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International Drug Control - Book reviews

William B. McAllister, Drug diplomacy in the twentieth century: an international history (Routledge, London & New York, 2000) 344pp incl bibliograhy & index. Price: $57.20

International Crisis Group, Central Asia: Drugs and Conflict (ICG Asia Report, no. 25) 26 November 2001 37pp at http://www.crisisweb.org/projects/showreport.cfm?reportid=495

Reviewer: Bill Bush

The drug debate tends to have a two dimensional quality. It seems always to be in the present. Current official initiatives are "new": they are presented as perpetually full of promise. Without knowing what has gone before critics of initiatives can seem unreasonable by jumping the gun of judgement; not giving them a "fair go".

This shunning of experience is not always wilful. It is also because of the multi-disciplinary complexities and the inaccessability of background information to much drug policy. Dr William B. McAllister – an American as his name implies– has rendered accessible much that was hidden.

Puzzlement overwhelms those who have dipped into the drug treaties. There is the sense that a lot was going on behind the printed word. McAllister’s industry has illuminated the all-important back rooms. Not only has he ransacked official archives in Washington, London and Ottawa but also the private archives of key personalities like the supply control patriach Harry Anslinger, the Commissioner of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics for 32 years from 1930.

The tale McAllister tells from his delving is fascinating. He shows that much that was hidden even from those on ostensibly the same side. For example, Anslinger often promoted his own agenda without the knowledge of the State Department or in the face of its opposition. His soulmate in proselytizing supply control was Colonel Sharman, head of the Canadian Narcotics Services from 1927 to 1946. It was an article of their faith that it was possible to restrict supply and thereby eliminate drug abuse.

They did not have it all their own way. For one thing, colonial authorities speaking through European delegations objected that prohibiting supply would lead to smuggling and criminalise the problem. The proselytizers dismissed this as the self serving argument of administrations that profited from regulated opium supply. The colonialists may have been prescient but they were also biased.

If colonial opium monopolies had been the only obstacle to the will of supply controllers the drug treaties would have been clear. More influential factors rendered them the dogs’ breakfast that they are.

A price and supply balance had to be struck that was inherently unstable. High price and scarcity reduced their accessibility to the abuser but were commercially unacceptable to the pharmaceutical industry and governments that wanted assured supply as cheaply as possible. However, the price should not be so cheap as to entice producers to sell on the illicit market. The countries where opium and coca were grown objected with some effect to the unequal burden that supply control demanded they shoulder. The treaties and shifts in national policies thus reflected ambivalance. This helps explain relatively lax treaty regulation of agricultural production and shifting tolerance of producing countries.

A less predictable influence on the international drug control regime has been the mix of bureaucratic ambition and wider developments in international affairs. Anslinger may have evangelised the virtues of supply control but often his actions were better explained by his ambition to protect his bureaucratic position in Washington and internationally. For example, he opposed the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs because it did away with an article of a 1931 convention that he had used (with no legal justification) to resist reform to his Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

For their part, League of Nations officials saw US interest in international drug treaties as an important opportunity to entice that then isolationist country into the fold and generally to bolster the League’s troubled fortunes. This perhaps commendable objective was sullied by competition between different League bodies.

It was in the post war years, though, that supply control principle gave way in a big way to broader international concerns of the Cold War:

"Fears that drug-control measures could cause economic hardship or political upheaval, which in turn might drive strategically located producer states into the Soviet camp, hindered the efforts of control advocates. Moreover, some western operatives worked at cross-purposes to the regime by becoming involved in drug trafficking to support local anti-communist activities."

Because archives after about 1975 are still inaccessible, McAllister’s treatment of the final 25 years of the century does not have the fascinating depth of his treatment of the earlier years.

Viewed through the lens he provides, the awful drug situation in Central Asia depicted in the study of the International Crisis Group is familiar. The Brussels-based Group is headed by Australia’s very own Gareth Evans. It found that:

"The problems associated with drugs in Afghanistan and CentralAsia have steadily worsened over the past two decades.Opiates have fuelled conflict throughout the region and are likely to have been a significant source of financial support for terrorist organisation with a global reach."

In the absence of counter measures it expects the drug trade to continue booming. For example, the removal of Taliban control will lead to a resurgence in opium cultivation that it effectively banned in 2000. (Ironically it seems that the few governments that have been most successful in repressing drug abuse have included governments obnoxious to the US like the Taliban and Mao Tse-Tung’s China.)

The Crisis Group’s study provides a wealth of information to back up its diagnosis: the recent history of huge opium and heroin production and drug trading all over the region; entrenched corruption, a huge rise in local drug abuse and demand for drugs in Russia and the rest of Eastern Europe, high HIV infection rates.

The diagnosis may be correct but McAllister’s study makes the Crisis Group’s prescription of crop substitution, rural support and law enforcement assistance seem like whistling in the wind. At the beginning of January 2002 reports were circulating that Afghan farmers had begun growing poppies again.

Aid for anti-drug projects has become a permanent feature of supply control. McAllister tells how in the 1950’s Afghanistan learnt to play the opium card: repress production in exchange for financial support. Just a few years ago the US promised the Taliban millions on the basis of a similar deal. Such aid, says McAllister, can "support only selected projects". The underlying economic reality is that "cultivating illicit drugs yielded a higher return per acre than competing agricultural products." Successful repression or crop substitution in one area is accompanied by an expansion of production in others.

Realpolitik is another ground for pessimism. If the litany of examples that McAllister gives is any guide, the price of co-operation of Afghanistan’s neighbours with the US coalition will be less critical attention to their involvement in the drug trade. Drug money helped support the Japanese defence budget in Manchuria in the 1930s and has since financed many insurgent groups. It is, for example, likely that there is drug money in Pakistan’s defence budget and even its nuclear bomb programme. The corruption that drug money forments infects all levels of government and society.

It is disturbing that some senior Australian police as well as the International Crisis Group put faith in source country supply control. This support is understandable in the light of the stubborn opposition of the Howard Government to trial public health strategies like heroin prescription which Swiss data show can make a big hole in the illicit drug distribution network. A US Rand Corporation study has shown that, measured in terms of expenditure, source country control is 3 times less effective than domestic law enforcement in achieving a given reduction in cocaine consumption and a massive 23 times less effective than treatment.

The causes of the current Australian heroin drought are all-important in this debate. The government asserts that its law enforcement effort is responsible. The Australian Federal Police is more circumspect. It attributes success to a combination of factors: law enforcement and a shortage arising from drought and high demand in developing markets in Russia and China.

McAllister’s history induces sceptism about the sudden efficacy of law enforcement. This scepticism is supported by AFP intelligence disclosed by Commissioner Keelty himself that Asian drug syndicates had taken a marketing decision to flog amphetamines rather than heroin in Australia and by Far Eastern Economic Review reports of huge amphetamine exports from the traditional opium growing areas of the Golden Triangle.

It is to be hoped that the historian of drug diplomacy in the twenty-first century will have a happier tale to tell than McAllister tells of the last.

6 January 2002