World Evil With its Roots
in the North-South Divide

Christian de Brie

Man has been getting kicks out of drugs for thousands of years. Traditional societies, which were aware of the risks of addiction and the dangers of poisoning, were careful to tame drugs, control their use and integrate them into their culture by subjecting their occasional consumption to varyingly strict rules and customs or to a religious, medical or festive ritual connected with certain events of social life.

When the structures of such communities began to break up and new toxic substances became available without undergoing any control or testing period, drugs began to cause devastating damage. This is something which Europe experienced in the 19th century before dragging the rest of the world along the same path.

In Britain and France, adultery, gin and absinthe got the better of a rootless Lumpenproletariat which, as a result of the inexorable rise of capitalism, had been attracted from rural areas and crammed into industrial slums. Alcohol, too, killed more North Americans Indians than did the US Army.

In the mid 19th century, German chemists succeeded in extracting cocaine from coca, and morphine and heroine from opium, thus inventing the hard drugs now regarded as the most dangerous. Yet the Andean Indians had been consuming coca a holy plant for over 2000 years, and opium had been used in the East for even longer.

It was the expansionist countries of Europe and later, the United States which used their industrial clout to produce and trade in tobacco, alcohol, opium, hashish and cocaine on a world scale. Up until the First World War, a French industrialist flooded the west with a mixture of cocaine and wine that had received a special blessing from Pope Leo XIII and warm encouragement from the future Marshal Philippe Petain.

It was Europe, or rather Britain with French support, that imposed by force the free trade of opium in China, where it was not widely used. Within half a century, thousands of tonnes of opium (6000cases in 1820, 100,000 in 1880) contributed to the disintegration of the populous and most civilised country in the world.

Queen Victoria turned a deaf ear to the requests of the Chinese Emperor, who had banned the import and consumption of opium. She felt that it would be inopportune to give up such a major source of revenue. Her government provoked two opium wars (one in 1839, and the other with France as an ally in 1856), invaded Hong Kong and succeeded in getting it ceded to Britain.

Hong Kong has since remained the capital of the Asian mafia, though long-established British firms have since switched to more respectable activities. As the prime minister of the time, Lord Henry Palmerston, remarked, opium does not kill more people than alcohol. Thus the first drug wars were waged and won by the biggest trafficker of recent history the British crown and not by some Latin American narcodollar baron.

It was from that point on that narcotics began to play a different role. They became merchandise, a key element of world trade, a cog in the international economic and financial system, and a geopolitical instrument.

The rules of the game still had to be fixed. Under relentless pressure from the American government, which was itself egged on by the Prohibitionists, the major powers met at various times from 1912 on and imposed their views on the community of nations.

In the classification of the various substances which by acting on the central nervous system can create a physical or psychological addiction, damage the health and create social problems, a distinction is made between legal drugs (chiefly tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical products), whose use is accepted but abuse discouraged, and illegal drugs (over 150 natural and synthetic substances, including heroin, cocaine and LSD), which are totally banned, since their consumption is thought to lead inevitably to abuse, thus threatening public health and safety.

On one side, then there are the so-called “good drugs,” which are manufactured in the North by the leading industrialized countries, and on the other there are the “bad drugs”` produced by the Third world.

“Good drugs” are in the hands of powerful tobacco, drinks and pharmaceuticals multinationals, which quite lawfully swamp the markets of North and South with their products. They have direct interest in ensuring the disappearance of “bad drugs” despite the fact that their own drugs cause far greater ravages.

In France, tobacco is the direct cause of 60,000 deaths a year and alcohol 35,000, while the consumption of legal psychoactive drugs such as barbiturates has gone up five times since 1976. Illegal drugs cause less than 200 deaths a year in France. In the United States, the really big health problem facing teenagers is not crack, but alcoholism.

The most commonly consumed illegal drugs are derived from natural substances such as poppy, coca and cannabis, all of which are cultivated chiefly on poor soil in remote regions of destitute Third World countries by ill-integrated sections of the population.

When the farmers sell their crops, they get very little reward for their labours: their income represents a paltry one thousandth of the total world heroin and cocaine market. That does not prevent yet other peasants, often after they have been expropriated and deprived of a livelihood, from cultivating drug-producing crops despite the climate of violence and insecurity this entails for them.

The production of opiate drugs and cocaine is concentrated in three main geographical zones. First there is the Middle East. Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan the so called “Golden Crescent” together with India and Nepal produce about 1,400 tonnes of opium a year; 500 tonnes of that is processed and turned int 50 tonnes of heroin (these figures and those of follow are taken from Jean-Francois Couvrat and Nicolas Pless's book, “la Face Cachee de l'Economie Mondiale”).

Both opium and heroin are chiefly consumed in the countries in that zone, but about 15 tonnes of heroin are exported (10 tonnes to Europe and 3.5 to the United States). Lebanon also produces 60 tonnes of opium in the Bekaa Valley; this is processed into six tonnes of heroin, three quarters of which ends up in Europe and the rest in the United States.

Southeast Asia produces about 1,550 tonnes of opium in the “golden Triangle” area, which covers parts of Burma (1200 tonnes), Laos (300 tonnes) and Thailand (50 tonnes). About 450 tonnes of that total is turned into 45 tonnes of heroin, of which 7.5 tonnes are exported, two thirds to Europe and the rest to the United States. Here again, most of the opium and heroin produced in this zone is consumed locally and not in the developed countries of the west.

Latin American supplies almost all the world's cocaine, which is derived from coca grown in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia And in Ecuador, 215,000 tonnes of coca leaves are turned into paste in the producing countries. This is then sent to Colombia, where it is processed into cocaine.

Tens of thousands of tonnes of Indian hemp, or cannabis, are cultivated and consumed every year in Asia (India, Thailand, Nepal), the Americas (Mexico, Columbia, Jamaica, and the United States, one of the world's biggest producers), the Middle East (Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen) and Africa (Morocco, Kenya).

Over the last five years, coca plantations have virtually doubled in size; over the same period,the price paid to growers per kilo of dried leaves has plummeted from $3 to 30 cents. For a total of 250, 000 hectares of coca plantations, the farmers' slice of the overall market, which is put at almost $30 billion, is a mere $60 million.

The increase in the area of land under cultivation for drugs is a direct result of the impoverishment of vast regions of the Third World and of the destruction of traditional structures. Those two processes have been speeded up over the last ten years by the debt burden, the structural adjustment facility of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the action of the leading industrialized countries, whose policies, while officially in line with the war against drugs trafficking, in fact only encourage their production.

The price of cocaine has almost doubled since President Bush announced his “drug war” campaign, and that of coffee has collapsed.

One country, Colombia, exports large quantities of both commodities, which provide most of its export earnings. The market has just chosen between the two: under the effect of a classic capitalist mechanism, the growers have encouraged to switch from coffee to coca.

The virtual simultaneity of these two events demonstrates in almost caricatural fashion one of the main reasons for the increase in the production and distribution of Third World peasants, who have been left completely to their devices.

The phenomenon also highlights the duplicity of the western countries, and above all the United States, the world's biggest importer of coffee as well as cocaine. Washington made no effort to renew the international coffee agreement, which expired in July 1989, and which, through a system of quotas, helped to prevent coffee prices from collapsing.

On the contrary, the United States deliberately sabotaged the agreement with the aim of paying a little less for a commodity produced on a massive scale by destitute and debt ridden Latin American countries.

With the help of those who specialize in bear speculation, the ploy was immensely profitable. In a single month (July), arabica coffee lost 52 cents and Colombian producers were reportedly out of pocket by $750 million. Colombian President Virgilipo Barco has forecast that if the trend persists they will lose $4 billion over the next twelve months.

The coffee crisis was passed over in silence by the leading industrialized countries. By way of contrast, plenty of brash publicity surrounded Bush's promise to give the Colombian government $65 million of emergency aid so it could equip itself with American made equipment for its fight against the drug barons.

If it is to make up for the foreign currency losses it has incurred in the coffee sector and escape the IMF's imminent structural adjustment measures, Colombia will have to rely more than ever on the 4 billion narcodollars creamed off by the local drugs mafia, which traditionally reinvests over half of that sum in the national economy and thus enables the country to absorb part of its debt.

The Medellin and Cali cartels have already laid their hands on almost 1 million hectares of land, invested massively in agribusiness and the main industry and the services sectors, and used their usual methods violence, blackmail, corruption to worm their way into every corner of the economy.

Some members of the Colombian bourgeoisie have panicked and fled to the United States, taking their capital with them. Others have benefit of their expertise as regards militias and paramilitary commandos.

The extradition of a handful of drug barons will not change much. Their successors are waiting in the wings. On the other hand, by internationalizing the issue and militarizing its repressive action, Washington hopes to prepare public opinion for more direct strong-arm tactics in the countries concerned, where the state is in danger of being destabilized and even destroyed. This is the case in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, where the Shining Path guerrillas pose a serious threat.

There are precedents for such interventions. And the Americans have a choice of ways in which they can disguise their covert action. This has been particularly true since the main body responsible for combating drugs,the Drug Enforcement Administration, has been put under the authority of the central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

It is difficult to see why, otherwise, the Americans are focusing such attention on the Andean area and on cocaine, which accounts for less than a quarter of total drugs sales in the United States: $20 billion out of $88 billion (as compared with $40 billion for cannabis and $28 billion for opiates).

For while cocaine production doubled between 1984 and 1988, the same was true of other narcotics: opium tonnages rose from 1,600 to 3,050, and those of heroin from 55 to 105. The reason for that enormous increase is to be found not so much in Western demand, which accounts for only 10 percent of the total opiates market, as in the need to finance local conflicts. That also explains the relative discretion of the American government in this area.

In Afghanistan, where the US backed resistance fighters' purchase of Western arms has been financed to a large extent by opium trafficking, production along the border with Pakistan has increased fourfold in four years.

In Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, which is protected at a price by the Syrian army, the growing of cannabis has been replaced by that of opium, which can be turned into a far more profitable drug, heroin. The cultivable areas are divided up between the various warring clans, who are able to pay for their weaponry with the proceeds of the drugs they sell to various Italian, Sicilian and Israeli mafias.

In the Golden Triangle, the ethnic minorities traditionally engaged in the growing of opium poppies also greatly increased their output between 1984 and 1988- eight times in Laos, and twofold in Burma.

The only way the production of illegal drugs can be reduced durably is through the resolution of regional conflicts and a reform of the currently unfair terms of trade between countries of the North and South. While some ground has already been covered towards fulfilling the first precondition, the same is by no means true of the second. The true yardstick by which politicians should be judged when they claim to be fighting a “drug war” is the state of North-South relations.

(Le Monde Diplomatique, October issue)


See also:  Shadow Boxing in the Drug Ring


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