Archive for the ‘Cocaine’ Tag

Lord Coca Leaf vs Baron Cocaine

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

Those cheeky peers have been at it again. Following their revelationary recommendations back in January, which suggested we dropped the moral stance on drug use and took a more pragmatic approach, this week the All Party Parliamentary Group For Drug Policy Reform have come up with an idea so good and so politically-unaligned that it has blown my socks off.

Using the same level-headed, true harm-reduction manner as Towards a Safer Drugs Policy, Baroness Meacher and Co. have this week published Coca Leaf: A Political Dilemma?. This new document, commissioned and published by the peers but written by a specialist in The Americas’ human rights, tracks the damage done in Latin America by the War On Drugs, and then looks at the ancient benefits found in the coca leaf in its unprocessed form.

The report provides a historical context to the current UN Drug Conventions, which, since 1961, have prohibited not only the production of cocaine but also the coca leaf. This has resulted in mass fumigation programmes, leaving huge areas of South America desolate. The poverty has left populations open to exploitation by drugs barons, and massive territories have fallen under criminal control. This has, in turn, undermined democratic systems, and destroyed large areas of jungle and wildlife.

Attempts to counter this movement have met strong opposition. Publication of evidence from the World Health Organisation, which stated that coca leaf had “no negative health effects”, was blocked, and when Bolivia made its case to exclude coca production from the UN Convention for traditional use, the USA and fourteen other countries objected. Despite this, Bolivia won, and legal coca leaf production is now underway. The report released this week appears to be in response to this change, and to President Santos’ recent call for a more pragmatic approach to the impact that drugs are having in the region. It looks towards the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, where, it seem, it is hoped that the international sanctions on coca leaf production will be lifted.

In terms of the benefits offered by the coca leaf, it has long been used to enable working at high altitudes. However, it is now thought that this may not be, as originally thought, related to oxygen saturation or blood pressure – instead, it appears to moderate blood sugar levels. This indicates its possible uses in diabetes treatment. Because of the UN restrictions, it has been impossible for any research to be carried out in the modern era, but the high iron and calcium content, along with its richness of vitamins and minerals and a variety of other health-giving properties, mean that there may potential in the future to use it in the treatment of asthma, anaemia, gastrointestinal illnesses, low immunity and colds, and as an analgesic and antibacterial.

Its potential use in the food and nutrition industries, too, is possible. Containing seven times more iron and seventy-four times more calcium that the average plants we eat, it is thought to be useful for those with broken bones or osteoporosis, and its high protein content also has dietary implications. (It contains more calcium than milk or eggs, and more protein than meat.) It could also be used as an appetite suppressant for treating obesity, or taken like caffeine to increase energy levels and enhance performance. Given that it can be processed into flour, its use in the modern diet has great potential.

And finally, it is also thought to be usable in the treatment of cocaine addiction. Research is needed to test claims that the coca leaf could be used as methadone is in the treatment of opiate dependence, or whether it can also be used like buprenorphine by limiting the neural rewards available from taking the drug.

For any of these hypotheses to be rigorously tested, legal access to the coca leaf needs to be improved. Unsurprisingly, the report calls for restrictions on coca leaf production to be lifted, work to be done with the local governments to ensure that production be channelled for legal purposes instead of being made available to the drugs trade, and for farming communities to be supported in freeing themselves from black-market slavery.

These are big asks, and not requests to be implemented half-heatedly or quickly. However, with international political unity, and humanitarian aid from the countries that caused the damage in the first place (for example, maybe the four thousand US troops currently based in South America fighting the War On Drugs could be redeployed to protect the farmers?), maybe there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon for millions of South Americans.

Well done, peers. You continue to surprise and educate me.

Advertisements

Santos speaks out

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

While we are all whining on about the impact of drugs on our communities, and the effects on individuals, South America and Mexico continue to deal with the shocking human cost of producing and distributing cocaine, methamphetamine, cannabis and other drugs. Much like the opium situation in Afghanistan, cocaine and cannabis are cash-crops – but unlike Afghanistan, it’s not just the fluffy types at the UN wanting the curb the trade. Pressure on South American and Mexican governments from the USA to stop the export of cocaine and other drugs has meant tough penalties for those manufacturing and trafficking, because failure to adhere to these US-enforced policies means risking international relations with their closest, richest neighbours and vital trade partners. This has caused a full-on war between the authorities and organised criminals, leading to death rates that surpass most genocides. In Mexico alone, between 2006 and 2011, it is thought that around 60,000 were killed or ‘disappeared’, many of whom remain unidentified after being found in mass ‘narco-graves‘.

In an unusual (and strangely under-reported) move, Columbian president Juan Manuel Santos has this week published an article in The Guardian’s ‘Comment Is Free’, outlining the main points of a report produced by the Organisation of American States (OAS) in partnership with Oxford University. The report suggests ways in which the issue could be tackled, not from a moral perspective (ie what should happen) but from a pragmatic standpoint (what could happen). Santos states that this new set of approaches broadens the debate past the polarised ‘warriors’ and ‘legalisers’ arguments – after all, this is not Star Wars, there is no good versus evil, and neither extreme offers valid ideas to vastly improve the lives of ordinary people.

The scenarios proposed in the report, which has been released as the OAS leaders meet this week in Guatemala, involve providing better health, education and employment opportunities to offer real economic alternatives to those embroiled in drug production and trafficking and their communities; strengthening public institutions to improve the welfare of citizens; better (and, I would imagine, less hierarchical) co-operation with international partners; and redirecting budgets currently spent on international priorities (law enforcement in an attempt to stop the drugs being produced and exported) to local priorities. Clearly some of these approaches will require international support to be implemented – as long as the US and the rest of us keep pushing for the problems to be contained, the internal wars and consequential deaths will continue.

However, the headline-grabbing proposal made in the report is to look at alternatives to criminalisation, starting with the legalisation of cannabis. It seems to me that the OAS have seen an opportunity to use the current cannabis debate in the US, which has resulted in Colorado and Washington legalising the drug, cleverly to their advantage. The report suggests South America and Mexico follow suit, and so appears to be jumping on the US bandwagon. After all, it would be highly hypocritical for the US to claim that the rights they offer their citizens were not applicable to the citizens of their neighbouring countries. But it also uses the US model to politely point out that the problems the War On Drugs causes the USA might cause one or two little problems in their countries too – and they don’t just have over-run prisons and drug treatment centres, they have pits of nameless dead.

Luckily, President Santos does seem to be getting some parallel support from this side off the pond. A letter from a group of MPs and celebrities to our Government was published in The Times this week, signed not only by candyfloss-haired minted powerhouse Richard Branson, marathon-shagging squealer Sting, and you-get-loads-of-sex-how? lanky slime-ball Russell Brand, but also politicians from the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. The movement is being led by Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, whose personal stake in the matter may be the destruction of vast areas of rainforest as chemical byproducts of drug production are illegally dumped. The letter questions the validity of the War On Drugs and asks how the Government can justify their £3b a year spending on their current approach, suggesting that possibly an evidenced approach might be a better use of public money. (You know, try to see if something works before you spend our hard-earned cash implementing it. Just a thought.)

Whilst the letter does not make direct reference to the situation in America, it is yet another high-profile attack on existing drug policy – and only adds to the ever-increasing international momentum for things to change. It seems to me that we are on the cusp of the greatest social paradigm shift since the abolition of slavery. But then I am a bit of a drama queen.

%d bloggers like this: