Breaking the Taboo on Drugs

By Keating, Michael | The World Today, July 1997 | Go to article overview
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Breaking the Taboo on Drugs


Keating, Michael, The World Today


The drugs trade is now a significant part of the international economy. The number of users is increasing, despite determined efforts at control. No one can calculate the international cost. Is it time for politicians to think the unthinkable and decriminalise drugs?

ACCORDING TO THE FIRST EVER WORLD DRUG REPORT, published towards the end of June and issued by the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), the total revenue of the illicit drugs industry is around $400 billion, or about eight per cent of total international trade. This figure is `larger than the international trade in iron and steel, and motor vehicles, and about the same size as the total international trade in textiles ...'1 This staggering statistic is buttressed by estimates of production and consumption. Production of coca leaf has more than doubled and of opium poppy more than tripled since 1985. The quantity of illicit synthetic drugs seized - which include amphetamine-type stimulants and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) - multiplied by nine between 1978 and 1993, suggesting a massive hike in production.

Illicit drug consumption is increasing throughout the world, most notably of synthetic drugs. Conservative estimates are that 140 million people use cannabis, over 30 million amphetamine-type substances, 13 million cocaine and 8 million heroin. The evidence is that these numbers are rising.

Evolving trade

The illicit drugs trade is constantly evolving. Distinctions between 'producer' and 'consumer' regions are breaking down. Countries traditionally thought of as producers, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia and Peru, are developing their own illicit drug consumption problems, and those thought of as consumer countries in Western Europe and North America are emerging as major producers of synthetic drugs.

The industry itself is dynamic. It has to be, to stay at least one step ahead of law enforcers. Highly centralised and tightly controlled organisations sit atop networks which finance activities ranging from crop production, smuggling and money laundering to property speculation.

The industry relies on cheap labour, usually exploiting rural poverty, to maintain supply, and depends on the cooperation of a wide range of workers and professionals, including farmers, transporters, agronomists, scientists, financiers, lawyers and politicians.

Driving all this is the prospect of vast profits. Price structures resemble an inverse pyramid, with greatest profits being made at the wholesale and retail levels. According to the new report, a Bolivian farmer can get $610 for a kilo of coca leaves; cocaine powder is sold in the United States for approximately $110,000 a kilo. The 'farmgate' price of opium in Pakistan is $90 a kilo; the US retail price for heroin of 40 per cent purity is $290,000 a kilo. UNDCP estimates that at least 75 per cent of international drug shipments would need to be intercepted (the current interception rate being a mere fraction of this) to make a serious dent in the profitability of trafficking.

Flying blind

The true impact of the trade may be unfathomable - in a sense, we are all flying blind. How many people are implicated? How deep has the corruption gone? The clandestine nature of the trade limits our knowledge about how the industry is evolving. Sociological and scientific knowledge about the effect of drugs on society is limited. The health consequences are unknown - for example, of new 'designer' drugs now coming on to the market.

Survey after survey underlines the high priority the public accords to efforts to control the problem of illicit drugs. Throughout the world, extensive coverage is given in the media to drugs stories. Politicians everywhere repeatedly denounce the evil represented by the threat. In industrialised countries, vast sums of money are being deployed, with America leading the way. The US government spent over $13 billion on drug control activities in 1996 (0.

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