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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 8th March 2012

As usual, the annual report of the International Narcotic Control Board (INCB) has been followed by the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) from the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, part of the United States Department of State.

Before looking at that report, I wanted to mention this English translation of a letter from Bolivia’s Minister Of Foreign Affairs, David Choquehuanca Céspedes, to the Secretary General of the INCB. As well as, justifiably, objecting to the ridiculous claim that Bolivia’s actions threaten the whole world’s drug control regime, the minister points out that the INCB’s charter says it can offer advice on what actions to take on implementing the UN conventions if requested so to do by the country concerned.

Bolivia’s argument is that it didn’t request the INCB’s advice so the board is outside its remit by providing it. There’s something rather delicious about finding out that INCB’s schoolmasterly admonitions for not following the rules break the rules.

Following the rules is what the INCSR is all about. This is not a report to be read, it is there to be referred to. I doubt if more than a handful of people have read every one of the 474 pages from start to finish. Under US law the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs has to provide Congress with an annual report on how countries around the world are dealing with drug prohibition.

So this is another ‘school report’ about how the UN conventions are being applied around the world. The idea of this one is that, if the federal government wants to offer aid to a country, say to help it reduce infant mortality, politicians can go to the INCSR and see whether there should be a threat to withhold the aid if the country isn’t doing a good enough job of stopping a few people smoking cannabis, or whatever.

In light of the INCB report, I first turned to the section on Bolivia in the INCSR. US law provides for ‘naughty’ countries to be named and shamed by the headmaster and for the past four years the US President has ‘determined’ that ‘the Government of Bolivia ―failed demonstrably to make sufficient efforts to meet its obligations under counternarcotics (CN) conventions.’ In the sort of arrogant statement you would expect from the USA it says that figures for cultivation of Erythroxylum coca cannot be confirmed since Bolivia threw out the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) some years ago.

There’s an interesting mistranslation of an acronym in the ‘Conclusion’ to the section on Bolivia. At the start of the INCSR there is a list of common abbreviations including ‘DTO’ meaning ‘Drug Trafficking Organization’ but the ‘Conclusion’ states ‘The Bolivian public, media, and experts widely perceive that the challenge to Bolivian institutions from designated terrorist organizations (DTOs) corruption, and citizen insecurity from drug trafficking and other crimes, increased during 2011.’ Slip of the pen or a deliberate attempt to cause fear? (Or, of course, proof of my contention that nobody actually reads this report.)

The tone of the conclusion is one of an appeal being made to the people of Bolivia to change government policies. It infers that the government is failing to protect its citizens from the harms arising from drug trafficking. Saying ‘To diminish Bolivia's appeal to drug traffickers…’ makes Bolivia seem like some sort of haven for drug gangs but the INCSR has previously noted that only 1% of US cocaine seizures are believed to be Bolivian in origin and it cites prevalence rates for domestic drug use so low that the USA would love to have them.

The other section of the report I wanted to read was that concerning the UK. I was looking to see if any mention was made of the alleged use of the UK as a staging post for the transhipment of Catha edulis, khat, to the USA where it is illegal. It wasn’t but reading the whole section produced an interesting conclusion.

As you would expect, the comments in the INCSR about UK drug policy application are uncritical though the fact of budget cuts for the Home Office and police is noted but without any suggestion that this could lead to reduced enforcement. The INCSR, in effect, accepts that the UK is doing the best job it can to enforce the UN conventions and clamp down on illegal substance use as well as acting quickly to make illegal new substances thought to be harmful.

But, the conclusion says;

‘Despite the government‘s robust efforts to combat drug trafficking and associated drug-related crime, the UK continues to be a lucrative market for traffickers in Class A drugs, and is targeted by a wide range of large-scale serious organized criminals.’

Now I’m sure there will be people who disagree with my conclusion but, to me, that is the INCSR saying that prohibition doesn’t work because even ‘robust efforts’ from a country that ‘places a high priority on counternarcotics enforcement and enjoys excellent law enforcement cooperation with the United States’ still has a ‘lucrative market’ for illicit drugs.

In some ways, you’d think the INCSR would be better published in December because it really is used to decide who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. Except that it is not Santa Claus who is coming to town but US Vice-president, Joe Biden, and U.S. Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano, coming to central and south America. The visits seem to have arisen following increasing talk about finding a better way to deal with drugs from a number of leaders, especially Guatemala’s new president, Perez Molina.

When Mr Molina was inaugurated in January he seemed to have all the right credentials for the USA; ex-military, leader of a right-wing party and promising tough action ‘to combat soaring levels of violent crime and drug trafficking’. There must have been some surprise when Molina, on the 11th February, announced that he wanted drug legalisation to be on the table for discussion.

Some other regional leaders welcomed this approach but El Salvador’s president after initially being supportive reversed his position after a visit from Ms Napolitano. Then, in Honduras Mr Biden talked about increasing US aid for tackling organised crime but did not mention Guatemala or any change of policy on drugs.

In its conclusion for the country, the INCSR says ‘Honduras is at a crossroads’. The US is clearly determined to use its money to make sure that only the approved route is followed.