drug war

Shane Harris, @ War

An Opte Project visualization of routing paths through a portion of the Internet. (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5) via Wikimedia Commons.

With the constant media attention to the alleged Russian involvement in the last American election, there is perhaps more media attention to the issue of cyber-warfare than ever before. In this context, Shane Harris’ book, @ War: the Rise of the Military-Internet Complex is provides a sweeping overview of how the U.S. government and its corporate allies have sought to respond and use cyber tools for espionage and war.

Harris has a background as a journalist, and he has extensively interviewed people in both the U.S. federal government and industry. His work provides a deep understanding of how these actors view cyber-conflict. The book is particularly good at showing how corporations are intricately connected the armed forces in cyber-warfare: “Without the cooperation of the companies, the United States couldn’t fight cyber wars. In that respect, the new military-Internet complex is the same as the industrial one before it” (Harris, p. xxiii).

At the same time, this book views this issue through an American lens, and at times has an unreflective view of technology’s role in war. Ever since the Vietnam War, the United States has relied on technology to win wars, while not similarly prioritizing cultural, strategic and historical awareness. One can see this issue in the opening section of the book, which examines U.S. efforts to use cyber-espionage to target ISIS in Iraq, in what he describes as a triumph: “Indeed, cyber warfare -the combination of spying and attack- was instrumental to the American victory in Iraq in 2007, in ways that have never been fully explained or appreciated” (Harris, p. xxii). Even though his description of U.S. operations in Iraq is fascinating, this part of the work has not aged well, and confronts the reader with technology’s limitations more than its capabilities. …

Bioterrorism and Cocaine

“A beautiful landscape of Mendoza City’s park seen from the height of the Gómez building.” By Itsmemarttin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Mat Youkee has a fascinating article, “Who Killed the Nazi Scientist trying to Wipe out Cocaine,” on the online site Ozy. The piece tells the story of Heinz Brücher, who had served as a second lieutenant in the German military (S.S.) during World War Two. A biologist, Brücher had stolen a Ukrainian seed-bank on Heinrich Himmler’s orders. Later in the war, he disobeyed orders to destroy these seeds, and fled the Reich with them. As with other German military figures at the war’s end, he fled to Argentina, as part of an evacuation which has become a theme in popular culture from film to conspiracy theories. He did not stay in Argentina only, however, but also taught as a faculty member everywhere from Venezuela to Paraguay. Later in life, though, he wound up living in a farm house in Mendoza, Argentina, where he seems to have hatched an incredible plot: to destroy the coca plant that is the basis for the cocaine trade.

The coca plant has been used for thousands of years in the Andes. One can see ancient indigenous sculptures in which the cheek of one figure is extended, because the person is chewing coca. The leaf figures in ritual and religion, but is also a rich source of nutrition.Throughout Latin America coca tea is often used as an infusion because it is supposed to have medicinal properties. The leaf itself is vastly different from the processed drug known as cocaine. In 1898 a German chemist, Richard Martin Willstätter, created cocaine, which had become one of the most used drugs in the world. By the 1970s and 80s, cocaine was the basis for the cartels of Colombia. At the same time, there were allegations that the U.S. intelligence services were themselves involved in the cocaine trade in order to fund the guerrillas fighting against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Death Squads in the Philippines

Given the plethora of foreign policies issues that the United States faces, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the drug war in the Philippines does not receive more attention in the U.S. media. Still, there has been some remarkable accounts, perhaps none of which has been as insightful as Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marchall’s, “Davao Boys: How a secretive police squad racked up kills in Duterte’s drug war.” This detailed piece of investigative journalism examines one particular police unit at the heat of the extra-judicial killings of drug traffickers. I’ve done my own work on military terror in Brazil, and know how difficult it is to obtain such information, even in historical cases. To document killings on this scale while the violence is taking place requires bravery, dedication and skill. Highly recommended.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Halloween, drugs and Vancouver

English Bay, Vancouver. By No real name given [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
There is an area in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver so ravaged by drugs and homelessness that it’s become an icon in popular culture and Canadian literature. This was the hunting grounds of Robert Pickton, a serial killer who may have killed 49 women. Many people believe that he managed to evade arrest (I won’t say detection given the case of Wendy Lynn Eistetter) for so so long because many people didn’t care about the prostitutes from the East side streets. Books such as Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach have depicted the hopelessness of this area. There is even a new graphic novel called the Dregs, which depicts this area as a feeding ground for wealthy cannibals in a dystopian future. So this is not a place that you would expect to find whimsy or hope. That would be especially true around Halloween, which has a reputation amongst first responders for bringing out the strange in people. …

Drug War in the Philippines

Orthographic map of the Philippines. By Addicted04 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I’m teaching a fully online course on the Global Drug Trade this fall. In the Americas when we think of the drug trade we typically think of cocaine and the Mexican Drug War. Yet the drug trade is a global trade, which runs from the fields of poppies in Afghanistan, to the fentanyl produced in East Asia that is destined for North America. The Drug War has led to appalling violence in many nations, such as the Philippines.

President Duterte came to power in June 2016 as a populist, with a long history of outrageous statements and extreme positions. Regarding drug users and traffickers, Duterte said that he would “slaughter them all.” Immediately after his inauguration thousands of people were killed by death squads, or were shot by police upon the mere suspicion of doing drugs. The President’s policy was initially popular, but over the last few months people have tired of the unending violence.

In the United States, one could argue that the War on Drugs really dates to 1973, when President Richard Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Agency. This approach conceived as drugs as a security threat to be dealt by strengthening the border, increasing the number of police, and using the U.S. armed forces and allied militaries to target drug traffickers. In 1999, the United States adopted Plan Colombia to fight both the drug cartels and guerrillas in Colombia. The U.S. gave over eight billion dollars to Colombia to expand its armed forces, purchase military equipment, carry out aerial spraying, and fight the cartels. Despite this substantial investment, the supply and price of cocaine in the United States did not decline, even after the death of Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellin cartel. The center of drug trafficking, however, did shift to Mexico. …

The costs of drugs

A Cannabis plant. By Cannabis Training University (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Marijuana is being legalized in the United States and globally far more quickly than almost any observer could have anticipated. Canada will legalize marijuana nationally in 2018. Given the horrific violence associated with the drug war in Mexico, such steps will reduce the power of organized crime. As early as 2014 the price for Mexican marijuana was falling sharply, and this trend will continue. Still, all change comes with a cost, and Oliver Milman’s recent Guardian article points out one. In his piece,“Not so green: how the weed industry is a glutton for fossil fuels,” Milman argues that marijuana production in greenhouses uses a shocking amount of electricity, which is often produced with fossil fuels. I don’t doubt that the global discussion about drug legalization, at least for marijuana, will continue. As it does, countries will have to wrestle with many complex policy issues, including the environmental impact of this crop, as large corporations produce it at scale.

Ben Grenrock also has a recent article, “Colombia’s New Drug Problem” in Slate, which talks about the growing movement towards drug tourism in Medellin, Colombia. On the one hand, drug violence has plummeted in the city. Colombia, which endured horrific violence in the early 1990s, has recently signed a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas. Medellin is a beautiful city, which has enjoyed spectacular growth. But tourists have also begun to come to Medellin in large numbers, partly because they view it as a place to experiment with cocaine consumption. Of course, cocaine has always been available in Colombia. But now the scale of drug tourism has increased substantially, which has strengthened the drug gangs that control its distribution in the city. According to Grenrock, many people in Medellin look with disdain on these tourists. In the case of Medellin, cocaine is illegal, but readily accessible because there is little effective enforcement. As both articles describe, a commodity chain links drug consumers to real environmental and social problems.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Devil’s Breath: An Andean drug

Brugmansia sanguinea. By Paul K from Sydney (Brugmansia bicolor) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
This spring I taught a class on the Global Drug Trade, and one of the students in the class shared a Vice News video with the class regarding a drug called Devil’s Breath. Please be warned that this video contains disturbing content, including discussion of rape and violence, as well as profanity. It is also an unusual video regarding drug usage, because Devil’s Breath (scopolamine, which is also known as Burundanga in Latin America) is unlike other drugs in that it is not consumed for pleasure. Rather, it is allegedly used by criminals in Colombia in order to take away someone’s will. The drug itself can be created easily from a common tree in Colombia, called the borrachero tree. There are seven trees in the Brugmansia genus, which contain the active ingredient scopolamine. These trees are common throughout northern South America, where they are extinct in the wild, but are sometimes used as ornamental trees because of their beautiful flowers.

According to Colombians who were interviewed in the video, criminals can ask someone to smell the powder, and the drug is so potent that it will take effect when they sniff. The video contains a series of interviews, including a taxi driver who seems to know all too much about the drug, and some people who were victimized using it. Still, the stories were so extraordinary that I couldn’t help but wonder, could this possibly be true? Can victims truly lose their will, so that they will assist a robber to burglarize their home? Or is this partly folklore? Vice’s reporter Ryan Duffy did not appear to be someone with a deep knowledge of Colombia. Nonetheless, the interviews with authorities, including the police and a doctor, were very convincing. Nonetheless, I wondered how to judge where reality ended and folklore began. After all, this drug is used in Western medicine to treat some conditions such as motion sickness? Wouldn’t this effect be familiar from this usage? Or are there differences between scopolamine and the the drug variant used …

The opioid crisis

Harvesting Opium. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2699338

I’ve been teaching a course on the Global Drug Trade this year, and my class recently covered the opioid crisis, including the emerging drugs of fentanyl and carfentanyl. If you haven’t heard of these drugs before, you might want to read German Lopez’s Vox article “How an elephant tranquilizer became the latest deadly drug in the opioid epidemic.” While the epidemic exists in the United States, these drugs are causing havoc in British Columbia, Canada. What is distinct about these drugs is that they are not only dangerous to the user, but also first responders. The crisis has been so serious that it has caused people to rethink how we deal with illegal drugs in a profound manner.

In my class there was a great deal of discussion of whether the broader opioid epidemic is being covered differently in the media because many people using these drugs are middle class, white and older. They are also distinct, my students noted, in that most people who become addicted do so because they received a prescription for the drugs legally. There is no question but that major corporations have pushed these drugs, as this wonderful John Oliver piece describes. The epidemic has deepened, because when people have difficulty accessing legal opioids they have turned to heroin. …

Drugs and Harm

Qat tree, Yemen. By Mufaddalqn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I am currently teaching a course on the global drug trade, which examines the many public policy and legal issues related to drugs. One of the themes that students have commented on in the course is that the legal penalties for drugs don’t always reflect the amount of harm that they cause. For example, one of my students shared that their father had become addicted to opioids that he had been prescribed for pain. Why were opioids legally available to treat pain, while in many states marijuana was not, even though opioids were far more dangerous? Another student brought up the issue of khat, a leaf that is chewed as a mild stimulant in East African communities, and which is now illegal in countries such as Britain. One of the arguments for banning khat had been that it undermined communities, but my student argued that in fact chewing khat was a means to bring people (usually males) together in African societies. They also suggested that it was far less harmful than alcohol, which is legal in the United States and Britain. The recent decision to ban khat in the United Kingdom had impacts in East Africa.

One of my students shared a graph from Wikipedia titled “Rational harm assessment of drugs radar plot.” The caption stated: “Addiction experts in psychiatry, chemistry, pharmacology, forensic science, epidemiology, and the police and legal services engaged in delphic analysis regarding 20 popular recreational drugs. Barbiturates were ranked 5th in dependence, 3rd in physical harm, and 4th in social harm.” Much of the information on the graph is unsurprising, such as the fact that experts widely agreed that heroin is the most destructive drug. It’s clear, however, that the legal consequences of drug use bear little relation to the harm that they may do. Alcohol, for example, is perceived to be far more harmful than Khat, while barbiturates are judged to be more dangerous than cannabis. Of course, all these drugs also have some form of harm associated with them, and some have devastated individuals and communities. Still, this graph might be a useful tool to frame public policy decisions related to the drug trade.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Statistics on the Global Drug Trade

“Major Trafficking Routes,” by CIA Employee (CIA Employee) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This quarter I am teaching a class on the Global Drug Trade, as a fully online class. One question is where can students find reliable statistics on the drug trade for their project. With many thanks to the PSU library, here are a couple of reliable sources of information:

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, World Drug Report, 2016.

U.S. Department of State, 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. This is a two volume document, which has statistical information embedded into it in the form of charts and tables.

Do you know of another good source of statistics on the Global Drug Trade? Please let me know at drss@pdx.edu.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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