ways. It bans methadone, a drug taken orally which most countries with enough money give to heroin addicts to stop them overdosing and to prevent diseases spreading via shared needles. Russia now has 1.2m HIV-infected people, up from 170,000 a decade ago.
Undeterred, it is trying to persuade east European countries also to ban methadone. (After annexing Crimea last year it cut off methadone patients’ supplies; some reportedly died after turning back to heroin or committing suicide.) And just as America once believed that the best way to stop its crack-cocaine epidemic was to eradicate coca in South America, so Russia has sent intelligence agents to disrupt the production of heroin in Afghanistan. At the UN it has argued loudly for an aerial-spraying programme, similar to those used in the Andes.
China also wants to tighten drug controls globally. In March, backed by fellow Asian hardliners, it successfully lobbied the UN to put forward a motion to ban ketamine, a widely abused anaesthetic. It is already banned in China, which has many addicts. But the World Health Organisation lists it as an essential medicine, which by the UN’s own rules should put it beyond any attempt at a ban. Though the motion was withdrawn at the last minute, the mere possibility of tighter restrictions rattled African countries that rely on it for emergency surgery.
Other emerging drug warriors include Egypt, where addiction is treated as a form of insanity; South Africa, where a vicious new home-cooked drug called “whoonga” has panicked the authorities into a crackdown; and Cuba, whose isolation and security apparatus have kept a lid on consumption, giving it little incentive to support moving on from prohibition. In recent years India has aggressively campaigned against a proposal to license Afghan opium farmers to supply the legal medical market, in part because its own licensed opium farmers would see their business threatened.
Fifteen years ago almost all funding for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) came from “major donors”, dominated by America and EU countries. Now they are responsible for only 60%; most of the rest is stumped up by “emerging donors” (see chart). Their contributions are largely earmarked for projects within their own borders: Colombia, for instance, now the biggest donor, pays the UNODC to run programmes to persuade farmers to grow crops other than coca. Last year $281m out of a total donated of $288m was earmarked for such country-specific projects.
Some believe that the result is that the agency has become too quick to do whatever governments will pay for. “The UNODC has become completely unmoored from the central UN budget,” says Amir Attaran of Ottawa University, who has worked as a consultant to the agency. A deal to help Iran catch traffickers, many of whom would later be hanged, has attracted particular criticism. A spokesman for the UNODC acknowledges “a significant diversification of our portfolio over the previous years” but says that all projects fall within “clear and substantiated mandates” set out by its governing bodies.
UN bigwigs deny that earmarked donations give countries more power to shape policy. But persuading countries to cough up non-earmarked cash is hard, and “often those contributions are reflected in terms of [the donor country’s] visibility, in terms of positions,” one senior UN official admits. In 2010 Russia pledged a one-off donation of $7m to the UNODC’s coffers—44% of the agency’s general-purpose funding that year. In the same year a Russian candidate, Yury Fedotov, was appointed its new head. The three previous directors had come from Italy, which often used to be the agency’s main source of non-earmarked donations.
A war of two halves
Western countries will find it hard to wind down the war on drugs without wide consensus. Most decisions of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the UN’s policymaking body, require unanimity among its 53 members. That is why updating its position on such matters as how best to treat addicts has proved impossible. It has yet to pass a resolution mentioning harm reduction, which has been part of everyday drug-policy language for years in many countries, notes Mr Jelsma.
The difficulty of agreeing on change has left the UN’s drugs authorities out of step with other agencies. Last year the World Health Organisation endorsed the decriminalisation of drugs. In March a report from the UN Development Programme said that drug-control efforts had been responsible for “creating a criminal black market; fuelling corruption, violence and instability; threatening public health and safety; [and] generating large-scale human rights abuses”. It argued that “new approaches are both urgent and necessary.”
Next April a special session of the UN General Assembly will offer the best chance in years to consider such new approaches. Called by Latin American countries frustrated over the ineffectiveness of present policies, it will review the drug-control system from first principles. At the most recent such session, in 1998, America blocked serious debate. It remains to be seen whether next year’s will be more productive—or whether the new drug warriors will condemn the world to decades more fighting an unwinnable war.