Opium Wars and the Global Supply of Narcotics

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Prior to the 1830s and the Opium Wars involving France, Great Britain and China’s Qing dynasty, there was little international discussion involving narcotics. Various states had their own domestic control regimes. Others operated on a strictly laissez-faire basis regarding psychoactive substances. The conflict represented the first time in modern history where the issue of drugs was catapulted to the international arena. In sharp contrast to international regimes of today, the Opium Wars were fought as an effort to remove restrictions on international drug trafficking, not to establish them. 

Thus, for most of the 19th century, discussions around narcotic policy were indistinguishable from those surrounding free trade, rather than being linked to public health or criminal law. The 1909 Shanghai conference marked a significant change on narcotic substances in international relations. The Conference resulted from social movements promoting temperance gained traction in western countries, particularly the United States. The latter organized the meeting, involving global powers such as Great Britain, Austro-Hungary, as well as drug-producing states such as China, Persia, and Siam. As a result of the conference, Great Britain agreed to gradually stop selling opium in china, which agreed to stop its own opium cultivation, marking the first internationally agreed-upon drug prohibition regime.

While various global measures took place to curb the global supply of narcotics during the first half of the twentieth century. The international effort began in earnest with the US adoption of the ‘War on Drugs’ under the Nixon administration in 1972. With the President making public speeches declaring ‘total war’, and naming drugs ‘Public Enemy number one’ . Since then, various classified documents and statements by officials have emerged linking the effort to combat drug trafficking not to necessary public health measures, but to domestic policies seeking to undermine various minority groups such as African Americans and Hispanic Americans, which to this day suffer from disproportionate arrests and sentencing on drug-related charges. 

The main strategy for the war on drugs was to be raising prices through eradication, as a 2004 state department put it “crop control is by far the most effective means of cutting supply, if we destroy crops or force them to remain unharvested, no drugs will enter the system” ( US Department of State, 2004, pp.5). The following decades saw increased international attention to drug control regimes. As the scholarly discourse increased around the linkages between resources, crime and conflict, drugs began to be seen not only as a driver of public health concerns and criminal violence, but also as a cause for civil conflict and a financial backer for terrorism. During the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Libera during the 1990s, much international attention was granted to the use of use of drugs amongst combatants, particularly children and teenagers, as an explanatory factor for the magnitude of atrocities and ‘senseless violence’ occurring against civilian populations. 

Despite the direct causal link between drug use and atrocities later debunked by further studies. In the 1990s and 2000s, the global discourse around drug prohibition took on an angle beyond portraying drug use as a harbinger of criminal violence and a threat to public health, but also as a hamper to global development and economic progress. For instance, in 2003, an International Narcotics Control Board report claimed that in Africa “A worrisome new development appears to be the increasing shift from cultivation of food crops to cannabis in some areas, resulting in food shortages.” (INCB, 2003, p. 39), upon investigating this claim Carrier and Klantshnig find that it is based on “no solid evidence”.

In response to this increased attention, the states Comprising the United Nations decide on the creation of an Office on Drugs and Crime in 1997, to aid in coordinating the international response to narcotic trafficking. As Carrier and Klantshnig note, the UNODC’s dependence on donor money, particularly regarding major donors such as Japan, Sweden, and most importantly the United States, means that it is unable to formulate independent policy, instead mirroring the aggressive supply side control and enforcement measures adopted by donors. While harm reduction measures, such as needle exchange programmes, have been progressively adopted by various states such as Tanzania, China, Portugal and others, and have been the subject of discussion at UNODC panels and conferences, they have yet to make it as a priority objective in official UNODC policy statements. 

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As such, even the UNODC’s own monitoring documents criticise the agency for its excessive focus on repressive police and military enforcement rather than public health focused preventative action. Other UN and global agencies, such as the World Health Organization, and the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights have criticized the UNODC on what they term “ an ideological opposition to needle exchange and methadone programmes”  despite their proven public health benefits.

Many scholars increasingly describe the War on Drugs as futile. Namely due to two factors. First, demand for drugs is inelastic, meaning that it does not change in function of the price. As narcotic substances, particularly for heavy users, are a product with no substitutes. Furthermore, any price increases occurring during production are passed on to the final consumer, rather than hurting the margins of producers or traffickers (Reuter, 2010, p. 107). 

Research from countries which have adopted either de-criminalisation measures, such as Portugal and the Netherlands (Maris, 1999, p. 506), or have legalised certain drugs for recreational consumption, such as cannabis in Canada and certain parts of the United States, report proven benefits to both public health and security, with a noted reduction in violent crime (Gavrilova & al, 2019, p. 376). After decriminalisation, Portugal was able to reinvest its law enforcement budgets devoted to drug prohibition into public health programmes. It invested in addiction treatments and harm reduction policies, leading to a marked decrease in HIV prevalence rates and a halving of overdose related deaths.

With these criticisms in mind, this dissertation looks at the role of aggressive drug control policies in shaping crime and conflict in zones of civil war, through a comparative analysis looking at Colombia and Afghanistan, and what lessons can be gained from these cases for future counter-narcotics operations. Both countries produce multiple substances under the mandate of the UNODC, such as opium and its derivatives, cocaine, cannabis and methamphetamines. However, we will solely focus on opiates in Afghanistan and cocaine in Colombia. 

First, the dissertation will offer a brief overview of the literature around the role of resources, particularly lootable ones such as illicit drugs, in shaping the onset and duration of civil wars. Next, we will place the actions undertaken as part of the ‘War on Drugs’, in their local context for both countries. Then, we will discuss the effects of these policies on criminal networks, the general population, and belligerent groups and the counterinsurgency efforts, particularly focusing on the Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionarias de Colombia (FARC) in Colombia, and the Taliban in Afghanistan, offering a comparative analysis in each section. 

Like the general population, criminal networks and belligerent groups are inextricably linked in both cases, these sections may feature some overlap. We conclude that, in both cases, the War on Drugs failed to reduce the level of narcotics being produced in either Colombia or Afghanistan. In addition to this, it negatively impacted both the Afghan and Colombian government’s efforts to reduce violence. Counternarcotics operations ended up harming the most vulnerable, had no particular influence on the financing of insurgent groups, and alienated the general population from the central authorities.    

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