War on drugs will continue long after Covid-19 is done

What’s happening to the drug war during Covid-19 and where will it lead once it’s over? My essay/analysis for British outlet Unherd:

The image was startling in its brazenness and simplicity. The convicted Mexican drug cartel head Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is in a maximum security prison in the US, but his daughter, Alejandrina Guzmán, is using the family business and name to distribute free care packages to desperate residents suffering under the Covid-19 lockdown.

El Chapo continues to have a cult-like following in parts of Mexico because his organisation helps citizens when the Mexican government is absent or incompetent. By distributing aid boxes in the city of Guadalajara, the family business, El Chapo 701, is betting that many Mexicans will trust them more during the current crisis than President López Obrador, who is leading a nation suffering severe economic stress.

The absence of the state allowed mercenary drug militants, the mafia and gangs to thrive, long before the arrival of Covid-19, and this current pandemic has merely reinforced the ability of these groups to capitalise on a once-in-a-century emergency. Many militant groups, dismissed in the West as terrorists, are stepping up to help impoverished communities that rarely if ever see state support. Think the Taliban in Afghanistan, MS-13 in El Salvador and gangs in Rio De Janeiro’s favelas.

In Italy, too, organised crime entities are giving out food and providing essential services to citizens. As the Italian writer Roberto Saviano recently observed:

“In Italy, criminal clans which have lost their traditional drug-dealing spots outside schools and parks have resorted to home delivery on request, adopting a method known in Anglo-Saxon countries as Dial-a-Dealer.

“But there is another door-to-door service that Italian mafia clans — and in particular the Camorra of Naples — have established: daily home deliveries of essentials. In the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Naples, where many people had jobs in the black economy and are now out of work, it is the clans that step in to provide welfare, giving families bread, milk and other basics.

“According to Italian anti-mafia sources, the Camorra has also started providing loans — but not at its usual high interest rates — of between 50% and 70%. Demand for loans is so high in this period that it is still profitable to offer competitive rates, even lower than those offered by the banks.”

It’s easy to presume that the global drug trade will irrevocably change after the pandemic passes or eases. Pro drug-war warriors and policy optimists will tell you that it will be increasingly difficult for cartels to use the same trafficking routes as before due to uneven global lockdowns, stronger law enforcement and decreased global demand.

Believe none of it. I’ve spent the last five years investigating the global drug war for my new book, Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, and a key component of my research is the often hidden aspects of the drug war that garner little Western media coverage. From Guinea-Bissau in West Africa — a key cocaine smuggling hub — to Honduras — where Washington’s violent drug war is fuelling rampant corruption and violence — there’s no evidence that these hidden elements will dissipate when the world overcomes Covid-19.

Western supply of illicit substances is currently reduced, and users may instead look for more dangerous alternatives, but it won’t last. If anything, when life snaps back to a form of normality, it’s likely that in many Western countries interest in procuring cocaine, heroin, psychedelics and other drugs could increase as society looks to celebrate personal freedom while coping with economic depression.

Dark web drug sales, a safe option compared to purchasing illicit substances in person with a dealer, will continue to grow. A friend who uses heroin in Australia tells me that he’s had no issues in the past few months accessing the drug, though many people he knows have now moved online to buy MDMA [ecstasy], cannabis and poppy seeds to grow opium.

This is a pandemic that isn’t distributed evenly: it disproportionally affectspeople of colour, and it’s likely that law enforcement will continue to police illegal drug use most severely in minority community neighbourhoods. It’s a grimly familiar tale for the most affected communities in the US, UK, Australia and Europe.

Most drug users in these countries rarely if ever think about the source of their drugs. Next time a friend wants to use cocaine, ask them if they know where it’s from and who has suffered to get the drug up their nostril. The cocaine trade is in limbo in the source countries like Colombia (although relatively healthy across Europe) but this paralysis won’t last.

Cocaine is a dirty drug that causes a horrific amount of misery (and although Western users are complicit in continuing the trade, it’s the prohibitionists who are most to blame for refusing to imagine a more ethical alternative). Read journalist Toby Muse’s new book, Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels — from the Jungles to the Streets, for brilliant and rare insights into the trade.

Nations have choices to make when deciding drug policies during a pandemic. Do they maintain the default “war on drugs” rhetoric and implementation or try something more humane and sensible? Argentina is using seized assets from drug traffickers and sending those resources to federal police. Such an idea is open to abuse — corrupt police and officials can use the assets for political influence — but in theory the initiative is a good one if the resources are redirected cleverly and morally.

In the UK, drug dealers are finding innovative ways to deliver drugs, including dressing up as nurses, delivery drivers and joggers to get heroin to those who want it. Dealers are born to be ingenious. One drug worker from Sussex told Vice: “A mini-cab driver told me he would normally be ferrying kids around on school runs, but now he’s staying busy by driving all the dealers around town.” In Berlin, dealers are still selling their goods as normal while wearing face masks and gloves.

One UK dealer told Vice that although prices for many products have increased, “markets have to innovate and diversify in response to change. So, I’m importing and selling concentrates and vape pens, called Shatterpens. They contain pure cannabis oil, extracted with C02, no solvents.” He said that domestically-grown hash and cannabis were far more in demand while the lockdown continued. Police are still targeting drug importers and yet the smell of futility hangs over these efforts.

Covid-19 is forcing enterprising drug cartels to adapt to radically shifting circumstances (though traffickers are likely to re-emerge with vigour once trade routes re-open and dealers and users spend more time outside their homes). Take the ingredients for fentanyl, for example, up to 50 times more powerful than heroin and a key cause of US deaths during the opioid crisis. Although Mexican cartels produced fentanyl for the US market, they used to rely on precursor ingredients including from one state-backed factory in Wuhan (the Chinese city where Covid-19 reportedly originated).

This factory has now shut down and traffickers are increasingly forced to raise the prices of whatever stocks they still have. It’s unsustainable in the long run, and fentanyl users in the US will inevitably find alternative ways to source the drug, but Mexican cartels are no less affected by the coronavirus than other profitable businesses. Some Mexican entrepreneurs are shunning cartels entirely and growing blood-free cannabis (an initiative that pre-dates the pandemic but will hopefully increase after it passes).

Covid-19 is likely to be a massive, temporary inconvenience for the global drug trade and little more. Why? Because Western demand for illicit substances has never been higher and will continue to be so (and yes, some people are still attending drug-fuelled parties during the pandemic).

One of the main takeaways from my years investigating the drug trade has been the staggering hypocrisy of those pushing a brutal “war on drugs”. There are no statistics that support its success: arrest one drug kingpin and 20 more will emerge in his place, and yet year after year governments and many in the media push for no softening of prohibition.

Although the full legalisation and regulation of all drugs is now on the agenda in the nations most directly affected by the violent status quo, there are dangers of legalising drugs without considering all the ramifications (look at California and its failure to support the African-American community after cannabis legalisation). Covid-19 has highlighted the existing racial, social and political fault-lines around drugs, and those who use and produce them; but too often the most marginalised in the West and around the world are forgotten in the rush to judgment.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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