Dependent on development: why we’re losing the war on drugs

Development agencies can’t ignore the impact of illicit drugs. AAP

Around 6% of the world’s population aged 15 to 64 use illicit drugs – that’s 250 million people. It’s a rapidly changing population, with many different pathways to illicit drug use and new users constantly joining the ranks.

While illicit drug use is a global phenomenon, the distribution of production and use varies enormously between countries. Production tends to be concentrated in countries that are economically and socially underdeveloped. But they’re not just servicing the developed world.

Consumption is increasing in countries surrounding Afghanistan, including Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. Drug use is also on the rise in Russia, India and parts of Africa.

And almost half of the world’s amphetamine users (methamphetamine and ecstasy) live in Asia.

Our research, examining the global relationship between underdevelopment and illicit drug production, found the less economically and socially developed a country, the more likely it was to be a producer and exporter of illicit drugs.

This situation is exacerbated where there is a history of conflict, often over many generations like we’ve seen Afghanistan, Burma and Colombia.

Before looking at solutions though, it’s important to understand the impact the international community is having on this situation.

There is an enormous gap between global responses to underdevelopment and global responses to illicit drugs – it’s as if the one is entirely ignorant of the existence of the other.

Almost universally, agencies involved in social and economic development programs ignore the existence of illicit drug production, trade and consumption in their locale of action.

This is despite frequent evidence of the impact drugs are having on the development project – or, more often, of the effect the project is having on creating vulnerabilities to drugs.

A common and devastating process by which this happens is through the corruption associated with the drug trade, which perverts the funding for development and the authorities responsible for ensuring it works.

And even more universally, agencies charged with controlling illicit drugs ignore the social and economic environment within which they work.

The U.S Military’s role in eradicating opium crops in Afghanistan, for instance, is good for public consumption, and gives the appearance of success in the “war on drugs”.

Afghan police and U.S Marines hold an anti-drug summit.

But production of opiates continues to thrive in Afghanistan, which provides 60-70% of the world’s illegal opiates. And if you revisit the site of an eradicated opium crop two years later, you will find one of three situations:

  • the locals have gone back to growing opium because it’s the only crop that seems viable and will provide them with subsistence;

  • they haven’t been able to go back to opium growing and are mired in even deeper poverty;

  • or they have left the area – usually for the city, where they swell the ranks of the slum dwellers.

Development agencies need a far greater focus on their role and ability to help change environments where drug economies flourish.

Large infrastructure projects such as dams create a mobile labour force, enrich some people in the community but then remove them from the stability of their home and create new markets for drugs.

Likewise, roads that open new supply routes expose new populations to drugs. And failed agricultural developments can turn small farmers to drug crops as their only viable alternative.

Whether development projects are directed at improving governance, infrastructure, agriculture, education, or any other area, development agencies must be aware they are potentially creating vulnerabilities to drug use or production.

If a country is deeply dependent on the production of illicit drugs, development agencies must target this problem too. The farmers and others in the community who are dependent on the trade, must be helped to develop realistic alternatives to growing the drug crop.

The simplest thing for development agencies to do is to ensure that impact on drug production, trade and/or consumption is considered in feasibility and impact analyses that precede any development program – as is currently done for gender and poverty.

In this, partnership with expert drug agencies will then allow dialogue about how to prepare for, prevent and deal with potential impacts.

Similarly, drug control agencies need to look at the social and economic environment in which they operate.

They must look well beyond the simple rhetoric and goal of stopping drugs and invest in solutions that address the clear social and economic factors that ultimately fuel drug cultivation and drug consumption.

If the farmers in Afghanistan or Burma or Colombia don’t have viable, more attractive alternatives, they will go back to growing opium or coca…it’s inevitable.