24 June 2009

Tough Times for the Drug Market?

These days, it seem everyone is having to cut back to get by. Apparently, global drug traffickers are no exception. Perhaps blaming it all on the economy is overly cynical. Maybe law enforcement efforts are making a difference. But in any case, the drug biz isn't growing like it used to. Opium cultivation in Afghanistan (home to 93% of the world's opium), has dropped 19% and Colombian cocaine cultivation is down by 18%, according to the World Drug Report 2009, just released today by UNODC. The report reveals that global coca production is at a five-year low (845 tons).

Unless you're in the drug trafficking business, this is mostly good news. But the report points to some troubling trends as well. Among the most worrisome is a production shift from developed countries to more fragile, less stable developing countries. This trend is especially evident in synthetic amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), like methamphetamine. And to compound the problem, it looks like use of these substances might be increasing in those areas as well.

Trafficking routes are also changing a bit. Interdicting cocaine (with about a 40% seizure rate) is easier than opiates where only a fifth of the trafficked supply is being caught. The three main opium hubs continue to be in Afghanistan, Myanmar/Laos, and Latin America, but some new alternatives are being paved from South-West Asia to South-East Asia and from South-West Asia to North America. Cannabis resin still runs primarily from Morocco and South-West Asia to West and Central Europe.

This set of issues sets an interesting introduction for the release of Vanda Felbab-Brown's new book: Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs. Felbab-Brown is well-acquainted with the connections between drug traffickers and insurgents and certainly knows how criminal organizations in some regions are seriously undermining the rule of law and disrupting political stability and legitimacy. But she does not believe that counterdrug campaigns aimed at eradication are the answer. In fact, she argues they may make matters worse. Why? Because of the strategic asymmetry trap. When the government "cracks down" or takes aggressive enforcement action, the nonstate actors (drug lords in the this case) portray the state as an aggressor, and themselves as the people's protectors. The government loses legitimacy and the traffickers win the hearts and minds ... at least that's the argument.