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4 December 2016 16:12 (South Africa)
South Africa

Comrades in arms: South Africa, Russia, and the new global war on drugs

  • Kevin Bloom
    KevinBloomBW
    Kevin Bloom

    Kevin Bloom has written for a wide array of South African and international publications, including Granta, the UK Times and the Guardian, and is an Honorary Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa, having completed the fall residency of the International Writing Program in 2011. Kevin’s first book, Ways of Staying, won the 2010 South African Literary Award for literary journalism, and was shortlisted for the Alan Paton Award. He is currently working on a book about a changing Africa.

  • South Africa
Photo: Marijuana in plastic bags confiscated by customs is on display at the customs office in Nuremberg, Germany, 16 May 2014. EPA/DANIEL KARMANN.

As the West throttles down on its 45-year-old war on drugs, acknowledging that the trillion-dollar price tag has only fuelled civil conflict in Latin America, crowded the prisons at home, and harmed more addicts than it has healed, another bloc of nations is gearing up to implement the self-same failed policies. So guess who’s with China, Indonesia, Russia and the Middle East on this? Yup, South Africa, under the inspired guidance of the Hawks. KEVIN BLOOM reports.

I. The Hawks and the Kremlin Drug Czars

Home page of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation”. That’s what it says above the URL address bar where the announcement that forms the backbone — or, more accurately, the central bone of contention — of this article appears. As per the announcement, there is a new acronym in the global war on drugs, which at first glance seems as bland and inoffensive as any other acronym that occasionally gets beamed down to us from the Starship Geopolitics: RAADD, short for Russia-Africa Anti-Drugs Dialogue. But before we tell you exactly who the Hawks (aka the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation) have chosen to “dialogue” with in the Russians, and before we explain why calling this an “Africa”-wide partnership is wishful thinking at best, let us lay out the principles upon which RAADD has been set up.

The contemporary global drug phenomenon is unprecedented in its scale and implications,” we read in the announcement, “as it threatens security, stability, undermines sustainable economic development and adversely affects the health and well-being of human beings. The global illicit drug trade has assumed macroeconomic proportions and is rapidly diversifying to new markets (the so-called balloon effect). Africa’s drug landscape is constantly evolving. In the past Africa predominantly produced and abused cannabis, but more recently there is greater availability of harder drugs such as cocaine, heroin and synthetic drugs. Africa is in the spotlight as it has emerged as a corridor for large-scale transshipment of Latin American cocaine and Afghani heroin to the drug markets. South Africa is also directly and indirectly affected by these mega-drug flows.”

Nope, if we’re to believe our own beloved Hawks, the 45-year-old global “war on drugs” has not been the catastrophic failure that The Economist, the New York Times and top officials in President Barack Obamas White House have told us it’s been. According to the tenor of RAADD’s proclamation, we should ignore the statistics out of the Drug Policy Alliance that puts the number of people killed in Mexico’s drug war since 2006 at upwards of 100,000, the number of US fatalities from drug overdoses in 2014 at upwards of 47,000, and the number of US tax dollars spent in the last four decades to fight the war on drugs at upwards of $1-trillion.

What’s happening here, all too clearly, is another species-wide parting of the ways, a fracture in the notion of what constitutes success in the battle against our common penchant for self-destruction, and it’s just as The Economist noted in May 2015: “[As] one drug war begins to wind down, another is cranking up across Asia, Russia and the Middle East.”

In making this simple yet momentous statement, the magazine was referring to the evidence that was there for all to see. China’s president calling for “forceful measures to wipe drugs out”; Indonesia’s state leader deeming drugs a “national emergency” and giving the green light for a string of firing-squad executions of traffickers; Russia lobbying for a) Afghanistan’s opium-poppy fields to be sprayed out of existence, and b) its neighbours to institute the same ban on methadone, the heroin substitute for recovering addicts, that it had proudly promulgated a few years before.

And so, within hours of the RAADD announcement going live on the Hawks website on Friday 4 March, Shaun Shelly, chief organiser of South Africa’s drug policy conference, posted the following on the SA Drug Policy closed Facebook group: “This is extremely concerning. South Africa is partnering with the country that has the most harmful drug policies in the world. There is no logic in this and it is in conflict with our own National Drug Master Plan.”

Julian Stobbs, one half of South Africa’s famous Dagga Couple — the team taking the country’s marijuana laws to the North Gauteng High Court later this year — was a little less diplomatic. “A malaise has set in here,” he told Daily Maverick. “The Russians? All the honchos of the legalisation movement are wondering whether everything we’ve ever done is about to be pissed on. The authorities announce things like this a week or so in advance, meaning nobody can jump on it.”

Stobbs should know. After laying out hundreds of thousands of rand, and spending months jumping through hoops on the paperwork and permission slips, his Weedstock Festival — a three-day celebration bringing together music lovers and dagga smokers for an imaginative leap into a kinder and gentler world — the gig was forcefully cancelled by the South African police at the 11th hour.

We wondered,Stobbs wrote on his blog on 7 March, if it was some sort of tit-for-tat from on high to inflict the maximum amount of damage to all involved for all the warning letters weve sent to the SAPS in recent weeks demanding they stop aerial spraying of the Eastern Cape dagga fields. Could be. We could only speculate. Not one of the numerous weekend events the venue had hosted in the past had ever run into such red tape.

The Daily Maverick wonders too. But as the RAADD dialogue kicks off on 9 March, and as none of the officials are answering their phones, all we can do at this point is provide a little more bewildering context.

II. Tricky Dicky, Nancy Reagan & UNGASS

Here, then, is an instructive bon mot from the history books. When Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs” open in July 1971, deeming narcotic abuse a “national emergency” and asking Capitol Hill for an initial $84-million to fight his new “public enemy number one,” it wasn’t solely — or even mostly — the hippie counterculture that was irking him. For Tricky Dicky, stoned longhairs attending poetry recitals across the college campuses of America were one thing; acid-tripping GIs in the jungles of southeast Asia were entirely another. And so, to ensure US army grunts didn’t compromise their ability to shoot straight, the first measure in the war on drugs was the institution of urine testing for enlisted men in Indochina. Did the measure increase the average kill rate of the US combat soldier? Doesn’t matter, ‘cos three years later Nixon had become the first US president to be removed from office, America had pulled out of Vietnam the following year, and the war on drugs had turned into a full-scale law enforcement industry: the increase in the size and presence of federal drug control agencies was now accompanied by no-knock warrants and mandatory sentencing for offenders, while marijuana — alongside heroin and cocaine — was a de facto schedule one drug.

Then, following the quiet years (at least in war talk terms) of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, came Ronnie “Shining City on The Hill” Reagan. Thanks to an electorate scared shitless by media portrayals of African-Americans smoking a crystalised form of cocaine called “crack”, zero-tolerance policies were implemented and the prisons began to fill up. According to the aforementioned US interest group Drug Policy Alliance, in the mid-1980s Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, who believed casual drug users should be taken out and shot, founded the DARE drug education program, adopted across the nation even though there was no real evidence that proved its effectiveness.

Of course, Ronnie Shining City on The Hill” Reagan was married to Nancy Just Say NoReagan, who died just two days before this article was published (at her home in Bel-Air on 6 March 2016, at the age of 94). Nancys greatest legacy, its now clear, is exactly that Just Say Nocampaign, which apart from other things was a major contributing factor in the climb from 50,000 Americans being held for nonviolent drug law offences in 1980 to more than 400,000 Americans being held for the same 'offences' by 1997 — by which time Bill Clinton, whod advocated for treatment instead of incarceration during his own 1992 presidential campaign, had fully broken his promise. Dubya, who landed in the White House just as the war on drugs was beginning to fizzle out, spent more money on reviving the war (and starting a few others) than any of his predecessors.

By the end of Bush's term,notes the Drug Policy Alliance, there were about 40,000 paramilitary-style SWAT raids on Americans every year — mostly for nonviolent drug law offences, often misdemeanours.

Sanity prevailed, finally, under President Barack Obama, whose people unambiguously acknowledged that the whole thing had been a ridiculous and tragic waste of money, lives and law enforcement man-hours. But why had it taken America so long to get there?

We wouldnt go far wrong if we quoted from The Economist again. Prohibition suits criminal gangs, which enjoy exclusive control of a global market worth roughly $300-billion annually. It is also convenient for corrupt politicians and officials, who can extract rents for turning a blind eye.Bearing in mind that The Economist published these words in May 2015, with reference to the newwar on drugs driven by Asia, Russia and the Middle East, we can carry on quoting without the need to equivocate or explain.

Several of those whom Indonesia executed [in late April 2015] claimed that judges offered them clemency in exchange for huge bribes. In the main, though, what drives the new drug warriors is the same conviction that animated the old ones: the sincere, if mistaken, belief that cracking down on traffickers and users will make addiction go away. The lesson of the first war is that it will not.

Which bring us to UNGASS, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs, scheduled to take place this year from April 19 to 21 in New York City. The Hawks and the Russians have stated in their press material that the RAADD shindig, due to take place this week in Durban, holds up UNGASS as a major raison d’etre (the other is the Commission for Narcotic Drugs held every March). They also said in their statement that the dialogue is going ahead “under the auspices of the African Union (AU) in pursuance of the obligations in terms of the relevant UN Drug and Transnational Organised Crime Conventions, African Union Plan of Action on Drug Control (2013-2017) and BRICS resolutions.

We shouldnt be too quick to believe them. For starters, the Daily Maverick has it on good authority that there are senior people in both the South African government and at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa who are more than a little disturbed by the existence of RAADD. This is in line with what happened at a drug policy conference in Cape Town in February this year, when it emerged that South Africas diplomatic mission in Vienna had submitted to the UN — in the words of Health-E's Kerry Cullinan — its own reactionarypolicy paper on drugs ahead of a far more progressive paperthat AU member states had been working on for months. The reactionary South African document, according to Cullinan, did not make mention of harm reductionoptions in relation to addicts, focusing only on punishment for those who supply and use illegal drugs.

There you have it; the implications are obvious enough. In the global fault line that divides the worlds nation-states into those who execute drug traffickers, like Indonesia, and those who legalise marijuana, like Uruguay, were on the side of the executioners. In fact, its probably even more hardcore than that, because were now dialoguingwith Russia, the country that denied 800 people their methadone substitution treatment when it annexed Crimea, killing some 80 to 100 former addicts in the process.

Way to go, Hawks! Priority crimes, for sure. DM

Photo: Marijuana in plastic bags confiscated by customs is on display at the customs office in Nuremberg, Germany, 16 May 2014. EPA/DANIEL KARMANN.

For more on this subject, read:

  • The Cannabis Chronicles: Notes towards a post revolution economy; in Daily Maverick
  • The Cannabis Chronicles: What the state really thinks; in Daily Maverick
  • Kevin Bloom
    KevinBloomBW
    Kevin Bloom

    Kevin Bloom has written for a wide array of South African and international publications, including Granta, the UK Times and the Guardian, and is an Honorary Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa, having completed the fall residency of the International Writing Program in 2011. Kevin’s first book, Ways of Staying, won the 2010 South African Literary Award for literary journalism, and was shortlisted for the Alan Paton Award. He is currently working on a book about a changing Africa.

  • South Africa

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