The United States and its allies have been prosecuting the war on drugs for almost a century. They have never looked like they’re winning but they have carried on regardless. In the past year, however, the supporters of drug prohibition have suffered some important tactical defeats. The bipartisan consensus in Washington, although still powerful, is beginning to slip. But there is a strategic issue now facing supporters of prohibition that presents them with their toughest challenge yet, and Canada will be a key battleground. This will unfold in the next decade and may bring an end to the war on drugs, which has consistently failed to achieve its stated aims despite devouring hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars.
At the heart of this problem lie synthetic drugs—pills that are changing the rules, pushing out the old organic masters, cocaine and heroin, and turning the geopolitics of narcotics upside down. It is something that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is beginning to fret about.
For years, UNODC and its boss, Antonio Maria Costa, have been among the most vocal supporters of the war on drugs. UNODC has been the United States’ spearhead for its global campaign (it is the only UN agency for which Washington coughs up its contribution on time every year without moaning about it). And appointments like Costa’s are carefully vetted by the Americans. He and his colleagues have long demanded ever-more punitive responses against drug users and traffickers with a rhetoric that stands in sharp contrast to the usual strains of Kumbaya coming out of most UN agencies. I was shocked when Sandro Calvani, Costa’s representative in Bogota and a biologist by background, told me, “If somebody should tell me that they have found a new Agent Orange gas that kills all coca but damages the environment very heavily, I would consider it.”
But earlier this year, a note of despair could be heard in Antonio Maria Costa’s voice when he addressed the 10-year review of UNODC in Vienna. Despite an intense policing and PR campaign in the major drug producer and consumer areas around the world, the use of drugs has been steadily rising in volume and spreading in geographical reach. The latest region to fall under the dark shadow of South America’s cocaine cartels is West Africa—countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, fresh from a decade of diamond-driven fratricide, are now used as staging posts for cocaine export to Europe. The wealth and power of the criminal gangs who control these vast markets have ballooned. There has been no concomitant increase in resources available to law enforcement.
In recognition of the difficulties facing the U.S.’s policy on narcotics, the Obama administration quietly told its official representatives to stop using the phrase “war on drugs,” at UNODC’s review conference. A month later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton crossed another line on an official visit to Mexico City when she became the first senior American official to admit that demand for cocaine and cannabis use in the United States is a central driver of the drug problem.
But the most vocal criticism of the war on drugs comes from the developing world and especially South America. It’s been denounced by countless senior lawmakers, law enforcement officers and judges, especially in two countries most devastated by the trade—Brazil and Mexico. In February, three former presidents from Brazil, Colombia and Mexico published a searing critique of American policies, highlighting how their countries bear the brunt of the violence and instability generated by the criminal trade in drugs.
Canada—and Vancouver in particular—has had a few beginners’ lessons in the past couple of years about how distressing the violence associated with wholesale drug trafficking, as opposed to mere drug consumption, can be. But if UNODC is correct in its prognosis, the drug problem in Canada is about to get worse, not better. The reason for this lies in shifting patterns of drug consumption.
In the past two years, heroin, cocaine and even cannabis consumption has levelled off—partly because supply is now satisfying demand. But at the same time, the use of synthetic drugs—chiefly methamphetamine, amphetamine and ecstasy (MDMA)—has begun to grow rapidly. The trend was already obvious to U.S. border guards in Washington state two years ago. At Oroville, just across from Osoyoos, B.C., U.S. customs officers told me that while marijuana and cocaine seizures remain at a constant level, they were finding increasingly large amounts of methamphetamine and ecstasy in trucks and cars going from Canada into the U.S.
While America boasts the largest number of laboratories producing these pills, Canada’s labs are the largest on the continent, especially the ecstasy factories. They are largely controlled by the Asian gangs and Hells Angels chapters who both played such a big role in turning up the violence associated with the cocaine and marijuana industries in the greater Vancouver area. UNODC’s World Drug Report 2009 points out that “Canada has grown to be the most important producer of MDMA for North America, and since 2006, all ecstasy laboratories reported have been large-capacity facilities operated principally by Asian organized crime groups.”
The chemicals required for methamphetamine production, known as precursors, are relatively freely available and many can be purchased over the counter. Obviously, industrial scale manufacturing processes require industrial amounts of precursors. They are harder to obtain, and so both the U.S. and Canada have witnessed the growth in “smurfing” techniques—the laborious but effective process of purchasing legally available amounts of the precursors from pharmacies all over the country.
The prevalence of precursors, the availability of highly qualified chemists, and the high level of existing drug production (chiefly marijuana) in provinces like B.C. means that Canada is steadily transforming from being primarily a consumer country into a producer nation. There is evidence, the World Drug Report continues, that “Canada-based Asian organized crime groups and outlaw motorcycle gangs have significantly increased the amount of methamphetamine they manufacture and export for the U.S. market, but also for Oceania and East and Southeast Asia.”
Japan, Korea and parts of Southeast Asia are among the biggest consumers of synthetic drugs. If Canada becomes a pivotal manufacturer for this area as well as for consumers at home and in the U.S., then this is a game changer. The trend will simply overwhelm Canadian law enforcement, already stretched beyond capacity with the marijuana industry and the cocaine transit trade.
A similar phenomenon is now being detected in Europe. In Britain, police have been confronted with a significant growth in home-grown marijuana production (largely under the control of Vietnamese gangs). But amphetamine and ecstasy laboratories are also springing up there as well as in Holland and throughout eastern Europe. The European Union is the largest drug market in the world—once production processes become entrenched there, the narcotics can move to the customers across the Union without let or hindrance.
It will be a long time before there is a critical drop in cocaine and heroin consumption, but advances in narcotics production will eventually condemn them to the loneliness of a niche market. Instead, Canada, the U.S., Australia and Europe are set to become the industrial narcotics producers of the 21st century. At least this offers some hope for the current epicentres of organic drug production like Colombia and Afghanistan. It was Sandra Calvani, a committed drug warrior, who made the extremely perceptive observation:
“Cocaine has no future. Wherever amphetamines and synthetic drugs have arrived on the market, then there is always a big boom and it replaces everything: cocaine, heroin, the lot. It is a pill that looks like an aspirin and is much more user-friendly; it works fast and doesn’t involved the paraphernalia of injecting or sniffing, a much better kind of drug—more dangerous but it works. So the future is in the new drugs. The market will change and determine this. They don’t need the narco-traffickers. The future will be completely different.”
And that future may be just enough to persuade the Western world that the war on drugs needs a rethink.
Misha Glenny is the author of the bestselling McMafia: Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld, published by Anansi.