Albion Monitor /News

War on Drugs Created Health Crisis Abroad

by Peter Zirnite

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- U.S. anti-narcotics efforts overseas are generating multiple problems, including drug use and disease in Asia and human rights abuses and social unrest in Latin America, health and other specialists here charge.

"I'm embarrassed as an American to see what harm we have caused," said Arnold Trebach, president of the Washington-based Drug Policy Foundation which advocates that drug abuse be addressed more as a public health rather than a criminal justice problem.

The Foundation sponsored the 10th International Conference on Drug Policy Reform, held here on November 8.

U.S. policy inadvertently led to increased use of needle drugs like heroin, which led to HIV epidemics

According to Luke Samson, director of the Society for Serving the Urban Poor in New Delhi, "Western political reaction to narcotics have led to a gargantuan public health problem in Asia."

Facing intense international pressure, especially from Washington, in the 1980s, Indian officials criminalized opium and marijuana, Samson explained. As a result, he said, many drug users began using heroin, much of which came from neighboring Pakistan, where drug profits were used to fund U.S.-backed Afghani guerrillas who were using the country as their base.

While opium and marijuana were ingested by smoking, some drug users injected heroin and the substitute drugs like buprenorphine the government promoted. Samson said this resulted in a dramatic increase in the AIDS-related HIV, hepatitis, and other diseases associated with intravenous drug use.

Nick Crofts, an Australian physician who helped found the Asian Harm Reduction Network, pointed out that opium production, distribution and consumption in the region boomed during the U.S. war in Vietnam.

When nations in the region initiated anti-opium drives in response to U.S. pressure, he said, many opium producers began processing their crop into heroin. This, he added, resulted in a dramatic increase in local heroin use, particularly among young people who previously had not used drugs.

In northeast India, Thailand, Vietnam, and elsewhere in the region, the boom in intravenous drug use has resulted in a "massive outbreak of HIV," according to Crofts, who added that it has also created a "secondary epidemic" of tuberculosis.

Crofts and other health professionals charge that U.S. policies have not only fueled these health problems, they have also thwarted efforts to combat them.

"The inability of the U.S. government to countenance needle exchange in the U.S. is felt throughout the world," Crofts stressed. He said it is "a terrible tragedy" that Washington will not consider implementing a national program to provide drug addicts with clean needles, since the sharing of needles is the major cause of the spread of disease among users.

Aaron Peak, an HIV/AIDS consultant who has worked throughout Asia, pointed out that when government officials are approached to implement such harm reduction programs as education, counseling, condom distribution, and needle exchange, they often ask "Are we the only country doing this?"

Knowing that other countries are engaged in the same practices, he said, "helps to reassure the governments of particular countries that they aren't alone out there."

Peak was also critical of Washington for lagging behind its European allies in extending health aid to the region. "The United States, historically, hasn't been involved in any of these countries," he noted.

While U.S. drug policies have not created health problems in Latin America, critics say they have been equally devastating in that region.

"The primary victims are the poorest members of society, the most vulnerable," said Coletta Youngers, senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Millions of dollars in drug profits laundered by traffickers by purchasing cigarettes that the "Winston-Salem cartel" ships

Youngers accused Washington of using "strong-arm tactics," often based on the region's economic dependence, to force countries to implement its anti-drug strategies. Because these strategies involve "nearly every agency of the U.S. military," she said they are widely "seen as threatening the sovereignty of Andean nations."

"In the Andes, this is a real war," Youngers said, adding that U.S. anti-drug programs are undermining its efforts to promote democracy and human rights in the region. In Bolivia, she claimed, it has "directly fostered political unrest and conflict," while in Colombia it has helped to created "the worst human rights situation in the hemisphere today."

Jack Riley, acting director of Drug Use Forecasting Program at the Department of Justice, pointed out that Washington's efforts have failed to reduce either the supply or use of drugs in the United States.

Because the cost of coca leaves represents just a small fraction of the "retail" price of cocaine, he explained, crop eradication efforts have little impact. The temporary increase in the price paid for coca leaves that may result, Riley argued, "encourages greater production."

"It is clear that traffickers will continue to innovate," Riley added. He pointed out that in response to eradication programs there has been a "geographic spread" in production and, they have reacted to increased interdiction in Mexico by moving shipments through the Caribbean.

Colombian economist Francisco Thoumi, currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, noted that drug traffickers are even aided by U.S. corporations, if only indirectly.

Millions of dollars in drug profits, he said, are laundered by traffickers by purchasing cigarettes that the "Winston-Salem cartel" ships to the nearby islands of Bonaire, Aruba, and Curacao, which are then smuggled into Colombia.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor November 10, 1996 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page