Drug Control Policies are Changing: Why? And Why Has it Taken So Long?

Poppy field in Afghanistan's Helmand Province
Poppy field in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Photo: U.S. Marines via ISAFmedia/Wikimedia Commons.

Administrations at local, national and international level are busy reforming laws, strategies and programmes for controlling psychoactive drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin. Many are challenging the principles of a set of international treaties developed and agreed upon during the 20th century, that had as their central principle the absolute prohibition of the production, distribution and consumption of a wide range of psychoactive substances for recreational (as opposed to medical or scientific) use.

While many authorities (most notably in the Netherlands) have turned a blind eye to aspects of the recreational drug market, or just did not have the resources to react, recent developments have been notable in that they are openly challenging the validity of the global drug control system. The Bolivian government has refused to continue complying with the global prohibition on coca leaf; two US states (Washington and Colorado) are in the process of setting up a legally regulated market for cannabis (and seem sure to be followed by others in the next few years); and Uruguay looks destined to become the first country to implement a national regime for the legal production and consumption of cannabis.

China’s Antidrug Policies in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle

Dried Poppies. Image: Wikipedia.

The notorious illicit opium-producing area—the Golden Triangle—between Myanmar, Laos and Thailand in the heart of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) has become the focal point for China’s external antidrug policy. Connected by the Mekong River—which flows from the Chinese province of Yunnan through Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam into the South China Sea—this subregion is now the new frontline in China’s war on drugs, especially along the borders of northern Laos and northern Myanmar. The area is endowed with an ideal climate for opium poppy cultivation, the prime ingredient for heroin. Drug trafficking from the Golden Triangle into mainland China through Yunnan is currently perceived by the Chinese government as a serious nontraditional security challenge as it is estimated that between 60-70 percent of the drugs consumed in China come from this region.