June 04, 2004 | Graham

Is the War on Drugs hurting the War on Terrorism?

According to Rory Callinan in The Australian Afghanistan is expecting a bumper 3600 tonne opium crop – the same as last year. This “will provide a huge narcotics war chest for Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists who have been squeezed by new financial tracking operations.” In fact, it might be larger than Rory suggests, because Reuters credits the US with believing that the crop will be 50% larger this year than last.
Apparently 1.7 million Afghans, or 7% of the population, are involved in poppy production. It’s not surprising. James Kunder from USAID says “Today, what a farmer can realize for planting a hectare of wheat is about one-thirtieth of what a farmer can gain by planting a hectare of poppy…So those are the kind of economic factors you’re looking at. To us [at USAID], it’s astonishing that the percentage of Afghan farmers who are actually growing poppy is well under 10 percent.”
Why is the return so high on something which appears to grow so easily? Because the heroin that is produced from it is illegal in most Western Countries, and has been for the last 50 years. Has the ban done us any good? Professor Manderson of McGill University, Montreal, doesn’t seem to think so, judging by the topic of his lecture “Bewitched by the Fear of Possession: Fifty Years after the Prohibition of Heroin”. (But we won’t know what he thinks until he delivers his lecture at Brisbane’s QUT on 6th July. So ring Sian Haigh on 3864 2712 if you want to be in the front row).
I can’t wait for Professor Manderson (but couldn’t resist putting in a context sensitive ad for one of our sponsors) who apparently sees parallels between prohibition and witch trials, and my view has always been that the ban is more trouble than it is worth. 150 years ago the British and French were fighting a war against the Chinese for the right to export opium to China on low tariffs. Today, profits on the sale of refined opium are being used to fight a war against us, profits that are only huge because now we put a tariff on the importation of heroin by making it illegal.
I think that the War against Drugs is one where we should repatriate our troops. Why? Because it has failed on every count. It has not decreased the number of users of illegal substances and it has made it worse for people who do use. The side effects for society have been horrendous. There has been an increase in crime. Users steal to keep up with the inelastic demands of their habit. There has also been an increase in the number of criminals. By definition, users and suppliers become criminals, even if otherwise law abiding, but that then results in less ambiguously criminal people being attracted to the industry creating a vicious circle.
There has also been a decline in respect for authority. Most Australians at some time in their life personally flout the criminal laws either as a principal or an accessory. Who in my generation hasn’t both smoked and inhaled or at least associated with people who do, and failed to notify the police? We have no problems with this behaviour because most see drug use as socially benign and victimless. Police, often caught in the middle, become corrupted. That turns some police into criminals leading to a further decrease in respect for authority.
The whole war, while counterproductive, is also hugely expensive. If all the money spent chasing drug pushers and investigating bent coppers were spent on recruiting more police and putting them on the beat, how much safer and crime free would our cities be?
Now we are faced with a new side-effect. What will we do? At this moment drug profits could very well be financing an exercise to severely restrict the supply of oil from the Middle East. If that drug is denied the veins of western economies, then we will really know what withdrawal symptoms are. One justifiable line of criticism of the War in Iraq is that it is a distraction from the War against Terrorism. The War against Drugs could be just another such distraction. In any event I think we are more likely to win the War in Iraq than the one against drugs.

Posted by Graham at 2:09 pm | Comments (4) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. Call me a cynic, but wasn’t that already fought in the jungles of South America by a couple of former (and now one just deceased) US Presidents?
    Don’t tell me junior has to go in and finish all of Daddies’ unfinished bloodbaths…
    Apart from the juvenile US bashing I’d like to make the suggestion that if the ‘great economic powers’ came together and used defence spending to target areas of risk (you know all of the usual suspects) with aid programs (education, health and infrastructure, fairer trade etc.), wouldn’t we be able to set the world on a course where extremists wouldn’t have much of a say because the people were happy? Then maybe Afghani farmers wouldn’t grow poppies and U.S farmers wouldn’t create surplus crops driving prices down.

    Comment by matt byrne — June 6, 2004 @ 8:40 pm

  2. So what aid programme would you prescribe for Palestine, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, the Sudan, Zimbabwe etc. etc. etc. to make the people happy?

    Comment by Graham Young — June 7, 2004 @ 6:26 am

  3. I know I was being idealist when i made the suggestion, and yes this may not apply to all naions in need, but i think it could work quite well in the solomons, phillipines , indonesia, PNG, east timor, brazil etc. etc.
    In the cases of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, the Sudan, Zimbabwe etc (Palestine is a different case i think). We may well have to resort to embargos and or military action, but this hasn’t been the best way to rid these countries of dictators with examples like nth korea, iraq, cuba, it only served to strengthen the position of these people. What do we do instead?
    I don’t know, support civil uprisings and potentially witness a massacre, contribute via assination (illegal)? One possible solution is neighbours pressuring that nations leaders to capitulate, but i can’t think of an example of this happening, and how they would go about it.
    So you got me on some cases that is for sure.

    Comment by matt byrne — June 7, 2004 @ 1:58 pm

  4. I guess what I was driving at is that the cause of most third world poverty is self inflicted at the level of national governance. The best aid we can give these countries is better ways of running their countries. Zimbabwe is a case in point. According to The Economist (premium content so neither of us can read all of it) more than 50% of Zimbabweans are dependent on food aid because of Mugabe’s land re-distribution programme. Now he is likely to make it worse by nationalising land holdings. You can read about this latest on the Financial Times site at http://news.ft.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=FT.com/StoryFT/FullStory&c=StoryFT&cid=1086445525738
    McKinsey has also done some recent work on world poverty and they reckon the major cause of it is low productivity, which in one sense is a “no brainer”, but in another, given that international focus has been on macro issues is an important contribution to the debate. You can read their research at http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/article_page.asp?ar=1423&L2=19&L3=67&srid=27&gp=0

    Comment by Graham Young — June 11, 2004 @ 6:47 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.