One shorthand form to understand the global expansion of the drug trade and its routes is as an imperium of transnational traffickers taking over small, poor and defenceless countries: “across the globe,” wrote Moisés Naim in Foreign Affairs last year, “criminals have penetrated governments to an unprecedented degree.”[i] The slim and illuminating volume by the scholars Neil Carrier and Gernot Klantschnig, Africa and the War and Drugs (Zed Books), contests the two pedestals of this belief. Far from being a novice to narcotics, the authors argue, Africa has long consumed and dealt in drugs; and Africa’s drugs are not a problem, at least not in the way that the alarm bells of the international community would have us believe.

Starting off with a tour of the various uses to which psychoactive substances are put in Africa, the book makes the first argument with vigour. Alcohol, caffeine, khat, kola, cannabis, methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine may fall under radically different legal classifications thanks to the main international drug conventions, but their effects are not entirely dissimilar, nor is the stigma of illegality necessarily a reflection of the harm meted out by each of them to regular users.

In fact, of all the drugs discussed, the idiosyncratic preference of a deprived urban zone of South Africa, the Cape Flats, for smoking a mixture of the sedative Mandrax with low-grade cannabis is one of the book’s most revealing asides. In the local drug argot, consumers often “ert”, or lose consciousness, after one such hit – then come back for more. But this homemade blackout has since been replaced in popularity by methamphetamine, also known as crystal meth, the world’s new vogue illicit high according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (global seizures doubled from 2008 to 2012), and an emblem of the pace, flexibility and fungibility of the modern global drug trade.

Important production centres of crystal meth now include the Burmese borderlands, which have migrated from the traditional crop of opium poppy (now dominated by Afghanistan), and the state of Jalisco of Mexico, where it has been the source of a spike in criminal killings and chemical effluent. Meanwhile, as the author reports, “horror stories abound in the media and online of this new menace, described by one Cape Town anti-drug activist whose own family has been deeply affected by the drug as ‘the worst drug that did ever hit Cape Town’” (page 39-40).

Carrier and Klantschnig certainly recognize the damage to health caused by these drugs – their most plangent call is for greater investment in harm reduction-based health services for users, such as needle exchanges – and they are also honest about the substances’ addictive quality. Although these are not mentioned in the book, neurobiological studies indicate that cocaine and heroin are intrinsically more threatening to health than other substances through their ability to achieve an over-powering release of neurotransmitters: the rate of addiction among users is estimated at 28 percent in the case of cocaine, and 60 percent in the case of heroin.[ii]

But these acknowledgements of harm are as far as the authors go in aligning with the global orthodoxy of counter-narcotic strategy, which, to quote the thoroughly misguided UN political declaration of 1998, regards drugs as “a grave threat to the health and well-being of all mankind, the independence of States, democracy, the stability of nations, the structure of all societies, and the dignity and hope of millions of people and their families.”[iii] For the authors, in sharp contrast, the effects of drug use are public and individuals ills and misfortunes rather than social menaces; furthermore, these effects are phenomena that are mediated by the intake of drugs rather than caused by the substances per se. This is a critical distinction. Tik, the South African term for meth, “shows the very real way in which drugs and drug cultures can give meaning and purpose to people who feel an absence of them in other aspects of their lives” (p. 41). Of course, the drug is noxious; but the reason it causes harm is the entrenched need to which it corresponds, not the way it is made, distributed and sold.

The traditions and practices around the chewing of khat, a subject on which the book is fascinating, arouse respect and admiration from the authors: chewing the plant combats insomnia, undergirds social interaction and religious ceremony, and forms part of the twilight gatherings in the harbour of Lamu, “as men gather to chew and converse, perhaps slaking their thirst at the same time with sweet coffee or soda” (p. 31). To the astonishment of this reader, who did not know of the patchy global regulation of the trade, we also learn that “Kenyan and Ethiopian khat can today be bought for £3 a bundle in many Somali- or Ethiopian-run local shops in London, such as a Costcutter near King’s Cross” (p. 83).


Diversification, and the failure of success

It is salutary to be reminded that what seem to be categorical differences in moral character between alcohol, cannabis or harder drugs, have in fact been constructed and sedimented in public consciousness over the course of a century of international counter-narcotic policy. Or, for that matter, to be reminded of the hypocrisies that have predated or accompanied the “war on drugs,” such as the British engagement in Opium Wars of the 1839 to 1860, or the strategic use made by US intelligence operatives of the cocaine and cannabis routes of Central America in the 1980s to fight regional “Communism” (see, for example, the memoirs of former DEA agent Celerino Castillo,[iv] or the manifest patterns of military alignment with narco-traffickers in Guatemala during that country’s civil war[v]).

At the same time, the authors’ ceaseless efforts to downplay and de-dramatize the African trade in drugs at times stretches the bounds of credibility. The heart of the problem is a confusion between cause and effect. The authors are surely right that “the most active application of drug policy has relied on supply reduction strategies that are often at odds with human rights and the supposed main purpose of drug control: to address the risk to people from drug consumption” (p. 133). Evidence for this proposition is not difficult to marshal. The authors point to a history of repression in Nigerian that has done nothing to diminish consumption, and has helped ease Nigerian traffickers into senior positions in the drug trade: the work of Stephen Ellis on the expanding role of these mafia in West Africa is illuminating in this respect.[vi]

Moreover, the fact that this region has been touted since 2005 as the newest hub of the cocaine trade to Europe reflects a litany of repressive “successes” in the core supply and trafficking zones of Latin America. The circuitous process linking the Andes to the states of West Africa follows the US closure of the Caribbean routes in the 1980s (diversifying northern routes to Central America), the shift of cocaine production in the 1990s to Colombia (in the wake of a crackdown on coca farmers in Peru and Bolivia), and lastly, the effects of a counter-narcotic campaign of Plan Colombia after 2000, which moved some trafficking concerns to the more pliable state of Venezuela, from where aerial routes to West Africa became more viable. It should not be forgotten that the Boeing aircraft which landed in the desert in northern Mali in 2009, carrying an estimated 10 tons of cocaine (worth over one billion dollars), appears to have been fitted out with drugs in Maracaibo, which is coincidentally the heart of Venezuela’s oil industry.[vii]

Prohibition and repression strengthen and broaden the global drugs trade in multiple interlocking ways. They ensure astonishingly high profits. They empower the most violent and competitive groups. They disseminate this violence (research from Mexico on the militarized repression under ex-President Felipe Calderón confirms the geographic spread of insecurity[viii]). And they ensure that these groups will seek out the states that have the best balance between weak law enforcement and strong trade or financial links with final user markets. Thus Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Ghana; or Tajikistan and Kosovo; or Guatemala, Jamaica and Honduras.


Drugs and accelerated conflict

However, the crystalline certainty of these toxic effects of repression, which has of course motivated the global campaign to revise the war on drugs, translates into a much more questionable stance from the authors. On several occasions, they appear to be arguing that the ignorance of history, the contrived moral panic over Africa’s drugs trade and the imposition of emergency interventions by Europe, United States and the UN – all typical manifestations of the “war on drugs”, wherever it may take place – indicate that the crisis has been exaggerated or manufactured. “Africa is not a major consumer or producer of hard drugs, and the role of countries such as Guinea-Bissau as entrepôts is essentially substitutable, and likely to shift” (p. 132). They so doubt the integrity of counter-narcotics that they regard the problem as really not that serious; and if it is serious, then it is not about drugs.

Now this is exactly the argument used by great effect by the authors in the case of Africa’s consumption and production of drugs. They manage convincingly to show that the supposed harm done to economic development by drug farming is also a fabrication: cannabis cultivation, it would appear, is a mainstay for Lesotho’s peasants. And they are also right that, in the case of the supposed “narco-state” Guinea-Bissau, structural state weaknesses and wars came well before the first Colombians.

But this approach merely avoids the main issue. Drug trafficking of the sort that has infiltrated West Africa and the Sahel is entirely dependent on the “business” conditions that it encounters; it cannot make failed states, corrupt officials and porous borders ex nihilo. Yet once drug trafficking is present, there is ample evidence to show that in many (but not all) cases, it aggravates and accelerates a violent, factional and competitive rush to secure spaces of power. There is no separating the radical Islamist takeover of northern Mali from the penetration of drugs and illicit incomes at all level of power in the past decade – political, security, military, rebel and fundamentalist – and the rising tensions and inter-communal mistrust within the North. In this respect, the drug trade acts as a sort of political particle collider, and all the more so in countries where other economic opportunities are few.

Identifying how this occurs (and why it may not) is a matter for serious research, which is likely to show that the geographic location of the trading hubs, the differing sorts of intermediation between communities, police and criminal groups, the possibilities for competitive network formation, and the links to politicians and legitimate business together help to explain the greater or lesser levels of conflict and insecurity caused by illegal drugs. Mali, Guinea-Bissau and Honduras stand at one extreme: it is apparent in all three that significant lurches towards public insecurity and political conflict have been accompanied by increasing drug trafficking in a way that is no mere coincidence. On the other hand, Colombia has tamed its levels of violence while maintaining a buoyant drugs trade. Whereas Burma, scholars argue, has even strengthened its central state by giving carte blanche to its borderland drug industry.[ix]

In other words, there are no universal truths that can describe the ways drug economies will affect their host states and communities. At the same time, it is far too premature to sweep aside all such links and possible harms as the exaggerations of those seeking to support the prohibitionist line. For while it is entirely proper to criticize hard-line supply-side repression for spreading the drugs trade to African countries where it had no previous presence, or for menacing human rights and public health in the process, it would be wrong to dismiss the effects of the drug trade as pure invention and self-interested rhetoric. Condemning the cause does not eliminate the effect. And in an otherwise illuminating study, the authors strive a bit too hard to refuse the prohibitionist camp the slightest bait.

Ivan Briscoe is Senior Research Fellow at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

[ii] These figures are from Dommet, Eleanor. 2010. “La neurobiología de las adicciones.” In Tokatlián, Juan Gabriel (ed.). Drogas y prohibición.  Buenos Aires: Libros del Zorzal.

[v] López, Julie. 2010. “Guatemala’s Crossroads: Democratization of Violence and Second Chances.” Woodrow Wilson International Center working paper.

[vi] Ellis, Stephen. 2009. “West Africa’s International Drug Trade.” African Affairs 108:431, pp. 171-196.

[vii] El País. 2011. “El ‘Air Cocaine’ tenía jefe español.” 26/06/11.

[viii] Guerrero Gutiérrez, Eduardo. 2011. “La raíz de la violencia.” Nexos 01/06/11.

[ix] Meehan, Patrick. 2011. “Drugs, insurgency and state-building in Burma: Why the drugs trade is central to Burma’s changing political order.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 42 (3), pp. 376-404.

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