Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Manufacturing the Drug Threat

N.B. This blog comes with a policy nerd warning!

Those who have followed the drugs debate will be only too aware of the way that politicians play on the fears of their citizens in order to maintain the war on drugs, despite the fact that it is their citizens who bear the brunt of its counterproductive effect. The International Relations theory of securitisation describes, better than any framework I’ve seen, how the threat-based process works. Moving to a non-securitised approach is essential to ending the war on drugs.

Securitisation is described as “the move that takes politics beyond the established rules of the game and frames the issue either as a special kind of politics or as above politics” (Buzan et al. 1998: 23). By declaring something a security issue, the speaker entitles himself to enforce and legitimise unusual and extreme measures to fight this threat. Referenced from here.

Rita Taureck of the University of Birmingham describes securitisation:

“The main argument of securitisation theory is that security is a speech act, that alone by uttering ‘security’ something is being done. “It is by labelling something a security issue that it becomes one.”(W√¶ver 2004a,) A securitising actor, by stating that a particular referent object is threatened in its existence, claims a right to extraordinary measures to ensure the referent objects survival. The issue is then moved out of the sphere of normal politics into the realm of emergency politics, where it can be dealt with swiftly and without the normal (democratic) rules and regulations of policy making. For the content of security this means that it has no longer any given meaning but that it can be anything a securitising actor says it is. Security - understood in this way - is a social construction, with the meaning of security dependent on what is done with it.”

This table illustrates how the process of securitisation applies to drug policy:

In March 2009 Senator John McCain described President Calderon's struggle with the cartels as "an existential threat to the very fabric of the government of Mexico," a statement Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she agreed with.

In April that year Hillary Clinton told a House committee that the government in Islamabad is ceding territory and "basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists" in signing a deal that limits the government's involvement in the war-torn Swat Valley. Adding: "I think we cannot underscore [enough] the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by the continuing advances," said Clinton, adding that the nuclear-armed nation could also pose a "mortal threat" to the United States and other countries.

The following is from former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and appeared in the International Information Program electronic journal "U.S. National Security Strategy: A New Era", issued in December 2002.

“Perhaps most fundamentally, 9/11 crystallized our vulnerability. It also threw into sharp relief the nature of the threats we face today. Today's threats come less from massing armies than from small, shadowy bands of terrorists -- less from strong states than from weak or failed states. And after 9/11, there is no longer any doubt that today America faces an existential threat to our security -- a threat as great as any we faced during the Civil War, the so-called "Good War," or the Cold War.”

The use of the phrase ‘existential threat’ is highly revealing if you are aware that its source is the Copenhagen School, and appears in ‘Security: a new framework for analysis’ Buzan et al 1998. In a significant theoretical departure from classical security studies, Buzan, Waever and De Wilde came up with a new framework they called ‘securitisation’.

So, an existential threat is constructed as a threat to the very existence of the referent object. It is an academic version of “We’re all going to die!” It is generally understood that a speech act is made by a political leader and that the intended audience is the public. In the war on drugs the audiences who need to buy into the speech act are in fact other governments.

In this Transform briefing on securitisation, International Security and the Global War on Drugs: the Tragic Irony of Drug Securitisation, we suggest that there have in fact been two securitisations connected with global drug policy:

Securitisation 1 Fifty years ago the international community, through the UN, (and under considerable pressure from the US), agreed that addiction to and abuse of “narcotic drugs” constituted a threat to mankind. Describing it as a “serious evil for the individual” and “fraught with social and economic danger to mankind” and “Conscious of their duty to prevent and combat this evil” they agreed to put in place “effective measures against abuse of narcotic drugs” stating that this would “require co-ordinated and universal action”. These words from the 1961 UN Single Convention formed the basis of what has come to be known as the War on Drugs.

The “universal action” was to treat coca, cannabis and opium based drugs, destined for non-medical use, as a threat to the very existence of civilization as we know it. It is this threat-based approach, (in contrast to our predominantly trade and public health-based approach to alcohol and tobacco) that gave rise first to a global regime of prohibition and, somewhat predictably, to a globally profitable market exploited by organized criminals.

Securitisation 2 Over a period of decades these criminal cartels became a significant economic global force and, in combination with non-state actors, are perceived as a threat to nation states, and indeed entire regions of the globe. The 1988 UN Convention on drugs reads:“Recognizing the links between illicit traffic and other related organized criminal activities which undermine the legitimate economies and threaten the stability, security and sovereignty of States”. The recognition of this secondary threat from organized crime, the global community, again under pressure from the US (and in denial that it was the primary prohibition that had created the opportunity for organized criminals in the first place), embarked upon an increasingly militarized drug war to neutralize the ‘threat’ to nation states.

The collective amnesia, that it was the initial prohibition that created the opportunity for organised criminals, means that many politicians deliberately or unconsciously conflate the two securitisations and contend that ‘drugs’ or ‘addiction’ are the threats, when in fact the far greater threats arise from the ‘unintended consequences’ of the ‘extraordinary measure’ – prohibition.

It could be worse however. We might have had a thrid securitisation. In March 2010, during an expanded session of the Russia-NATO Council in Brussels, Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN), presented Moscow’s seven-point plan on fighting drug production in Afghanistan and suggested creating a joint group with NATO to tackle Afghan poppy production.

Among other ideas, the plan included “an upgrade of the status of the Afghan drug production problem in the UN Security Council to the level of a threat to world peace and security."

The inherent nature of a securitisation is anti-democratic, in so far as it is “the move that takes politics beyond the established rules of the game and frames the issue either as a special kind of politics or as above politics”. That is why evidence is anathema and why the political rhetoric around drug policy is so irrational and populist in tone. Once an issue has been securitised, a system of propaganda must be maintained to hold it within that framework.

Which leads me to one last point. When a securitisation has been in place for as long as the one relating to the non-medical use of drugs, progressive reform in itself becomes a ‘threat’ – a ‘threat’ to a long standing mission and some very well resourced agencies, charged with fighting the drug war. Now we see that what is actually under threat is an inflexible world order. A world order, whose long standing international relations, and indeed, national domestic social policies are predicated on fighting a futile war on drugs, are fundamentally threatened by a reform process that undoes its foundations.

Since the recent economic meltdown, it has been suggested that the global financial institutions are “too big to fail”. In many ways this is the case with macro-securitisations, like those of terror and drugs. There is so much political and economic capital tied up in the securitisation of drugs, it is difficult for those in power to envisage its demise. Tragically, what is bringing criticism of the securitisation to the fore, are the events in Mexico, Colombia and West Africa (very few care about Afghanistan). The collateral damage of the 1961 convention is taking a very heavy toll and the threat based narrative is sounding tired and paranoid.

When the US objected to Bolivia’s recent attempt to end the ban on coca chewing, they cited their main reason as maintaining the “integrity” of the UN Conventions. It isn’t the integrity of the Conventions that they are interested in maintaining, it is the maintenance of a world order, so much of which is based upon two major securitisations.

It is time that those pursuing a threat-based approach engaged in genuine debate regarding the outcomes of the extraordinary measure of prohibition and explored whether legally regulating drugs could deliver the kind of security outcomes that meet the needs of ordinary citizens in Colombia, Afghanistan, Mexico and West Africa.


I am indebted to my colleague Emily Crick for introducing me to the concept of securitisation, its application to international drug policy, and for numerous conversations that were essential to the develpment of this analysis.

Further reading:

Robert Mackey says the only real existential threat to the US is the Russian nuclear arsenal.

Jan Freeman on whether US citizens will believe the threat propaganda.

Wikipedia entry on securitisation.

Barry Buzan video on security.

Manufacturing Consent – Herman and Chomsky