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Ending the ‘war on drugs’ requires justice for the impoverished communities who grow them

Amidst media furore over illicit drug use, Tory leadership favourite Boris Johnson dodged questions today over past drug use, whilst the wheels of Michael Gove’s campaign for the premiership are careering to a halt. Eight of the eleven candidates have admitted to some form of drug consumption, from Hunt’s cannabis infused lassi, to Rory Stewart’s opium smoking in Iran.

Quite rightly, Gove has been taken to task for advocating policies which saw teachers banned from their profession for taking class A drugs while he was education secretary and for upholding a justice system which incarcerates people for up to seven years for the very behaviour he previously engaged in. Despite the political elite’s refusal to deviate from the party line that prohibition is essential to create a ‘drug free world’, the evidence from around the world is clear – more people now produce, sell and consume illicit drugs than ever before.

Undoubtedly, the scandal has shone light on the hypocrisy of the so called ‘war on drugs’ in the United Kingdom, particularly, the highly racialised and class based dimensions of its application. It is clear this is not a war on illicit substances, but on racialised and working class people.

Yet the scope of drug policy discourse rarely turns to the people whose livelihoods depend on the production of plants which go on to be consumed by the political elite as illicit drugs. Indeed only Rory Stewart made passing reference to this when he referred to the communities he smoked with in Iran, saying “the family may have been so poor that they put very little opium into the pipe.”

Despite the dominant narrative of the drugs trade painting a picture of assumed wealth, violence and organised crime, the majority of people involved tend to be poor and otherwise marginalised due to their race, gender, indigenous status and/or lack of formal land rights. The global commitment to prohibit drugs at all costs means that rural and indigenous communities involved in the cultivation of prohibited plants such as cannabis, coca leaf and opium poppy are routinely targets for repression and suffer from discrimination, stigmatisation, criminalisation, imprisonment, and the destruction of their livelihoods.

While political actors from the UN and state governments argue that prohibition can coexist with a human rights approach, the evidence remains that focusing on eradication and punitive responses creates and reinforces cycles of impoverishment that can be hard to get out of. For instance, when producers’ crops are eradicated, farmers can lose all of their (small) income, making it harder for them to access healthcare or buy food. This can create a vicious cycle where illicit crop producers become increasingly dependent on cultivating prohibited plants to counter the poverty forced on them by eradication. Both at home and abroad, people who receive criminal convictions for supplying or possessing drugs can often find it harder to access jobs, which makes it harder for them to stop engaging in the drug trade and consigns them to a lifetime of poverty.

In the case of Michael Gove’s cocaine, prohibition has been a recipe for human rights violations against coca growers in the Andean region. Indiscriminate aerial crop spraying of the herbicide glyphosate (more commonly known as Monsanto’s RoundUp) to destroy illicit crops was the foremost strategy employed by the US backed “Plan Colombia” between 1999 and 2015. During this time, around 1,800,000 hectares of coca fields were sprayed across rural areas of Colombia. As a result, the Colombian Ombudsman’s Office received many thousands of complaints about the effects of glyphosate including reports of polluted drinking water, destruction of food crops and health problems to communities and livestock (skin rashes, diarrhoea, headaches and respiratory problems), severely impacting on the right to food, water and health of those exposed.

In addition, violent repression of the coca growing community by military and police forces has been reported across Latin America. In 2017, six coca growers were shot dead and 21 others injured during a protest against coca eradication in Colombia. In Peru two farmers were killed as recently as April this year during a similar dispute over eradication.

In terms of opium, the situation is similar. While farmers in countries like Mexico and Afghanistan battle eradication, criminalisation and violence, the fate of those caught up in the transportation and supply of the raw opium and heroin is stark, with numerous governments around the world continuing to use the death penalty for drug related offences. As reported by Harm Reduction International in their recent report, a number of these people are engaged in the lowest levels of the drug trade, socio-economically vulnerable, are tried without due process and/or have inadequate legal representation – which means that the death penalty is in reality reserved for the most marginalised in society.

Turning to cannabis, it could be argued that things start to look a little bit brighter given the recent developments in legal regulation of recreational and medicinal markets within a number of US states, including Canada, Uruguay and others. Portugal decriminalised personal use of all drugs in 2001, leading to a sharp decline in drug related deaths, new HIV infections and drug related crime. Clearly, prohibition is not working. We must commit to exploring the alternatives, but we must not forget that legal regulation and decriminalisation are not panaceas.

We can see the tide is turning towards legalisation, in part because there is a great deal of profit to be made by transnational corporations. Producing cannabis in a country of the Global South country where land can be cheap, labour law is lax and the tax system provides plenty of leeway for foreign investment, and is leading to the so called ‘green rush’. We cannot allow the interests of capital to erase the rights and needs of traditional growers of these plants nor the communities who have been most affected by the violence of prohibition.

Legalisation, combined with robust and social justice focused regulation could provide a real opportunity to begin repairing some of the harms of prohibition, reinvesting in communities which have suffered from police harassment, criminalisation and incarceration should be a critical priority. Diverting the nearly $100 billion currently spent on funding prohibition towards public health systems, education and the structural causes of poverty which drive people towards the drugs trade in the first place.

But this can only be done by foregrounding social justice within legal regulation and putting the health and rights of those who are currently marginalised under prohibition at the centre.


This piece was first published by Open Democracy on 12 June, you can find the original here.

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