Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Opium in Afghanistan: Legalisation is still a solution to be considered

Based on a talk given by me at the Cato Institute, Washington D.C. on the 15th of November, 2011 & updated to include the latest (2013) rzpid opium survey report of UNODC.

Anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan: how the current approach is a failure and why drug legalization would have a positive impact on broader foreign policy goals in the region.

Consider this:  There could be about three million opiate users in the countries surrounding Afghanistan and inside Afghanistan. All depend on mainly Afghanistan for their supplies. Unless they can be cured of this need or they are supplied opiates eradication will never be successful. In the latest Opium Rapid Survey Report the UNODC has yet again (on 15th of April, 2013) admitted to an increase in opium cultivation in that blighted country. Read it here &

The South of Asia is a poor land, and Afghanistan is the poorest. With 42% of its population living below poverty it is no surprise that about 60% have given poverty as the reason for cultivating opium for the past nine years. Since 2002 about $ 50 bln have been spent on Afghanistan on development. Apart from improvement in education and a few roads there is little to show except in Kabul, where Afeem Mahals or Opium Palaces and attendant luxury shopping complexes have come up. 90% of the world’s opium comes from here and only 1% of the world’s seizures are here. War on Drugs has only jailed the increasing drug users.

This map gives an idea how not only Russia, Iran, Central Asia and Europe are threatened but distant N. America too, which got about 19 tons in 2009 and 22 tons in 2010. Heroin abuse in the US has been growing proportionately.

Afghanistan produces the most opium and heroin, but without Pakistan’s help its trafficking would be impossible. Congenial conditions in Pakistan ensure that for trafficking of heroin (150 t) there is no safer haven. On both sides of this open 2643 kms border between Pakistan and Afghanistan are people who have filial, cultural and economic ties with each other. None more steady than the three decade old one of narcotics.

The Afghanistan-Pakistan maps below show tribes and their locations on both sides of the border and drug routes. Most of the trafficking routes are in the south westerly Baluchistan region of Afghan and Pakistan. Till the 80s opium was cultivated in the shaded portions of the map in Pakistan. After US and UN bribed and forced out opium cultivation in Pakistan in the 80s the tribes took their poppy fields to Afghanistan.

Pakistan has about 1 mln heroin and opium addicts. The latter (around 600,000) require about a 150 tons of Afghan opium at least. Despite this opium cultivation is again increasing in Pakistan.


Till 1979, the year Soviets invaded Afghanistan, about 150 tons of opium was being produced and mainly for local use. Between 1980 and 85 as the US supported Mujahideen started controlling more areas the production increased from 160 to 480 tons. The Mujahideen were supplied scarce fertilizers for this purpose. The table below illustrates how from 1987- the year the Soviets retreated- opium cultivation shot up.

According to a 1987 article by William Vornberger between 1980 and 1986 the US is estimated to have given around $625 mln to the Mujahideen. It was clear by now that the US, the main fiancier of the war against the Soviets, was not interested in exterminating opium at the expense of the goodwill of the Mujahideen and the Taleban.

An article in the New York Times of May, 22, 1980 wrote “We worry about the growing of opium poppies in Afghanistan and Pakistan by rebel tribesmen…… . Are we erring in befriending these tribes as we did in Laos when Air America helped transport crude opium from certain tribal areas?” And the DEA, the only US organization sincerely trying to check this trafficking, was forced to cut its strength to two from 22 agents in the 80s. CIA agents replaced them.

After occupation by US led forces in 2002 strange turns by policy makers continued. All the Taleban were not hunted down. Take the case of Juma Khan of Zaranj in Nimroz.

He lived and trafficked openly. This is his mansion in Zaranj. No other house matches its opulence or security phobia. His house is across the road from the Governor’s office and two kms from Afghan Narcotics Force camp in Zaranj. Brazenly, caravans escorted by gun trucks such as the one below (which belonged to a rival war lord) would come and go unchecked.

In 2000 Juma Khan was the main negotiator between the Taleban and the US in discussions leading to the so called ban on poppy cultivation. In 2003 he was arrested for drug smuggling by US forces. Inexplicably released immediately, he became immensely wealthy through drug trafficking and bought properties in Dubai, Kabul and Zaranj. He was arrested from Indonesia in 2009 and has not been heard of since then.
In Time Magazine of 8.2.2004, Assistant Secretary of State International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs , Bobby Charles observed, “He’s obviously very tightly tied to the Taliban.… There are central linkages among Khan, Mullah Omar, and bin Laden.” 

This is not an isolated case. In December 2005, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized nine tonnes of opium from the house of the then Governor of Helmand, Sher Muhammad Akhundzada. But, American and British military intelligence forces ensured that his name was not sullied. He then became a Member of Parliament. Similar is the case of Izzatullah Wasifi, once Governor of Farah Province and from 2007 the Director of the General Independent Administration of Anti-Corruption (GIAAC) for a couple of years. He was arrested in July 1987 with 600 gms of heroin in Caesar’s Palace Hotel, Las Vegas and sentenced to four years in prison. Then there was Ahmed Wali Karzai, assassinated in July this year. He was the other power centre not only in Kandhar but also in all of Afghanistan because of his drug links that made him super rich after April 2002. How was he allowed to be so powerful? He had appeased both the US and the Taleban, and was assassinated because of increasing rumours that he was a CIA asset.

These were not field errors. It was high level policy decisions to use some Talebs, who also became fabulously wealthy after they started assisting the US led troops. Such dubious appeasement policies cut off good advisers/informers and left the crooks to guide enforcement. The Taliban continue to lance the benefits.
The current approach is doomed to failure, as old links have not been broken and wrong people continue to be trusted. The UNODC diagram below explains how much heroin is being exported from Afghanistan. Much of it through Pakistan.

Many well known routes, to Pakistan and Iran (the most used and the most profitable are the ones to Iran), that ought to have been monitored on account of the brazen traffic of contraband in both directions became free trade zones for narcotics, precursor chemicals and arms to traipse out and in.

   Smuggling unchecked- on the Iran Afghanistan Border in Nimroz 

This picture taken in late 2006 from the Afghan Customs and Border Police Post at Kurki on Lake Sistan in Nimroz – a Baluch area- bordering Iran shows how lax the control was. It still is. Those tankers and trucks at the back are from Iran and have come in bringing petrol. Precursor chemicals to produce heroin are suspected to come this way for the cost of Acetic Anhydride is still the cheapest in Nimroz. About 5-600 tons of Acetic Anhydride (AA) are required by Afghanistan every year to produce heroin. It comes through Afghanistan’s SW border with Pakistan or with its Western border with Iran.

AA seizures last year have only been 30.8 tons in the immediate vicinity of Afghanistan, and about 38 tons from countries in Central and East Europe. These figures are from Europol. All other statistics are from UNODC.

The border with Pakistan has a couple of border points that look efficient and secure. Like this one at Torkham on the Jalabad – Peshawar road taken last month by a friend of mine.

Yet a few miles on both sides of the border heroin and opium are sold openly today. The volume of trade can be guessed at by the several rehabilitation centres set up on both sides of the border. This impression of efficient security is only for show.

The picture below also taken last month shows the village of Marko, a little before the Torkham border crossing. Opium and heroin is bought and sold openly here. But, after the revealing BBC documentry on trafficking here last year they have all become camera shy.

If this is the effectiveness of well organized check posts no wonder the unguarded Baluch border has rarely troubled narcotics and AA traffickers.

AA is carried in drums of 100 litres or jerry cans of 35 litres, and it needs a friendly atmosphere as prevails at Torkham or Kurki. In the more distant posts there was no record of intelligence, no records of earlier cases, no register of informers, nor of suspects or suspected villages, no account of secret funds not even a map showing the area and routes etc etc. Posts on the Pakistan side of the border are very well administered, but yet success is simply unknown.

The bar chart below shows

a steep fall of opium production in 2001. This was the fall that consecrated the Taleban as a principled group in the eyes of the US media and many other Governments. Never mind their persecution of women. The real story is different. It illustrates how public health was sacrificed to appease the god of commerce. These two maps show how convenient and close Gwadar in Pakistan's Makran coast is to the gas rich Turkmenistan.

US Oil companies, eager to tap the immense gas reserves in Turkmenistan, wanted a pipe line from Merv through Herat and Nimroz in Afghanistan to Gwadar on Pakistan’s west coast. To justify such a project the Taleban’s image as opium producers would have to be changed for the American public. UNODC and US Government got the Taleban to promise that they would not grow opium. In March 2001 an obedient delegtion from eight western countries and the UN were led by Taleban and Pakistanis to those areas where there was no cultivation and on return they dittoed the optimism of the west and certified that the Taleban had kept their promise.

The truth was that a very severe drought had leveled their opium crops. All other crops had been decimated too. The opium production, though much less than the previous year’s 3300 tons could have been about 6 times that of the laughable 180 tons trotted out by interested parties. Drug use of opiates in Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan continued to rise. Seizures too rose sharply. There was obviously no shortage of Afghan opium, as the charts below indicate:

India alarmed by attempts to make the Taleban into little darlings had planned a satellite survey of some cultivation areas. Photographs, soil and vegetation samples and of other crops from some regions in the south were collected. These satellite pictures of fields in Nangarhar taken in March-April of 2000 and 2001 showed that opium was sown as usual. The first set shows an increase over 2000, and the second set shows a decrease. Attempts had been made to cultivate opium as before but a severe drought had affected production. The yellow pixels are opium fields.

Despite a margin of about 30% error the results indicated that opium production could have been about 1000 tons as against 3300 the previous year.

It required 9/11 to destroy the misplaced trust in Taleban. From that date all truck with Taleban ex or present ought to have ended. But it did not. After April 2002 many were allowed to escape to Pakistan, some joined the provisional Government and opium cultivation prospered. As did the Taleban. To collect their 10% commission efficiently (in 2011 they have earned about $ 104 mln according to the UNODC) from the farmers the Taleban have one representative on the shura or village councils of all the 12000 or so opium growing villages.

The only way out of this sorry cycle of collusion, ineptitude and predictable defeat in all things narcotics is to decriminalize opium cultivation and consumption. This could reduce corruption too. The middle men and traffickers will be out. There would be no need for farmers to be ‘protected’ at 10% by the Taleban, or suffer extortion by the Afghan Border Police and Narcotics Force. Legalising opium cultivation was first suggested by SENLIS Council (now ICOS) in 2005. This sensible option was ridiculed and laughed out of all meetings. Some of Senlis’s suggestions of control were too academic and innocent to be practical. Like that of village councils being the sole authority to manage opium production. A better and practical proposal can always be worked out.

The legalization of opium cultivation would work like this. INCB notifies certain areas of Afghanistan to cultivate opium. This first step is the most difficult, but if the US puts its weight behind it will be done- like in Turkey in 1974. Then a Competent Authority of the Afghan Government will declare regions that will be allowed to grow poppy. All the regions that are producing opium now could be licensed to begin with. Farmers apply for licenses at the nearest designated office by August in the south. At the time of giving licenses the farmer signs a contract agreeing to abide by the law and also agrees that if he does not give a Minimum Yield of say 40 kgs per hectare his license for next year will be cancelled. The licenses will be given by early October. The farmers can be subsidised to buy seeds and fertilisers and insure their crop. It will be convenient for licenses to be given for fields that are multiples of 100 sq mtrs. Trained Narcotics officials will keep track of each stage of the plants’ growth till collection. At the time of lancing, when each farmer will be extracting opium every day, the village council could keep a daily record of each famer’s opium collection. Both the register and the opium stocks will be subjected to checks by the Competent Authority.

On dates publicized well in advance, opium collection centres for groups of villages will collect opium. After weighing the opium, and conducting adulteration field tests each farmer will be paid most of the contracted rate of opium. The higher the yield above the Minimum Qualifying Yield the higher the rate of payment. The final payment will be made after each farmer’s opium is assessed at the morphine manufacturing unit that will hopefully be set up in Afghanistan. Once the results are in, it will be inevitable that some farmers will not have given the Minimum Qualifying amounts. Those who cannot give good reasons will not be licensed for next year. For a few years such farmers can be guided and subsidized with alternative crops or sources of income. It is inevitable that every year some farmers will drop off. This is the scheme in a nut shell. It will take 5-10 years. Even then there will be diversion of 10-30%, but any day that is better than the present 100% that is being diverted.

Almost ten years of enforcement have failed. Now the only hope is in legalization.

It will certainly reduce illicit opium supplies. This year about $1 bln is expected to be made by the farmers, and $65 bln by trafficking worldwide subsequently. About $ 100 mln will be extracted by the Taleban from the farmers alone. (UNODC in Afghanistan Opium survey 2011). From 2005-8 the Taleban had collected more than $600 mln from this sole surviving industry in Afghanistan. Legalization of cultivation makes economic and moral sense too. The Taleban would be starved of funds and the farmer will lead a life without fear.

This scheme has an another advantage. Councils (shuras) in opium growing villages have been infiltrated by the Taleban. Till now no power on earth has been able to remove these eyes and ears of the Taleban, nor has any intelligence been able to ferret any one out. With legalization this villainous representation will end.
Years of exploitation bordering on slavery, where some farmers had to pawn their daughters for loans and woe to him whose field was destroyed for that would mean a missing daughter, will be an awful memory.

There were two reasons to reject this proposal. Corruption, and lack of legal demand for morphine. Till now many countries like the US, UK and India, organizations like the INCB and UNODC and pharmaceutical companies of the UK and USA have claimed that there is not enough demand. Not so says a Feb, 2011 WHO paper called *“A First Comparison between the Consumption of and the Need for Opioid Analgesics at Country, regional and Global Levels” By Mari-Josephine Seya, Willem Scholten etc. They calculate that demand for morphine is about 7 times as high as the 350 tons projected today. The world has a potential of less than 10,000 tons and to produce the required morphine of about 2400 tons it will have to be at least 18,000 tons, and theoretically all of Afghanistan’s present capacity can be utilized.
Monumental and wide spread corruption has been encouraged by enforcement. That is why perhaps the Afghan Government scoffs at this proposal. The many Government wings extort money from the opium farmers. To top it all the US led forces will not drop enforcement as that will mean they have failed. Though they are making moves towards admitting mistakes. Eradication is being used less by the US acknowledging its inhuman and unjust elements. From a high of 21,430 ha in 2003, only 3810 ha were destroyed in 2010. It is Russia, with about 2.5 mln opiate users, that is desperately insisting on eradication. In 2008 it consumed about 70 tons of heroin and 58 tons of opium.

Narcotics is an important corner stone of anxious Russia’s foreign policy in this region. Iran has similar concerns in its foreign policy. In 2006 they had funded the construction of 28 fort like check posts in Afghanistan’s west, and the border is still wide open. With the decline in opium production in SE Asia the Chinese heroin market gets most of its 45 tons from Afghanistan, and this is reflected repeatedly in their bilateral discussions. Pakistan is still not worried enough to make it even a part of its domestic policy. India is worried but apart from continuing to discuss the possibility of helping improve Afghanistan’s enforcement ability it has done nothing. At President Karzai’s visit last month a narcotics treaty was signed (third one) but nothing will come of it too. In India’s border state of Punjab all the villages on the border with Pakistan have at least half its youth addicted to Afghan heroin.

Legalisation alone will not be sufficient. To be effective this scheme will have to consider the about 3 mln opiate users in the countries neighbouring Afghanistan. If they do not get their dosage they will ensure that illicit cultivation continues. They have already seen how fragile enforcement is. To deal with this problem all these users could be registered, given opium through Government offices, dispensaries and hospitals in the affected countries of the region. It is not a preposterous suggestion as it seems. It was briefly tried in India in 1959, and as soon as it helped tackle illegal demand India signed the UN Single Convention of 1961 and it was stopped. However, after much protests UN allowed India to have one more round. In 1972 all registered addicts, about 300,000 I think, began to get subsidized opium. For ten years addiction was contained and there was little diversion from legal cultivation. However as the older addicts died, and no new ones were allowed to register diversion started. By 1999 about a hundred official users were left, while the actual number would have been about 2 mln (its 3 million now). In that year India wrote to the INCB to renew the scheme once again so that diversion could end and these people could be helped with rehabilitation too. It was rejected, as were suggestions to the Government of India to ignore the Convention and go ahead. Result: Not only is there diversion from licit fields continuing, but India’s own satellite surveys show that there is at least 20,000 hectares of illicit cultivation.

The European Parliament had on 21.9.2007 adopted *Resolution # RR/390526EN recommending legalization of opium cultivation but nothing came of it as the US did not support it. Legalisation stands a chance only if USA supports it.

About 52% of opium is converted into heroin in Afghanistan, in places like Baramcha in SW Helmand, Jalalabad, Achin and many others. In Pakistan’s Baluchistan the town of Dalbandin is similarly notorious and also for sheltering the Taleban if they are in danger in Helmand or Kandahar.

Afghanistan, which has about 1 mln or 3% of its population using opiates, has a sensible draft proposing decriminalization for users called *“Possible Framework for developing strategy for Drug Demand reduction and Drug Use Related Harm in Afghanistan 2011-2015” pending with its Ministry of Counter Narcotics for ten months. It will stay in that state I guess unless the US allows it to do so. Within the US, where every 19 seconds a drug user is arrested (Source: LEAP), this topic is taboo.

Opium production in 2011 is expected to be around 5800 tons says the latest UNODC Survey. 61% more than last year’s 3600 tons. 65% of the areas that experienced thoughtless eradication have shown an increase in production. Another bad year for enforcement. Another profitable year for the Taleban. Legalisation could end this cycle of hopelessness.

I shall end with these pictures from an old Indian magazine. The top one was taken in 1999 and the lower one ten years earlier in 1989 when President Najibullah was just about managing to hold on to power. Afghanistan cannot recover till the Taleban, once the hand maidens of the US, are extinguished. We can not see this kind of open joy in our life time. So what if Afghanistan was in the Soviet Camp. People were happy and free. But then the US was not happy, and that is why drones and airplanes rain death and destruction on the innocent and perhaps on some Taleban too. Afghanistan in those halcyon days was far removed from the wretched crater of ruins, hopelessnes, dead, dying and maimed that it is now. God Bless America with isolation.

(Pictures from India Today, 8th October, 2001)

Romesh Bhattacharji,

Friday, July 29, 2011

Khardung la is not the highest pass inthe world


This is a photocopy from a 1:50,000 scale Survey of India map, and it shows clearly that Som la (present day Khardung la) is about 5370 m (17613ft) high.

Khardung la (actually Som la) in October 1973

The Nubra side of Khardung la (Som La) in October, 1975. That tormentiung glacier has melted away with today's traffic!

Khardung la (Som la) in October, 1977.

 It is only 17,580ft in height. Or 5360 mtrs.

The Cartographic Institute of Catalonia, Spainm after several professional readings in 2005  gave the height of Khardung la as 5359.3 mtrs. The Indian Surveyof India map puts it at 5440m or 17843.2 ft.

With this lowering of height I hope that the hideous boastful sign boards will disappear too.

The highest motorable road in the world is now perhaps over Semo la in Tibet, China. Semo's height is 5565 m or 18,253 ft. Please see this link

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The OTHER view of International Drug Day- what lies beneath the cover up

World Drug Day- - Why have drug policies failed?

June 26 is the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1987. Today United Nation’s Offices of Drug and Crime (UNODC), in the developing world mainly, will be encouraging celebrations to mark World Drug Day. There will be sponsored speeches, sponsored processions waving sponsored placards, shouting sponsored slogans. What is there to wave and shout? Cultivation, trafficking, processing of synthetic substitutes and abuse of narcotics is higher than ever before. Increasing millions of drug users have limited access to treatment services, a basic violation of the right to health or life and the traffickers are more pushy.

On this day the UNODC invites a select audience (in the west no one bothers) to congratulate itself on a job done well. There are more drug users now than earlier. Evidence from UNODC’s own statistics disprove this:

Cannabis users:
147.4 million (1998) and 160 million (2008) an increase of 8.5%
Cocaine users:
13.4 million (1998) and 17 million (2008) an increase of 27%
Opiates users:
12.9 million (1998) and 17.35 million (2008) an increase of 34.5%

Then there are more than 100 mln synthetic drugs users that keep increasing every day. This day is a reminder that despite global strategies and policies, there are a growing number of drug users and traffickers.

The reason for this vast gap between hopes and performance is that the UN willfully blinds itself to reality couching its actions behind approvals by false prophets, puppet experts and committees that do what financially powerful countries want them to do.

Here is an example of how they deceive themselves. Antonio Costa, the former head of UNODC, in the 2008 World Drug Report’s Preface boasted that in 1909 there were more than 43000 (41,600 were produced in China- Source: Report of the International Opium Commission, Vol. I, 1909) tons of opium were produced and a hundred years later just about 8000, attributing this success to UNODC’s efforts. The truth is that it was the Government of the People’s Republic of China that cut the production to almost 5% by 1952. At that time China was not even a member of the UN, and yet with tongue firmly in cheek the UNODC takes credit. Consequently, in the 50s cultivation of illicit opium increased dramatically in the so called Golden Triangle.

The UNODC has a long history of misinterpreting facts, ignoring facts and shaping its policies on that of the US. It obliged the US by sending a docile team in March, 2001 that certified, after visiting one small corner of Achin in Nangarhar, that the brutal Taleban they had not cultivated opium in the Afghanistan under their control. The US wanted this certification to justify building a pipe line to carry gas from Turkmenistan through West Afghanistan. The real reason for this fall in production was that there was severe drought and the opium crop suffered proportionately. Only 180 tons or so was produced. About 8 mln suffered from hunger in 2000-1, but this reason was ignored. India’s own satellite surveys had shown that sowing of opium was as usual (Frontline 14-27, September, 2002). You play with the devil and every one suffers. Banking on this fake goodwill a Taleban delegation was taken to the US to meet leaders of the UN and the US.
The US started supporting narcotics trafficking in SE Asia from the 50s when CIA sponsored the Sea Supply Corporation and in the 60s Air America. They ferried narcotics, arms and cash for insurgents. It did not matter who they were financing as long as they were anti-communists. In The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia Alfred McCoy gives many disturbing facts and figures proving this unethical support. The same tactic was repeated in France when the CIA financed the Corsicans to bash French communists later exposed as The French Connection but glamourised in an American friendly film of the same name. Pierre Chouvy’s excellent expose of this nexus can be read in his gripping book called Opium: Uncovering the Politics of Opium. In Latin America the Contras were encouraged by the CIA to finance their hideous activities from cocaine.

In 1971 Nixon declared a War on Drugs, and soon this slogan was adopted by the UN, which provided the cloak for the US dagger. After Nixon’s grand declaration the US increased its support to narcotics trafficking as long as communists were being targeted. In SE Asia there was massive increase in opium cultivation that was tolerated by the US while as late as 2000-2 drug users were being killed in Thailand and small opium farmers in the Kachin State of Myanmar. A fact ignored by the UNODC while congratulating Thailand and Burma for a job well done. In Afghanistan of the 80s poppy cultivation was encouraged by the CIA, which was instrumental in getting most of the 80 or so DEA agents ejected from Pakistan so that the Mujahideen and the Taleban could drug finance their war against the Najibullah government of Afghanistan. In Nicaragua the US supported the Contras in their narcotics trafficking in the 80s. This is the double speak that comes naturally to the US. And the UNODC never opposed it.
The Special Session on Narcotics, which the UN had organized (UNGASS) in 1998, had claimed that the War on Drugs would be over successfully by 2015. The session in 2008 was more sober and refrained from making any predictions though it still used suspect data to express optimism.

This myopia of the UNODC is nothing new. Their War on Drugs started from 1961 when a group of so called experts articulated their fears in the Single Convention of the UN and proposed terrible punishments. These experts had declared that by 1985 there would be no coca chewing and no cannabis use (Article 49 (2) e & f) amongst many other similar laughable hopes. Coca chewing was a hasty senseless ban, and cannabis use has increased manifold. This and the other two Conventions with similar flaws the UNODC resists changing. In India, 1985 saw the emergence of the draconian NDPS Act, with the inception of which the legal use of morphine for pain alleviation came down the following year from 1 mg to .3 mg per head. As the risks of taking narcotics were high so were the prices, so was adulteration, so was needle sharing and thus so was HIV Aids.

The themes of the past ten World Drug Days have been health of the drug user ignoring the equally important trafficking component of the original idea. After all about 300 mln of the world’s 7 bln are addicted to some drug or the other. Yet health is far from UNODC’s actions. They have not yet been able to support decriminalization of drug users. Such a move will improve the health of millions of drug users the world over. This stubbornness of the UNODC towards change has forced several countries to make their own path with much more success in containing drug abuse and trafficking. UNODC still echoes only what the US thinks.. war, war, war. Despite UNODC’s insistence on health being their most urgent concern it took them more than 15 years to take the first hesitant steps in 2005 to encourage harm reduction programmes for drug users. Harm reduction means reducing the risks to the health of drug users by giving them unadulterated substitutes, access to clean needles and syringes, services for sexually transmitted infections, hepatitis and tuberculosis, pain and distress management, psycho social support and employment opportunities. As the US had objected to it, the UNODC too did not adopt it for long. After pressure from more progressive countries could not be ignored they began endorsing it tentatively.

India too has suffered from UNODC’s obtuse adherence to the Conventions. In 1971 or so a onetime exemption was given to the Government to provide subsidized opium for registered users. At that time there were about 300,000 or so. In 1999 less than a hundred were left. But the actual number of opiate users in 1999 was about 2 mln. It was suggested to the UNODC then that another exemption could be given so that all these users could be identified and given subsidized opium. This move would have helped in their rehabilitation as well as prevented diversion from licit cultivation. The UNODC disagreed. India now has 3 mln opiates and several thousands of illicit opium cultivation in 7 states, and India’s narcotics establishment does not have the will to go against a mere paper even though its own people are suffering and being exploited. Many other countries ignore the inconvenience of being signatories and go ahead and do what they think is best for their people. E.g. Portugal, Brazil, Netherlands etc et al.

On the 2nd of June an appeal to end the War on Drugs (WOD), organized by the Global Commission on Drugs and prepared by the prominent Trans National Institute of Amsterdam some twenty former heads of state and foreign policy chiefs of the UN, EU, US, Brazil, Mexico, Switzerland etc and the serving PM of Greece criticized WOD as a complete failure and favoured decriminalization and regulation of drugs. Users of narcotics should be offered education and treatment, rather than being incarcerated, they advised. And countries which insist on continuing a "law enforcement" approach to drug crime should focus resources on taking down high-level traffickers, rather than arresting street dealers. A positive sign even though some of these leaders did not express themselves as strenuously when they were in power. A surprise inclusion was a former Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Anan during whose tenure UNGASS 1998 reaffirmed its faith in WOD. The US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said the report was misguided. Head of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service Viktor Ivanov said "The aim of the report is to distract attention and not to allow the international community to consolidate efforts in the fight against a drug threat". Conveniently forgetting that 50 years of doing just that has only worsened the mess. For the sake of the well being of 300 mln drug users it is to be hoped that people in power do not wait till after retirement to speak what they feel.

The world’s narcotics bureaucracy still insists that this is the only way! Now though less is heard of the term WOD the policy prevails. The UNODC adopted the philosophy of the War on Drugs as well as the phrase. For the US Government it was only a hypocritical slogan as they continued to collaborate with insurgents and drug gangs to drug finance their wars against communism. This cooperation with drug traffickers covered Asia, Europe and Latin America and spanned 4 decades.

In India basic rights for drug users is still missing. Complete absence of justice. The national health policy also has ignored the drug users. 10 mln drug users and half a million serious drug users require medical help fast, but many of them are in jail, hardly enough rehab centres and no one bothers. In 2003 I had met a heroin using male model from Tarn Taran. He told me that 20% of all the youth in the border villages of Punjab are addicted. Today more than 50% of the youth in all the villages from Pathankot to Abohar are taking Afghan heroin despite arrest rates having shot up by 35%.

The reason for the drugs to mushroom has been the US’s failure to contain its own drug users and traffickers and its support to drug trafficking all over the world to serve its immediate political ends, and the UNODC’s inability to oppose it.
The war on drugs slogan dutifully adopted by the UNODC in the 80s meant actually war on only the drug users. Not on the traffickers, who are conspicuously absent from every World Drug Day themes. Everywhere, India included, most of the people incarcerated, harassed and prosecuted have been and are drug users. Many countries are trying to humanize their laws but they have incurred the skepticism and wrath of the Western Block.

US, the country that introduced WOD to the UN, has a drug problem that is out of control despite total war on drug users. About 21,000 dead of drug over dose in 2008. 21 mln addicts several of the injecting users being as young as 12 years. Yet it presumes to dictate to the world how it ought to tackle their problem. The UNODC has no Country Office to help them, as it does in every developing nation. WOD meant incessant attacks on the weakest in their society. In California, with 170,000 prisoners (40% for minor drug crimes and most of them Black) more money is spent on incarceration than on education. In a May 2011 TNI essay “Education or Incarceration” Tom Reifer, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of San Diego wrote “With only 5% of the world’s population, the US now has 25% of the world’s prisoners; ..... One indication of fiscal priorities is that the average starting salaries of California correctional officers are higher than those of Assistant Professors at the University of California....” This is the pillar of democracy that guides the UN by the collar. Mainly because it is its largest funder. $3.9 bln in 2008. Of the $470 mln budget of the UNODC the US with about $90 mln is the single largest contributor.

The many experienced people who have worked, uninfluenced, for a long time with all kinds of narcotics problems, say that the most sensible policy is to treat drug abuse as an ailment and to completely decriminalize it. 50 years of severity has only served to worsen all statistics. Several countries from Europe and Latin America have bucked the pressure, cynicism, scorn and opposition of the US, UK and the UNODC. They have liberalized their laws for drug users. Switzerland in 1991 and Portugal in 2001 and Netherlands, Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina too have all made laws easier for drug users. Portugal’s has been a carefully recorded change. They found that the drug abuse has come down and police is making bigger cases against traffickers. Bolivian President Evo Morales fed up with the obtuseness of the UNODC to continue with the ban on coca chewing brought a wad last year to a Conference in Vienna on drugs and chewed it to show that in his country it was a traditional pick me up with no after effects. Their high altitude miners chew it every day. He has threatened to pull out of the UN if this ban is not lifted. Hardly anyone is as outspoken as Morales. I have not heard of any specialized drug organisstions or dissenting countries aggressively pursue a review of all the three Conventions, which ought to be upper most in all agendas.

With casuistry, misrepresentation and fudging of facts being the weapons of the UNODC can there be any progress?

There is an impressive array of experience, good sense, and talent providing good guidance towards a future course of action to contain the drugs problem. All seem to accept the fact that the UNODC is indispensable. Instead of combining their energies to reform the world’s largest NGO they keep taking pot shots at it without making a dent. They are like dhows armed with bows and arrows attacking a battle ship. They should instead take charge of the steering wheel. Reform is a word that is anathema to the UN system. The UN system lacks confidence to such an extent that they fear that even a mild reform is “thin edge of the wedge” and will bring their house down. That is why in the past two years a loose coalition of countries led by the US and branding themselves as “Friends of the Convention” has come up to articulate their fears of reform. This motley collection has more money than sense, and thus a darling of UNODC.

Why does the UN shy away from reform, which is long overdue? In the past 50 years there has been change everywhere but not in the UNODC.

Indispensible it is but certainly not infallible. The UNODC is a useful organisation to coordinate world’s actions in controlling drug use. It is the only arrangement that can bring together about 190 countries to discuss common drug issues. That it has not been successful in its main goal is because it is not transparent, democratic and impervious to the clout of its large donors. It has cynically ignored those well meaning countries that have made a successful path of their own, refusing to learn from them.

The movement against UNODC’s policies has also its ample share of nuts, who say that Enforcement is responsible for drug wars and gang warfare (Report by specialists and doctors from the University of British Columbia wrote in The International Journal of Drug Policy March, 2011), and some who say that addiction to drugs is a matter of right (Harm Reduction Conference, Liverpool 2010) etc! The foolish war on drugs has spawned a similar moronic reaction. The UNODC is also the only International organisation that has the capacity to have ascendancy over this kind of extremism, but because it has so many frailties it is unable to do so. Typically of such one sided shoddy research is the fact that no one from enforcement participated. Such demented thinking harms attempts to reform as these Liliputian Quixotes are easily brushed aside and discredit the entire movement.

It ought to be realized that the well entrenched narcotics establishment as well as the UNODC cannot be dislodged. It has to be rebuilt.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Cannabis- an Indian view

(Malana- in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, North India: Home of Malana Cream the world renowned hashish. A disuassion meeting in progress in Sept 2008. No success.

Top: Another attempt at preaching in November, 2009. No luck. Cannabis is still King.)

This was how I started my end of the discussion on Cannabis in a mmeting held in Lisbon shortly. The views here are entirely mine and no one in India could have influenced me.

1- Some years ago when I was posted in Calcutta in the eastern part of India I used to see workers in an adjacent plot constructing a huge building. They would cook only one meal a day. Intrigued, I investigated. They smoked 5 gms of cannabis a day and that gave them energy to do strenuous work. - - There are at least 10 million regular cannabis users in India. Almost equal to the population of Portugal. Most of them take it because of necessity. They belong to the uprooted rural poor. Cannabis maintains the illusion of a full stomach. This enables them to labour hard and long. They send most of their earnings home to support their families in the villages and pay off the vultures who lend them money at exorbitant interest. They age at 50. Don’t blame cannabis for premature ageing as some do all too eagerly in India. Its excessive exertion with little nutrition.

In some states of Northern India and Eastern India there are many bhang shops. Bhang is an extract from hemp or from the male cannabis plant. It is commonly drunk with crushed rose petals, melon seeds, almonds mixed with curd and milk. It is not covered by the NDPS Act, but is a State subject. The state licences some shops to sell bhang. There are about 800 shops in Rajasthan alone. It is supposed to be a harmless drink but too many glasses can knock out a first timer. India had specifically asked for bhang to be excluded from the Convention as it is part of a 2000 year old tradition and has also a religious function.

In addition there are many cannabis users who consume it for relaxation or for rituals and these can not be even counted.

Whenever there is large scale destruction of cannabis, the poorest get kicked in the stomach. There is always a price increase. Mercifully, such destructions are now rare, as enforcement has realized that cosmetic destruction has no purpose and complete extermination of cannabis is downright impossible.

India has had a long experience with cannabis. In 1895 there was the Royal Hemp Commission which concluded that “its effects were benign ….. & that no irreversible health or social damage occurred because of its short or long term use….” 102 years and several Commissions later there was still no proof that cannabis was harmful. In 1997 All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi the leading research hospital in India had held a workshop with the Ministry of Health after researching effects of cannabis on health for many years. They could not add much to what the Royal Hemp commission had said. As this was a Government sponsored seminar they could not go against existing policy and couched conclusions with lots of maybes, ifs and buts. However, their findings eventually influenced the Government to reduce the penalties on drug users especially those who took cannabis. From 2001 ‘small quantity‘ of cannabis meant 1 kg instead of 500 gms.

India had from 1955 to 1959 even allowed licensed cannabis cultivation.

Then came the horrendous 1961 Convention. And, after Article 49s meaningless grace period of 25 years ended, India had enacted its Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substance Act of 1985. Today not only is cannabis cultivation and use still common all over India, it has increased immensely. The NDPS Act influenced by the First Convention could not limit cannabis cultivation and usage at all. Post 1985 people were jailed for what they had been doing openly for hundreds of years earlier.

The problem not only remains but has hit the fan and despite hopes expressed down the decades by friends of the Convention and UNGASS I & II all efforts to suppress cannabis use have decisively failed. The First Convention was made mainly by lawmakers and pharmacologists and bureaucrats far removed from actual knowledge of narcotics. Today, even though, abetted by the UN, ignorance or indifference still rules in many countries, there are many organizations that have researched this subject well and are thus against these restrictions. They ought to be heard rather than stubbornly dittoing past mistakes.

2- India is absent from most international debates because they are embarrassed by the uncontrollable cannabis production and use in India, and by the condition of the people who abuse it. In some international discussion in the 90s India had opposed any concessions. Internationally though India would agree with the US in not diluting the severity of its laws.

3- India had a relaxed attitude towards all kinds of addiction till the First Convention. In 1985 a tough law was introduced hoping the problem would go. Well, the problem of cannabis is still there and much more than any policy maker or law enforcer could have ever dared imagine. Now hashish is being produced in large quantities too.

Limited enforcement resources are the only reason that India has been soft on cannabis. Had there been more officers, the jails would have been filled with mainly cannabis users as they are the easiest to get at.

4- India has for the past 50 years been researching medical uses of cannabis as well its harmful effects. Recently Indian laboratories have found (as have many others round the world) that cannabis is good preventive for vomiting, pain and glaucoma. The only other lesson that can be learnt from India’s experience is to have a population as large as India’s and then such problems will be ignored!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A foreigner's thoughts on the Line of Control in the Great Karakoram

Below is an extract from an article I stumbled upon recently. The thoughts are worth reading and considering, but acting upon them will be folly. Some time back the Mumbai based Indian mountaineer Harish Kapadia had suggested that all this entire area be turned into a park. A park!!! So that people from both sides can appreciate the rugged majesty of the Great Karakoram.

I cannot support this idea, for we can not trust Pakistan, much as I support the idea of us being friends. With our forces gone there is no doubt that their forces would sneak in. To all those people that say that this area is worthless, my reply is that this beauty is priceless.

However read on. It is a very good article and I have given the link to the rest of it. If you further explore Dr. Wheeler you will be surprised that he is a latter day Rambo Reagan, who believes that Capitalism is the cure all for all the ills in the world, everything American is right and Communists practice Black Magic!! This is much before Wikileaks. Poor sap. Wonder what he must be feeling now that the carefully built puppet regimes of the US in the the Arab world are rapidly falling. Yet, he is not all mad, as can be seen by his comments below:

" Comments about the Indo-Pak stand off on Siachen-

by Dr. Jack Wheeler at Concordia—Friday, 26th of July, 2006

Here is a picture I took of a map in a tiny Pak military encampment:

I hope you can make it out. The solid red line is the border with China. The dash-dot line snaking down perpendicular from the red line is the Line of Control (LOC), the de facto border to the left of which is Pakistan, to the right India.

The dashed red line on the Pak side is the flight path of the helicopter pilots to resupply the troops. It follows the Baltoro Glacier up to Concordia (marked on the map at 15,900 feet) then turns right and heads for Siachen.

Note on the Indian side the position closest to the LOC is the Kumar Post. This is named for the legendary Indian Army mountaineer who first explored this entire region in the 1950s, Col. Narinder "Bull" Kumar.

Seeing this map marking the Kumar Post brought a big smile to my face, for Col. Kumar has been a good friend of mine for many years. It was Bull who organized my expedition to raft the Zanskar River in the remote region of Indian Tibet in 1993.

It also brought a smile to my son Jackson's face, for he and I had lunch with Col. Kumar at the Delhi Golf Club just a week before.

Nothing characterizes the "lunacy of the legacy" of British India splitting apart than this pointless war 21,000 feet high in a glacial wasteland, where thousands of soldiers have died of frostbite, exposure, and altitude sickness, many more than have died in actual fighting.

The whole situation makes China very happy. As long as the armies of Pakistan and India are obsessed with hating and fighting each other, China gets to be Asia's only superpower and push everyone around.

China's greatest fear is peace between Pakistan and India. Should these two countries decide to "Make Money, Not War," to settle their differences and focus on how to bring free trade and prosperity to their peoples, the result would be a huge threat to Chinese hegemony in Asia.

A market bigger than China's (1.4 billion including Bangladesh vs. 1.3 billion) where all educated people speak English (English is the official language of both India and Pakistan) would be a magnet for foreign investment, sucking it out of China.

China would at last have an Asian rival, capable of standing up to it economically and militarily. If only the Pak and Indian armies could figure this out, that they could play significant roles on the entire Asian stage instead of bloodily dicking around on lost glaciers no one really cares about.

So as our helicopter lifted off from Concordia and we had our last glimpse of K2 as we started down the Baltoro Glacier, I had a flash of fantasy.

What if this magical name of Concordia stood not just for the most magnificent scenery on earth, not just for a gigantic glacial confluence, but the place where a concordance was finally reached between India and Pakistan? Where war was abandoned in place of doing business together? Where each country saw a vision of how flourishingly successful they could be through mutual cooperation, rather than how they can annihilate each other?

Well, it's a nice fantasy, I thought, one with the delicious side-benefit of really shafting the Red Chinese. Still, our coming here was once a fantasy. And now it had actually happened. About one thing I had no doubt - that I will be here and do this again next year.

By: Dr. Jack Wheeler at Concordia—Friday, 26th of July, 2006


Written by Dr. Jack Wheeler
Friday, 28 July 2006