Friday, October 17, 2008

How to make cocaine

As this film from the Lonely planet travel channel demonstrates, its surprisingly easy*. Not the high tech bond-villain underground laboratory many seem to imagine, nor even the bandana wearing terrorist types with AK47's in a jungle fortress, no - it's an old bloke in a hut with a bag of leaves and a few buckets of chemicals from the local hardware store.

Cocaine powder can be nasty stuff, and I'm fine with people telling others, especially young people, that it's potentially very bad for you and you shouldn't use it. Id actually say that maybe we should do a bit more of that given that use has at least doubled in the UK in the last decade (note: its always been Class A - so what happened to the deterrent effect of Home Office mythology?).

But watching this short film it struck me how preposterous it is that the lion's share of the our 'anti-drugs' budget goes on supply side enforcement instead of public health based interventions (be they prevention/education, treatment or harm reduction of one form or another). Our collective primary response to, what is most commonly, lets face it, peasants in a jungle stirring some leaves in a bucket, is to spend billions deploying high-tech military resources with all guns blazing, black hawks, heavily armed storm troopers, satellite surveillance and all the rest. Quite aside from the fact that crop eradication has been one of the most ridiculous policy disasters of the 50 years (untold billions spent, millions of acres of land, and not a few peasants, sprayed with toxic chemicals - yet cocaine production trebling) you have to look at these impoverished people struggling to survive and wonder if, just maybe, we've picked the wrong enemy here.

Supply side controls have never, and will never, prevent the production or supply of plant based drugs if huge number's of people demand them at a level that they are willing - in substantial numbers - to buy them from gangsters and street dealers for ridiculously inflated prices - with no information or guarantee of strength and purity. People are weird like that.

But this is no 'counsel of despair', its simply the reality of economics in a completely unregulated illegal market controlled by criminal profiteers. If a kilo of cocaine costs £200 from a peasant in Colombia, and sells for £100,000 on the streets of London, you tell me how you think we are going to prevent it getting from A to B? But don't take my word for it;

What about George Bush (just about still US president) who said in 2002: 'As long as there is a demand for drugs in this country, some crook is gonna figure out how to get 'em here...'

Or indeed former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in January 2001 'If demand [for drugs] persists, it's going to find ways to get what it wants. And if it isn't from Colombia it's going to be from someplace else.'

Or Antonio Maria Costa, Director of the Unite Nations Office for Drugs and Crime who noted in 2008 that prohibition was responsible for creating a 'huge criminal black market that thrives in order to get prohibited substances from producers to consumers, whether driven by a 'supply push’ or a 'demand pull', the financial incentives to enter this market are enormous. There is no shortage of criminals competing to claw out a share of a market in which hundred fold increases in price from production to retail are not uncommon”.

The UN's drug head honcho also observed - with his economist's hat on- (in 2007) that: "I invite you all to imagine that this year, all drugs produced and trafficked around the world, were seized: the dream of law enforcement agencies. Well, when we wake up having had this dream, we would realize that the same amount of drugs - hundreds of tons of heroin, cocaine and cannabis - would be produced again next year. In other words, this first dream shows that, while law enforcement is necessary for drug control, it is not sufficient. New supply would keep coming on stream, year after year."

Tony Blair's 10 Downing Street Strategy Unit report in to the illegal drug phenomenon , in 2003, concluded that: “Over the past 10-15 years, despite interventions at every point in the supply chain, cocaine and heroin consumption has been rising, prices falling and drugs have continued to reach users. Government interventions against the drug business are a cost of business, rather than a substantive threat to the industry's viability.”

I could go on, but why bother? The politicians making the decisions and committing the money know full well that supply side controls are pointless (if not actively counterproductive) and evidently don't even make much of an effort to conceal the fact anymore. The truth is that these enterprises stopped being about preventing drug production a long time ago - if they ever were about that. Today, whether in Colombia, Afghanistan or anywhere else, these military policing efforts are part of a vast and complex array of interconnected political agendas, military interests and geopolitical strategies, for which the drug war is merely a convenient front.

* Cocaine production remains thoroughly illegal. Do not try this at home, or anywhere else for that matter, even if you can get hold of a tonne of coca leaves.


Anonymous said...


It's 'counsel' not 'council'... otherwise some 'interesting' points... yawn

Anonymous said...

"Today, whether in Colombia, Afghanistan or anywhere else, these military policing efforts are part of a vast and complex array of interconnected political agendas, military interests and geopolitical strategies, for which the drug war is merely a convenient front."

Bravo! More please!

It's as if people really think Ollie North was some kind of maverick going it alone, and the whole thing was an isolated case. Planes used in CIA "rendition" flights have been coming down all over the world full of cocaine even this year!

I read Venezuela grabbed an (ahem) 'ex' CIA plane with 5 tons on board, next up Bush was threatening to withdraw "drug interdiction funding" because they were not producing results in the "War On Drugs" , i.e. threatening to withdraw millions of $$ in aid because they caught the wrong bad guys?

The WOD stinks, no drug baron could spend the profit from one years business in a lifetime! Follow the money all the way back to Wall Street, find the real criminals, the real profiteers from the WOD.


Anonymous said...

Firstly the lion´s share of the drugs budget is not spent on enforcement. The lion´s share is spent on treatment. I´m not sure how much the UK spends on enforcement in columbia, but it ain´t much.

Secondly enforcement does work. It massively pushes up the price of cocaine as you said. Without enforcement, the 1kg of cocaine costing 200 pounds could be sent by DHL to London for about 50 pounds, maybe a bit more if it was guaranteed. However, this is not to say that this is a good thing or to disagree that enforcement is working less well over time.

Steve Rolles said...

Only about a third of the 'drugs budget is spent on education and treatment (and a sizable amount of the treatment budget is administered through the criminal justice system). include the wider costs to the CJS of drug enforcement (albeit mostly domestic) and its fall out in terms of crime creation and the equation is stretched far further. We do not, i agree, spend a great deal in Colombia (although the US spends many billions - the plan colombia, the Andean initiative etc) but we do spend a fortune in Afghanistan on utterly futile counter drug initiatives - with substantial human as well as financial costs.

yes - prohibition inflates the cost of illegal drugs (although as the markets become more efficient this effect has steadily declined) - but this has had predominantly negative effects - attractying violent gangsters to the trade and pushing dependent users into huge volumes of aquisitive property crime.

Obviously state control of markets would allow interventions on price controls/tax. This means a difficult balance has to be struck between discouraging illicit markets (price to high) and promoting use (price too low) rather like we have with tobacco, but at least in a regulated market this possibility exists - currently we have no possibility to intervene at all.

Steve Rolles said...

anon BTW - Ive updated 'counsel'. I think I must have had the ACMD in the back of my mind.

Anonymous said...

It´s not true that 'only about a third of the drugs budget is spent on education and treatment'. It´s closer to two thirds with only one third spent on enforcement.

However, that is just the drugs budget and it is true that the wider CJS costs dwarf the drugs budget. See the Home Office online report 16-06 which estimates that CJS costs of enforcing drugs laws related to Class A drug use alone were over 4 billion pounds in 2003-04.

You assume that the expenditure in Afghanistan is drug related rather than 'national security' related.

Steve Rolles said...

anon - apologies, you are correct, regards the official 'drugs budget' covered by the strategy.

Re Afghanistan - the mission is more than purely anti-drug, but that remains a key element of the strategy both for UK and US. NATO have only last week been talking up eradication again. US spend 100 million a day on the Afghan military campaign - with drug eradication one of their key stated objectives.

I think it is reasonable to say, viewed globally, anti-drugs resources are dramatically skewed towards enforcement and not public health.