Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.

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Drug Policy

WOLA Podcast: A Groundbreaking Win at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs

I share an office with John Walsh, who runs WOLA’s Drug Policy Program. In late March, he came back from a trip to Vienna very amped up about what had happened at a big UN meeting there. I needed some context to understand why it was a big deal that a UN body passed a resolution with the words “harm reduction” in it, but once he told me the story, yes, it was a big deal.

Here’s a podcast conversation about what happened last month, with John, Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium, and Lisa Sánchez of México Unido Contra la Delincuencia. Even if, like me, you’re not a close follower of drug policy diplomacy, you’re going to find this episode interesting because three experts with decades of experience at this are telling what turns out to be an inspiring story.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

On March 14-22, 2024, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) held its 67th annual session in Vienna, Austria. The session saw a landmark vote that may have important repercussions for drug policy, in Latin America and elsewhere.

The Commission approved a U.S.-led resolution encouraging countries to implement “harm reduction” measures to respond to drug overdoses and to protect public health.

The vote marks a major breakthrough in civil society’s decades-long advocacy to center harm reduction, especially since the U.S. government has a history of blocking all such resolutions, and since the Commission has a longstanding tradition of enactment by a “Vienna Consensus” without votes.

This episode features three guests who helped lead civil society’s robust participation at the CND:

The three experts underscore that while the vote on this resolution was a major win in the civil society-led harm reduction fight, it is just one milestone along a longer journey. The fight must continue to ensure this sets the foundation for an international drug policy that truly prioritizes protecting people, views drug addiction as a public health and not a national security issue, and moves away from the normative framework of achieving a “drug free society” through punitive measures and prohibition.

“The prohibition regime has tried to make itself inevitable and ‘forever,’ and that’s not the case… There’s no reason to think that it needs to last forever. In fact, as we said, it was a misfit from the very beginning,” says John Walsh. “Drug use has always existed, it always will. To suggest that we’re going to create a ‘drug-free world’ is not only futile, but it’s downright dangerous because of its consequences… I think this is an opening to think more broadly about not just the UN drug policy space, but what governments need to do for the health, safety, and well-being of their populations.”

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

On Cannabis Policy, “The Federal Government Is Recognizing the Reality That Several States Have Already Recognized”

I’m in today’s edition of Y Esto No Es Todo, the Spanish-language podcast of Georgetown University’s Americas Institute, talking with host Juan Carlos Iragorri about the U.S. federal government’s movement toward reclassifying marijuana as a lower-risk drug. Here are my comments in English:

Well, it’s pretty important that the U.S. federal government is following in the footsteps of the states and softening its standards on marijuana a bit. And it’s happening for a number of reasons.

First, because the boomer generation, those who were born after World War II, almost all of them lived or experimented with marijuana as young people and they know it didn’t do them much harm. And that has really changed attitudes quite a bit in the last 20, 30 years about marijuana laws.

Also the fact that marijuana is less addictive than other drugs that are lower, in fact, in the scheme that the DEA uses to classify drugs, like cocaine. Cocaine is much more addictive. Alcohol is legal and it’s more addictive. Then marijuana is seen as maybe something that carries less social harm, health harm, than some of the others. And now the fact that more and more medicinal uses are being discovered is quite important.

The third is simply that enforcing anti-marijuana laws is draining the resources of police across the country. Instead of having to catch those who are using or selling marijuana, they can focus on drugs and much more serious criminal phenomena. And that’s freeing up a lot more resources. And you see that in states where marijuana has been legalized or regulated, there are no increases in violent crime in recent years.

So all of that is changing attitudes. And finally the federal government is recognizing the reality that several states have already recognized.

Charts: Drug Seizures at the U.S.-Mexico Border

We now have 11 months of data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) about how much illicit drugs the agency seized at the U.S.-Mexico border during the 2023 fiscal year so far (from October 2022 to August 2023). That’s enough to compare this year’s drug seizures with previous years’.

With one exception—fentanyl—the data show a drop or stagnation in the amount of drugs being detected crossing the border.

Drugs manufactured from plants are turning up less often. A few years ago, Americans addicted to prescription opioids were turning to heroin made in Mexico (from the poppy plant), and heroin seizures were way up. That is no longer true: fentanyl competes with heroin, and it’s cheaper and easier to make. Heroin seizures have fallen sharply.

Data table

As is the case with all drugs except marijuana, 90 percent of this year’s border heroin seizures have taken place at ports of entry (official border crossings), where CBP’s Office of Field Operations operates—not the areas in between the ports where Border Patrol operates. 60 percent of all border-wide heroin seizures happened at California ports of entry (CBP’s San Diego Field Office).

Cocaine seizures are flat, despite evidence of increased production in the Andes (from the coca plant). 81 percent has been seized at ports of entry this year. 47 percent of all border-wide heroin seizures happened at California ports of entry (CBP’s San Diego Field Office), and another 23 percent at south Texas ports of entry (Laredo Field Office).

Data table

Marijuana seizures have been declining for a while. With so many U.S. states now allowing some form of legal, regulated sale of cannabis, there’s far less reason to take the risk of importing it from Mexico.

Data table

Marijuana is the only drug that mostly gets seized between the ports of entry. Only 25 percent was seized at ports of entry in fiscal 2023. Most marijuana gets seized in Texas (in 2023 so far, Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector 31 percent, Border Patrol’s Big Bend Sector 22 percent, CBP’s Laredo Field Office 19 percent, and Border Patrol’s Laredo Sector 12 percent).

I haven’t done the research to understand why, but seizures of a major synthetic (not plant-based) drug, methamphetamine, have also fallen. 88 percent of meth got seized at ports of entry this year. Of all border-wide 2023 seizures, 63 percent happened at California ports of entry (CBP’s San Diego Field Office).

Data table

The one drug that’s being seized in far greater amounts is fentanyl. CBP seized 106 percent more of the highly potent, highly compact synthetic opioid in the first 11 months of fiscal 2023 than it did in the same period of fiscal 2022. (That’s measured in the weight of pills or other form of seized doses, not the weight of pure fentanyl.)

Data table

89 percent of fentanyl seizures took place at ports of entry during the first 11 months of fiscal 2023. The ports in California (San Diego, blue) and Arizona (Tucson, green) have accounted for 87 percent of all 2023 fentanyl seizures border-wide.

Data table

At wola.org: Crisis and Opportunity: Unraveling Colombia’s Collapsing Coca Markets

Here’s an analysis I’ve been working on, bit by bit, for the past several weeks.

The market in Colombia for coca, the plant whose leaves can be used to produce cocaine, is in a state of historic collapse, bringing with it an acute humanitarian crisis in already impoverished rural territories. The unusually sharp and prolonged drop in coca prices has several causes. WOLA has identified 12 possible explanations, some more compelling than others.

Regardless of the reason, the crisis is sure to be temporary as world cocaine demand remains robust. The Colombian government, and partner and donor governments including the United States, should take maximum advantage of this window of opportunity before it closes. The humanitarian crisis offers a chance for Colombia to fill vacuums of civilian government presence in territories where insecurity, armed groups, and now hunger are all too common.

Read on—in English or Spanish, HTML or PDF—at WOLA’s website.

WOLA Podcast: “Fentanyl: ‘What sounds tough isn’t necessarily a serious policy'”

One of the benefits of hosting WOLA’s podcast is learning something new from the people I interview. I learned a lot in this one about the seemingly intractable problem of fentanyl trafficking. I spoke here with my colleagues John Walsh, who runs WOLA’s Drug Policy Program, and Stephanie Brewer, who runs our Mexico Program. Both were clear, informed, and on their game. Highly recommended.

Here’s the language from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

Record overdose deaths in the United States have fixed attention on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, synthesized mainly in Mexico, that is highly addictive and very small in volume. WOLA’s director for drug policy, John Walsh, and director for Mexico, Stephanie Brewer, argue that the challenge fentanyl poses demands a fundamental rethinking of the U.S. approach to illicit drugs.

Today, however, the sense of crisis has escalated so much that, even with an administration that is open to “harm-reduction” approaches to drug policy, policymakers and lawmakers are turning to the get tough recipes of the drug war’s past 50 years.

A push to use military force and demand crackdowns is harming relations with Mexico, where top leadership inaccurately denies that fentanyl is produced. A push to increase incarceration at home threatens to repeat some of the tragic mistakes of the recent past, in which strong-sounding policies did great damage to both Latin America (measured by crime and instability) and the United States (measured by overdose deaths and other harms).

All pure fentanyl consumed in the United States in an entire year can fit inside the beds of two pickup trucks. The drug is “un-interdictable.” Walsh and Brewer argue here that fentanyl’s rise makes evident the need for a harm reduction approach that saves lives and helps people recover from addiction, while working with Mexico to address the conditions that allow organized crime to thrive.

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Vice: Congress Suddenly Wants to Know If US Taxpayers Were Helping El Chapo

From a very good piece at VICE by Keegan Hamilton, who closely followed the New York trial of former Mexico public security chief Genaro García Luna:

For watchdogs like Adam Isaacson [sic.], director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, it’s no surprise that the U.S. government turned a blind eye toward García Luna while he was in power.

“It seems pretty clear that the DEA and other parts of the United States government knew that Garcia Luna was not somebody that they could fully trust, and that, in fact, he may have been colluding with armed groups or with organized crime,” Isaacson told VICE News. “But they still found him useful because he was going after other organized crime groups at the same time.”

Isaacson pointed to examples beyond Mexico, such as Honduras and Brazil, where the U.S. has provided funding and training to state security forces linked to corruption and human rights abuses, and said it’s no longer shocking—it’s simply business as usual in the war on drugs.

“Their mission is not to make corruption go away,” Isaacson said. “Their mission is to break a drug organization and get as many tons of drugs seized as possible so it doesn’t make it to the United States. And if that means making common cause with bad guys to go after other bad guys, they’re going to do it without regard to the institutional or accountability damage that that might do in the countries that they’re working.”

Sad to say, this would be a break with the past

“One of the principles” of the Bogotá-Washington relationship, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States says, “is to attack drug trafficking head-on ‘but not the communities that need greater opportunities.’

Sadly, that principle has hardly been observed in the past, as the U.S. government contributed a rough average of half a billion dollars per year into Colombia’s drug war so far this century. It’s been observed partially at best.

Colombia’s new coca policy: “the devil is in the details,” which aren’t clear yet

This translated fragment of a January 31 column in the Colombian daily El Espectador, from María Alejandra Vélez of the University of the Andes’ Center for Security and Drugs Studies (CESED), is a succinct, accurate 2-minute overview of where coca eradication policy stands in Colombia right now, six months into Gustavo Petro’s administration.

Consistent with his campaign discourse, his first announcements, which lack details, aim at not persecuting growers, which includes lowering the tempo of forced eradication and considering a territorial transformation program, which includes gradual substitution once other economies generate income that allows a dignified life for coca growers. He reserved eradication for 20,000 hectares of “industrial” growers, who, as in any market, have already vertically integrated into the market: they cultivate in large tracts, process and market. It remains to be seen if we can identify who they are and where they are.

To stop persecuting small coca growers, 52.7% of whose households live in multidimensional poverty, according to the baseline of households that enrolled in the PNIS, seems obvious to me. Waiting for voluntary eradication to happen when they are already producing and generating income in other economies, too.

Now, the devil is in the details and these are what we should be concerned to know. For example, is there enough funding to attend to the territorial transformation of 200,000 or more families? Will there be a census and registration of small growers according to the size and number of plots? What happens with growers who have several plots? Where will the interventions be focused? For what period of time will the households that stop growing coca be accompanied? How will they be protected from the violence to which armed groups and criminal organizations subject them? How are they going to regain the trust of leaders and their communities to become involved in the policy after decades of non-compliance? What are the plans to prevent the expansion of crops and, in particular, their expansion in environmentally important areas? What types of economies other than coca are viable in ethnic and environmentally strategic territories? How does this whole narrative tie in with Total Peace? Do we have the international leadership necessary to stop chasing coca and talk about a regulatory path for cocaine? How will we measure the success of the new drug policy? Will we be able to convince the Biden administration and other U.S. institutions of the need to focus on solving rural development problems instead of eradication?

That last question is critical for our work here in Washington. Will the Biden administration go along with a counter-drug strategy that relies far less on forced eradication of small farmers’ coca plants?

My sense is that yes, they might. But only if they can be reassured that the Petro government is following a detailed, funded, well-thought-out plan. One that can answer many of the questions in Vélez’s final paragraph here.

Unfortunately, as she notes, the Petro government’s plans so far “lack details.” And that could start complicating the bilateral relationship.

Video en español de hoy

Tuve una muy interesante discusión hoy, aquí en Washington en el programa Foro Interamericano de la Voz de América, con Néstor Osuna, el ministro de justicia de #Colombia. Hablamos sobre la política antidrogas y la política exterior de EEUU.

Coca in Mexico

During the López Obrador government (since December 2018), Mexican forces have eradicated 33.6 hectares of coca, according to the country’s presidency.

(Colombia, the most energetic eradicator, reported destroying 103,000 hectares in 2021 and nearly 60,000 in 2022 through October.)

Coca is taking off in Guatemala

It has long been taken for granted that nearly all coca—the illicit bush whose leaves can be used to make cocaine—is grown in three Andean countries: Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. If coca bushes pop up elsewhere, local security forces tend to eradicate them quickly.

That may be becoming less true. If you search Twitter for “coca @Ejercito_GT,” you can find a surprising number of official tweets about Guatemalan security-force personnel eradicating coca bushes.

In the past two weeks alone, tweets from Guatemala’s army and government show soldiers and police eradicating coca bushes in four of the country’s twenty-two departments. In some cases, the plants are quite tall, indicating that they’ve been thriving for a while.

Alta Verapaz, November 16.
Izabal, November 12, although the photos are identical to the Alta Verapaz tweet immediately above.
Petén, November 21.
Zacapa, November 9.

This isn’t a consequence of coca becoming scarcer in the Andes and forcing new growing locations. U.S. government estimates indicate that the leaf has never been more plentiful in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. It may be a consequence of farmers in Guatemala’s neglected countryside searching for an income-generating crop during a COVID-battered economic moment. It may also be a result of traffickers seeking to do a bit of “nearshoring,” trying to produce cocaine closer to U.S. markets without having to ship it over oceans or through the Central American isthmus.

If it catches on, Guatemala could join the three Andean countries as one of the world’s main coca and cocaine producers, not just a transit country. The elements for coca to catch on are all in place. Proximity to a big market. Vast ungoverned rural spaces with smallholding farmers on the edge of hunger. Widespread, chronic state corruption being abetted by the current government and judicial system. A robust existing network of traffickers who are already doing great damage to fragile ecosystems.

Keep an eye on this.

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