Whether it's Afghanistan or Colombia, drug-producing countries face strikingly similar challenges: severe control policies push communities deeper into poverty, worsen conflicts, cause rights violations, uproot people, and damage the environment.

At this year's annual conference of the International Harm Reduction Association in Liverpool in April, Damon Barrett, a senior human rights analyst for the IHRA, moderated a panel of experts from Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Harm reduction strategies—such as easily accessible supplies of clean needles, drug replacement therapy using methadone or buprenorphene, keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison—are cheap, effective, and easy to implement. Yet rarely have they been implemented by countries producing illicit crops.

The exception, as Pien Metaal of the Transnational Institute pointed out, is Bolivia. For the last five years, President Evo Morales has been trying to find solutions, among them, assigning a limited number of peasant families a small plot of land growing coca for traditional uses, such as chewing or tea.

"Already 3,000 years ago, people knew about the benefits of consuming the coca leaf. Millions of people in the Andean region use coca as a mild stimulant, comparable to what coffee is for us here. This is legal in several countries, even outside the Andes," said Metaal.

Yet coca chewing should have disappeared almost 25 years ago, thanks to UN drug conventions, which tend to obstruct countries from adopting pragmatic drug policies.

Campaigns to forcibly eradicate illicit crops merely displace the problem, at the same time causing a variety of rights violations. A pastor from Northern Burma, where opium cultivation is traditionally the main income, spoke of how families struggle from day to day, lack access to health services or education, and are often forced to leave for larger cities.

It's a similar story in Colombia, as a local mayor—who has had several attempts made on his life—described: "People keep growing [coca] because there's no infrastructure, access to markets, vehicles, roads—no help. Coca keeps proliferating. There is malnutrition and hunger, and high homicide rates all related to illegal coca production activity."

Government fumigation programs not only eradicate coca but often food crops as well. Various estimates suggest that almost 4 million people in Colombia are displaced in search of food or refuge from violence and aerial fumigation. This figure is around the same as in Sudan. But as these people have been involved in an illicit activity, authorities do not recognize them as officially displaced, and so they're forced to invent another reason to receive aid.

As Tom Kramer of the Transnational Institute put it, drug policies are "always targeting the poorest of the poor."

As the discussion illustrated, prohibitionist policies have failed and experts are calling for a fresh approach that involves the communities at stake. "Harm reduction is about acknowledging rights in general," said the Colombian mayor, who also underlined the need for help from the consumer countries (Spain, followed by the UK, are the biggest consumers in Europe).

"We must involve the cultivators of opium, coca, and cannabis in the debate,"  said Tom Kramer.

Posted by Alexandra Kirby, May 11th 2010.

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