Playing NARCOS

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The War on Drugs in Bangladesh is more akin to a knee-jerk. With deadly consequences.

In October 2017, US President Donald Trump declared a “public health emergency” over his country’s escalating opioid crisis, that is now increasingly termed an epidemic. In the throes of this crisis, whereby a synthetic opioid called Fentanyl - apparently 50 times stronger than heroin, which sounds almost inconceivable - is wreaking havoc on a scale never seen, or maybe even contemplated before. Almost 64,000 deaths by overdose in 2016 in the US constituted the overwhelming majority of drug-related deaths, sounding the alarm. Over 42,000 of those deaths were opioid-related.

In Bangladesh, overdose deaths are vanishingly rare, almost unheard of most years, mainly due to even heroin mostly being smoked rather than injected here - a much less toxic path to Nirvana. Interestingly almost all overdoses reported here are on barbiturates (sleeping pills), and suicide-related. None of the other drugs popularly consumed or said to be consumed in Bangladesh are known to cause OD’s (including yaba). It’s a toxicity thing.

Barely 2-3 weeks in, and with the number of alleged drug traders having safely crossed the 100 mark by May 29, Bangladesh’s so-called War on Drugs or Anti-Drugs Drive has surged past decades of substance abuser to become the number 1, almost exclusive, cause of drug-related deaths in the country.

Disturbingly, some of these deaths may not have been related to drugs at all (see next story). Almost all the victims have been small-time peddlers pushing drugs at the retail level - possibly the most vulnerable link in the chain that sees amphetamine pills produced in northern Myanmar’s Shan state make its way across that country and into its bordering state of Rakhine. From there it enters Bangladesh across a poorly guarded stretch of the land border, borne by people, or on boats across the Naf, which partly separates Myanmar from Bangladesh.

Trip out

Trump’s declaration of a public health emergency based on addiction to opioid painkillers rather than a crackdown through law enforcement marks a shift in US policy recently embraced by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, which plans to increase funding for rehabilitation programs in the coming years. The Obama administration also approved several legal and regulatory reforms, including Obamacare, that increased access to addiction treatment through health insurance.

That shouldn’t mask the fact that the US also continues to be one of the leaders in the transnational War on Drugs, that in its fullest meaning encompasses supplying local and state police departments with funds, legal flexibility, and special equipment to crack down on illicit drugs. Sophisticated operations are devised to go after gangs and target leaders. Internationally, the federal government regularly aids other countries that happen to be the source of illicit drugs entering the US, since such substances are often produced in Latin America and shipped north. Enforcing the war on drugs costs the US more than $51 billion each year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

Countries have looked at the pros and cons of each approach and decided on vastly different drug policy regimes, with mostly mixed results. Yet the recent trend overall is undoubtedly characterised by a more critical view of the ‘War’, and an embrace of new thinking geared more towards rehabilitation and prevention rather than harsh enforcement tactics and tough-on-crime stances. They even seem to meet with success.

One recent story of success that has received widespread attention amid calls for replication in other countries is that of Portugal. By  the Eighties, one in 10 people had slipped into the depths of heroin use – “bankers, university students, carpenters, socialites, miners”, according to the Guardian – and the country was in a state of panic.Since it decriminalised all drugs in 2001, Portugal has reportedly seen dramatic drops in overdoses, HIV infection and drug-related crime.

Uruguay in 2012 legalized marijuana for personal use and sales to eliminate a major source of revenue for violent drug cartels. The government is now working to establish regulations for the sales and distribution of pot, according to Vox.

Several European countries prescribe and administer, with supervision, heroin to a small number of addicts who prove resistant to other treatments. Researchers credit the heroin-assisted treatment program in Switzerland, the first national scheme of its kind, with reductions in drug-related crimes and improvements in social functioning, such as stabilized housing and employment.

With so many new approaches coming to the fore, what prompted Bangladeshi authorities to plump for the most primitive option of them all?

Who didn’t start the fire?

As if the situation with regards to extrajudicial killings wasn’t bad enough in Bangladesh, the sudden, unannounced urge among the authorities to replicate Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs in the Philippines, hardly looks considered or even sincere. The move came amid a particularly hysterical week of sensationalist reporting in the media, led by leading English daily The Daily Star, who ran a 3-part series on the ‘drug menace’ from May 12-14 with headlines like “An open affair with death” (despite the report underneath documenting nothing to do with death), and needlessly pondered questions such as: “Is yaba unstoppable?”

Indeed the media’s general reporting on drug use in Bangladesh for the longest time now has been flavoured by a disturbing disregard for scientific reasoning and rational inquiry, while a clear preference for sensation and scandal ran amok. How drugs act on the brain’s reward system and dopamine production, even rudimentary details like the chemical composition of drugs like yaba, or the active ingredients in marijuana, have simply never been explored.

In the Philippines, the jury is necessarily still out on how Duterte’s war has fared, even as a population has been shaken to its core. An incredible 12,000 low-level peddlers and users had been gunned down till January. Some now estimate the death toll has eclipsed a whopping 20,000. According to a Reuters report from last June, the first anniversary of the campaign (Duterte was elected in June 2016), prices of crystal meth,the highly addictive drug also known as ‘shabu’, had actually come down, leading Gloria Lai of the International Drug Policy Consortium, a global network of non-governmental groups focused on narcotics, to declare: “If prices have fallen, it’s an indication that enforcement actions have not been effective.”

In Bangladesh, another source of inspiration for going down this road happens to be the country’s own battle to root out Islamist militancy, that saw a number of ‘raids’ carried out by the security forces against alleged militant dens in towns and cities across the country throughout 2016/17. Now buoyed by their apparent success on that front, the same forces have been unleashed to tackle the drug menace that has been alarming the country in fits and spurts for some years now.

It is wrongheaded to conflate the two. To start with, the numbers involved in terrorism/militancy of the variety favoured by the extremist JMB in Bangladesh has never been estimated above 100,000 by state agencies or academics. It developed in a vacuum almost as an aberration on the history of Islam as has been practised in these parts, and is known to have relied on foreign funding. According to the Department of Narcotics Control’s 2017 report, there are some 7 million drug addicts in the country - even accounting for overestimation, in terms of scale alone, the two are clearly irreconcilable. And drug use is not only prevalent in every known society on earth, it has always existed. Only the poison has differed. Informed policymaking can keep things under control. Bloodbaths leave nothing lasting.

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 34
  • Issue 47

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