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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 23rd June 2011

For the past few years, the publication of the annual United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ‘World Drugs Report’ has become somewhat routine with the stance taken under Executive Director, Antonio Maria Costa, entirely predictable. Release of the 2011 report gives a first chance to see if Yury Fedotov, his replacement, is going to approach the role any differently.

Right at the start, it does appear that there may be a difference in emphasis. The executive summary of Mr Costa’s last WDR looked at production before consumption. The 2011 Executive Summary reverses that and puts consumption as the first topic. Whether that reflects a true change of emphasis remains to be seen. It would be a small step towards a more sensible policy if UNODC recognised that fighting the ‘war on drugs’ by trying to limit production is never going to work if demand is present.

For the most part, however, the WDR continues in the same vein. 2011 marks fifty years since the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the WDR notes this milestone without celebrating it. That may be because, fifty years on and with four related conventions added to the armoury, Mr Fedotov’s preface calls for the international community to ‘make more effective use of all three Drug Conventions as well as the Conventions against Transnational Organized Crime and Corruption’. This message, which can be paraphrased as ‘The War on Drugs has failed. Let’s keep up the War on Drugs’, is consistent with previous WDRs.

But, there is an encouraging sentence; ‘On the demand side, there is growing recognition that we must draw a line between criminals (drug traffickers) and their victims (drug users), and that treatment for drug use offers a far more effective cure than punishment.’ It is unfortunate that this sentiment is being expressed just when, in the UK, the right-wing press has successfully forced the government to abandon plans to move in that direction.

But, rather than try and read the runes over whether a change of Director may be bringing about a change of direction, I want to look at some of the numbers. Don’t worry, I’m not going to try and analyse every statistic but I do think some of the numbers tell us a lot about substance misuse and the failure to manage it by the UN.

The first point is whether the numbers used are reliable. Since the 2009 WDR i.e. since 2007/8, consumption estimates have been given with a range. In the 2008 WDR annual prevalence of cannabis was put at 165.6 million. In the 2011 report, that has become ‘between 125 and 203 million’, clearly a much more sensible figure. But this pragmatic recognition of the difficulty of estimating an illicit industry does not stretch to the production side where the report states that 195,700 hectares of opium poppy were grown in 2010. Given that the majority of that land was in Afghanistan, an estimate to the nearest 100 hectares has to be highly speculative and acknowledging this doubt by offering a range on the estimate would actually increase its reliability.

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy, latex

Opium latex from a poppy capsule

Of all the estimates for production and output, I chose the area growing opium poppy because it leads on to another key factor in the present drug control regime. The area under cultivation in Afghanistan was said to be the same as in 2009, 123,000 hectares, but opium production fell because of the disease that affected the poppy crop in 2010. Opium production in 2009 of 6,910 mt fell to 3,596 mt, a fall of 48%. Global opium production, however, only fell 38%, to 4,860 mt because Myanmar increased its area under cultivation by 25% to take advantage of the lower production from Afghanistan. Though output only increased by about 320 tonnes of opium that represented around 75% more than in 2009.

This is clear proof that you will never deal with substance misuse by attempting to cut off supply. Someone else will always step in to take up the slack. But, it goes further than opium production moving from one place to another. The WDR says that amphetamine type substances (ATS) are used by between 13.7 million and 56.4 million people at least once a year. This group, which can be subdivided, roughly, into substances like methamphetamine and substances like MDMA (ecstasy), is second only to cannabis in its use around the world.

There is, clearly, a trend towards the use of synthetic psychoactives over plant-derived substances for a variety of reasons but what the trend shows is that, if people want to become intoxicated, they will find a way to get a suitable substance regardless of the stated aim of governments that ‘overall drug supply and demand [should] be “eliminated or significantly reduced” by 2019’.

Just two final points. The UNODC estimates that 17.9% of injecting drug users, that is 2.8 million people, are HIV positive and that around 50% of all injecting drug users, 8 million people, are carrying the Hepatitis C virus. The spread of these infections is not the result of drug use as drug warriors would have you believe. It is the result of drug use in the circumstances made necessary by the prohibition regime. It is all very well for the UNODC to talk about drug use being a health problem and users needing treatment rather than punishment but the present worldwide regime is a substantial cause of serious health problems for millions of people.

The other point worth making, though the WDR makes it without moving on to the logical conclusion, is that the global heroin market is valued at $61bn but Afghan farmers who contributed around three-quarters of the product earned only $440 million. As the WDR states ‘organized crime groups in the main countries of consumption reap the largest profits.’ The only possible conclusion from that figure is that fifty years of UN commitment to a ‘drugs free world’ has only succeeded in making a lot of very unpleasant people very rich indeed.

The world continues to act in a deluded fashion when it comes to substance misuse. There may, at some point, be an end to that delusion. It has to be hoped that the world will eventually realise that substance use and misuse is something that has to be managed because it can never be eliminated.