Wars, drugs, successes, failures

Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine that minor events on the other side of the world could have a measurable impact here in the United States, but recent testimony given by John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, seems to support just such a connection.

This week Sopko told the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control that Afghanistan has clear potential to degenerate into a narco-criminal state. Sopko told senators that despite a $7 billion effort to eradicate opium production in Afghanistan, poppy cultivation there is at its highest level since the U.S. invasion more than a decade ago, sparking corruption and criminal gangs and providing the insurgency with hard cash.

“The situation in Afghanistan is dire with little prospect for improvement in 2014 or beyond,” Sopko said. “Afghan farmers are growing more opium poppies today than at any time in their modern history.”

According to a report by the House Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice, the Bekaa Valley in Syria is pretty similar. Once a region known for growing wheat, fruit and vineyards under the control of the Syrian military, the region has become a vast expanse of marijuana and opium cultivation. The reports also states that individual Syrian officers make as much as $30,000 a year from the trade.

A report in the New York Times states that higher officials make vastly more. All told, the Syrian military gets a subsidy of $300 million to $1 billion from the heroin trade, much of its product destined for the United States. Terrorist groups headquartered in Syria also draw funds from drug cultivation in the valley.

All of this dreary detail piggybacks on a recent report compiled by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) that observes a significant rise in domestic heroine use. “The number of people aged 12 and older who used heroin in the past year rose from 373,000 in 2007 to 669,000 in 2012,” the report states.

SAMHSA also notes that Marijuana continues to be the most commonly used illicit drug. In 2012, 7.3 percent of Americans were current users of marijuana – up from 5.8 percent in 2007. Although past month use of marijuana rose in nearly every age group between 2007 and 2012, it did drop among those aged 12 to 17 from 7.9 percent in 2011 to 7.2 percent in 2012.

Of these trends SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde remarked: “These findings show that while we have made progress in preventing some aspects of substance abuse, we must redouble our efforts to reduce and eliminate all forms of it throughout our nation. These statistics represent real people, families and communities dealing with the devastating consequences of abuse and addiction. We must strive to prevent further abuse and provide the hope of treatment and recovery to all people needing help.”

Hyde’s observations highlight a key lapse in the typical American approach to drug-related problems — for far too long the cornerstone of our approach has been punitive and legalistic. In short, we rush to criminalize behavior that could be better addressed with a therapeutic model like those more common in European nations.

The other side of this equation is economic. Farmers in places like Syria and Afghanistan don’t grow opium poppies because they want to be the backbone of world heroin trade. They grow this crop because it is the most profitable and because dictators, warlords and other strongmen compel it.

Yes, we have a well-laid system for imprisoning drug abusers and drug dealers. We’re very good at those things. Where we seem to falter is in both diminishing the demand and discouraging foreign production.