A sense of déjà vu: Illegal drugs in West Africa and the Sahel

As supply control policies for illegal drugs achieve partial successes elsewhere, international drug markets are shifting production and transit to West Africa and the Sahel. Facilitated by limited law enforcement and border control, the drug trade has been redirected along the historical trading routes of the Sahel. Though an integrated international approach would seem logical in the current context of a worldwide ban on the drugs trade, we need to be aware that conventional state-oriented, security-minded agendas tend to harm civil society more than criminals.

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Cocaine Unwrapped

This is not the first time I write here about the war on drugs, the debates around it and some changes in drug policies in selected countries.

These debates arise in multiple formats and one of them is documentary films. There is a kind of ‘boom’ of films and documentaries that cover this issue with different positions and points of view (although it must be recognized: most of them are quite critical).

The House I Live In, by Eugene Jarecki, is a detailed account of the drug war in the US and its impact. This film was awarded the Jury Special Prize in Sundance (2012). Breaking the Taboo is part of a campaign to support the positions and conclusions of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. With the voice of Morgan Freeman guiding us, former presidents like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter take position here. It can be watched (or bought) in iTunes.

But now I want to talk about Cocaine Unwrapped (2011), by Rachel Seifert, about the drug war in America. A Colombian peasant that has managed to avoid joining the guerrilla thanks to a few coca plants; representatives of the cocaleros in Bolivia explaining the system implemented by the current Government to respect the traditional and cultural uses of coca leaves; the war in Mexico, and hopelessness in Baltimore streets (that will resonate among followers of The Wire). All them are different sides of the same problem.

This is the Review I have published in Global Policy (September 18). I encourage you to see it.

Rethinking drug policy in the US?

Two events this week may signal the beginning of a new approach in the fight against illegal drugs in the US.

Last Monday, a judge in New York ruled that the Police Department policy of stop-and-frisk violates the Constitution by disproportionately targeting black and Hispanic people. The tactic has been used 4.4 million times between 2004 and 2012, and 80% of the cases affected black or Hispanic suspects.

Judge Scheindlin wrote: ”The city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner.” Her ruling confirms that, for low level and non violent drug offences, mainly related with marijuana, there is a racial bias so that this policy disproportionately affects minorities.

On the other hand, the Attorney General Eric Holder announced the end of mandatory federal prison sentences for low-level and non-violent drug crimes. Mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes –marijuana possession in particular– contribute disproportionately to the country’s overcrowded prison system.

The FBI recognizes that a marijuana related arrest happened every 42 seconds in the US by 2011, with 750.000 arrests total.The number decreased to a half the following year, but is still much higher than arrests for other drugs.

Eric Holder made the announcement at the American Bar Association’s meeting in San Francisco. Incarceration should be used to “punish deter and rehabilitate, not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,” Holder said in unveiling the new policy shift.  He said mandatory minimum sentencing has cost the government $80 billion in 2010 alone.

Although moderate in scope (with critics saying that this is not enough), both initiatives may result in less incarceration rates and lower sentences for low-level drug offenders.

I have talked about the war on drugs before in this blog. However previous posts engaged in the international dimensions of the ‘war’ while not touching the war as it is waged within the US. It is no surprise: the hardline approach is also true in US territory. A strong focus on Law enforcement has created the highest incarceration rates in the world, with many people jailed for even low-level drug offences, specially when it comes to minorities like black and Hispanic people. Policies of prevention of drug consumption trough education and health approaches have received far less attention and scarce resources. 

The Obama Administration announced, as early as 2009, a new approach towards illicit drugs. The intention was good, although results have fallen short. The issues mentioned here mark a departure, if limited. Let’s see the results.