Counter-drug efforts and the Afghan War

Though poppy-growing and drug-dealing are bad for the security-and-governance situation in Afghanistan, most of the things done to fight the problem have the natural effect of making it worse.

The Center on International Cooperation at NYU has published a paper in which Jonathan Caulkins, Jonathan Kulick, and I try to unpack the likely effects of different counter-drug strategies on the course of the conflict in Afghanistan. Short version: the drug problem does indeed contribute both to the insurgency and to the weakening of the state by warlord armies and corrupt officials, but most of what is done to fight the drug problem tends to make the problem worse, not better. That goes not only for crop interdiction and enforcement against trafficers, but also for “alternative development” efforts designed to induce farmers to plant something other than poppies.

Barnett Rubin, who spends half his time running CIC and the other half advising Richard Holbrooke, contributed a clear and concise preface that ably summarizes the document without entirley embracing its conclusions.  Key sentence: “Counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan alone may move production around Afghanistan – to relatively more insecure areas – but cannot sustainably decrease the size of the opiate industry in that country.”

We’re still working on this topic, as part of a larger team, and any comments would be welcome.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

9 thoughts on “Counter-drug efforts and the Afghan War”

  1. Whatever you do, don't fail to seize this opportunity, when the world is so much on a knife's edge that people are actually ready to hear some truth on anything that might save us some money, bring us some peace, help save the environment.

  2. Mark,

    An outstanding book on the unintended consequences of anti-drug efforts is BORDER GAMES by Peter Andreas, which focuses on the Mexican-US border, but has lessons that apply to our counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan.

  3. What with the current events in Jamaica, I've been mentally reviewing the past 60 years of

    American drug policy. In terms of destabilising governmental authority and empowering gangsters in foreign lands, it's been a total success. Whether this has actually benefited us in any sense is debatable.

    I began to wonder if concentrating so much power in the hands of gangsters might not 'boomerang' on us in the long run. It seems extremely likely that at some point our role in the world will be relatively lessened. How nations perceive us, and how they relate to us, may be of critical importance in relation to an issue such as global warming- and how we relate to them, as illustrated by our swat-team policing, of equal importance.

    To me, it seems as plain as day that all drugs should be medicalized, and treatment, which might appropriately include maintenance dosage, provided as health care.

    This would provide such a sudden and massive solution to so many problems that I'm not too worried about the various alternatives. They won't work any better now than they have in the past.

  4. It makes no sense to talk about "the drug problem" in Afghanistan, as if drug addiction were caused by supply, and wiping out the supply would cure addiction. Treating drug addiction as a public health problem among Americans, rather than as a law enforcement problem, would address the American demand. But the short-term political gains to be made from attacking drug producers and smugglers are too…well, too addictive.

  5. Afghanistan indeed has a drug addiction problem, but the big problem is illicit drug dealing. The claim that there's some "medical" solution to the problem that certain drugs have a high propensity for creating bad habits is, alas, false. Legalizing drugs means much more drug abuse. You can decide that the trade is worth making – that the U.S. and other consumer countries have no right to damage producer countries as much as drug prohibition damages them to protect their residents from their own self-management problems – but you need to say that in full recognition of how terrible drug abuse can be and how many more people would fall victim to it if other drugs were sold as cheaply and marketed as aggressively as alcohol now is.

  6. The claim that "legalizing drugs means much more drug abuse" is oft repeated, but isn't uniformly supported by facts. For example, there is a report that "in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled," both good outcomes. I don't claim that the experience would be that good in the U.S., but I do think that proponents of prohibition should prove their case.

    But let's not be distracted from the point I was making, which was not pro-legalization, but anti-interdiction. Even if the currently illegal drugs remain illegal, we could be getting every addict into treatment. It would cost plenty, and there would of course be plenty of relapses even among graduates of the well-run programs, but it would move significant numbers of people from "using" to "recovering" (one is never cured). That would be a major public health breaththrough, worth doing for the health benefits alone, but it would also reduce demand for the drugs and put at least some suppliers out of business. I'm pretty sure that's what we want.

    You are familiar with several reasons we haven't taken a public health approach to the problem. Conservatives hate public health spending, like big police and military budgets, like big full prisons, and they like scary foreign narco-terrorist enemies who provide political justification for big police and military budgets, not to mention foreign military adventures. I'd be happy to discard the whole "drug war" just to be rid of those side effects. But a better reason to give it up, is that empirical facts show it just doesn't work. The drug warriors should be the ones on the defensive.

  7. Why is it necessary to look for a medical solution to "the problem that certain drugs have a high propensity for creating bad habits"? You're setting yourself up for failure with that goal. Some people will develop bad habits no matter what you do. Some will do so *because* you want to protect them from themselves.

    The aim of a medical approach to the drugs problem should not be to protect the individual from himself by preventing bad habits. The purpose of a non-enforcement approach to the drugs problem is to reduce the overall cost of the problem (monetary and otherwise). Prohibition is a very bad approach to the problem. Prohibition only serves the interests of those making money because of it. Prohibition is all about the money.

    If people develop bad habits in the face of better knowledge, so be it. This business of being my brother's keeper at continued great monetary and other expense is just dumb.

    "… and marketed as aggressively as alcohol now is." Are you saying that such aggressive marketing is unavoidable? I don't think I've seen a cigarette add on television in a while. Are you saying these bad habits cannot be preempted with truthful information (as opposed to propaganda and repression)?

    To my way of thinking you have to remove the profitability of the drug trade. Since that profitability stems from prohibition, you have to do away with prohibition.

  8. Don, Portugal's outcomes look good but are not outcomes of legalization, which we might as well call "commercialization". If we want large corporations marketing the currently illicit substances and lobbying to reduce the regulations on them, legalization is the way to go. When's the last time Congress raised taxes on or tightened regulations on alcohol, even while it's our biggest abuse problem.

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