Australian Outlook

In this section

Drug Prohibition and National Security

23 Jun 2016
By Dr Alex Wodak AM
Global Drugs Prohibition.
Photo credit: Innocent Coppieters (Flickr) Creative Commons

As we mark the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on 26 June, it is useful to look at the state of global drug prohibition efforts and their impact on national security.

Just as Buddhists say that everything has a cause and an effect, global drug prohibition also has its causes and effects rooted in violence, oppressed minorities, rampant corruption and failed states. Serious threats to national security are an important but rarely discussed cost of drug prohibition.

One of the more significant factors involved in the establishment of global drug prohibition was the large positive trade balance China maintained with the rest of the world in the 18th century. China was then busy exporting tea, silk and porcelain and importing little. The East India Company began exporting Indian opium to China with this trade later taken over by the British colony in India. The opium trade increased considerably and ultimately led to the First (1839-42) and Second Opium War (1856-60) which so humiliated China and still strongly influences China’s national outlook. US Christian missionaries witnessed the immense cruelty of the British forcing opium on Chinese people and reported these observations to Washington with the US government pressured to “do something”. This and other factors led to the US convening the International Opium Commission in Shanghai in 1909.

After this meeting, drug prohibition began to evolve slowly. A number of other meetings eventually culminated in three international drug treaties (1961, 1971, 1988) and the establishment of an array of United Nations organisations responsible for formulating, implementing and monitoring policy which emphasised attempts to restrict supply. Notwithstanding the fact that the US remained the world’s largest consumer of illicit drugs, the US was the main nation driving the development of this global system and then maintaining and extending it. Certain drugs, now numbering about 250, have been prohibited. Only the recreational use of these specified drugs was prohibited while their medicinal and scientific use was, in theory, unaffected. During the Cold War illicit drug cultivation and production were concentrated in lawless remote areas from Turkey to South East Asia where communist and anti-communist forces abutted. Gaining the support of local drug warlords was critical for both communist and anti-communist forces.

Countries where substantial drug production or trafficking takes place usually pay a very high price. Opium production in Afghanistan and Myanmar, cocaine production in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia and extensive trafficking in Pakistan, Mexico and Central American countries have seriously destabilised these countries and eroded their civic institutions. This has led to increased threats to regional and international security. Affected countries often experienced unbearable levels of violence and corruption. Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared a war on drugs on his first day in office (1 December 2006). This provoked an epidemic of violence costing 100,000 lives over the next six years. Afghanistan and Pakistan faced many other serious problems but drug prohibition undoubtedly made their terrible situations even worse. President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother was a major Afghan opium warlord. Afghanistan has produced more than three quarters of the world’s heroin since the USSR invasion in 1979. More than 70 per cent of the opium grown in Afghanistan is cultivated in the two southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar with both provinces controlled by the Taliban. Australia was one of many countries contributing military forces to the International Security Assistance Force. Considerable western treasure and blood have been spent in Afghanistan in more than a decade in the battle against the Taliban. Identifying the benefits of these western sacrifices is very difficult. The Taliban partly supported its military activities from the sale of opium and heroin. High prices and spectacular profits in the opium trade arise from unsuccessful attempts to prevent the supply of opium and heroin to distant markets.

When the benefits and costs of global drug prohibition are being assessed, the impact on national security should also be considered. In recent years world leaders and senior law enforcement officials have become increasingly prepared to acknowledge the comprehensive failure of global drug prohibition. While governments in recent decades relied largely on supply measures to control illicit drugs, the drug market expanded considerably and became much more dangerous. Deaths, disease, crime, corruption and violence increased during the last half-century. A fatalism about drug policy has developed. Many leaders accept that current drug policy has failed but are not yet prepared to consider alternatives.

The threshold step for drug law reform is redefining drugs as primarily a health and social issue. Governments need to reduce and where possible eliminate criminal justice sanctions for drug supply and use. Drug treatment needs to be expanded and improved until it reaches the same standard as other health services. Policy should aim to integrate people who use drugs in the community. Although the political difficulties are considerable, governments need to regulate as much of the drug market as possible. Needle syringe and methadone programs and drug consumption centres are examples of regulating parts of the drug market. The extent of extreme poverty also needs to be reduced. As long as large numbers of young people perceive that a few hours of intoxication will be more enjoyable than the same period coping with squalid housing and unemployment, the drug problem will grow.

Politicians find the drug problem extremely difficult. For decades, bad policy has been good politics and good policy is still often bad politics. But community attitudes are changing. Some politicians have started to lead and not just follow. The community is starting to realise that so-called illicit drugs are here to stay. We have to learn to live with them. Until now, political forces prevented pragmatic approaches and the resulting huge economic forces of the drug market prevented drug policy from ever being effective.

Most social reform is very slow. Drug law reform is likely to also take several decades. It is realistic to expect that one of the benefits of significant drug law reform will be a less dysfunctional and less violent world.

Dr Alex Wodak AM is president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation. This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.