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Drugs and money: What should precious resources be used on?

When we think about drugs and money, we tend to think about the obscene amounts of dirty money made by big-time drug lords. What we don’t talk about as often is that narcotics policing and control doesn’t come cheap, either.

Altering States is a secondary newsletter that I run within We, The Citizens, and is focused specifically on drugs and drug policy. It's irregular and always free!

When we think about drugs and money, we tend to think about the obscene amounts of dirty money made by big-time drug lords. We imagine scenes we see in sensational TV dramas: rooms or caverns filled with pallets on which ludicrous piles of cash are stacked. Briefcases of gold bars smuggled from one place to another. Financial transactions with no decimal points but far too many zeroes, all for the benefit of nefarious gangsters.

What we don’t talk about as often is that narcotics policing and control doesn’t come cheap, either. In fact, the War on Drugs is eye-wateringly expensive. In past decades, governments around the world have lavished huge amounts of funds on police forces, prison systems, surveillance and monitoring infrastructure, drug detention centres and even arms and ammunition in places where the state and the drug cartels are literally at war. Huge amounts of resources are sucked up, on a daily basis, to battle the global illicit drug trade and attempt the impossible task of stamping out the supply of substances for which there will always be demand.

A new report by Harm Reduction International, Aid for the War on Drugs, points out that even money meant for improving global health and reducing poverty around the world has flowed towards drug prohibition: “This spending is more commonly associated with initiatives to vaccinate and education children, for instance—but project-level data included in this report shows that some of it has also gone to supporting things like undercover policing, ‘intelligence-led profiling’, and efforts to increase arrest and prosecutions for drug-related offences.”

HRI’s research found that, from 2012 to 2021, over US$974 million of aid money was spent on “narcotics control” projects around the world. Tens of millions of these dollars were spent in countries that retain the death penalty for drug offences, prompting alarm that aid budgets might have been used to support systems and processes that literally send people to their deaths.

This is no equal or democratic exercise; some have even described the influence exerted by powerful countries—like the US, China or Russia—over international drug policy as “narco-colonialism”. It’s not a recent phenomenon; colonial powers encouraged the drug trade when it was profitable for them (remember how the British traded opium big time in Singapore during the colonial era?), then brought in prohibitionist legislation when agendas shifted. When such anti-drug laws are implemented, either directly through colonialism or through international mechanisms like the UN’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs adopted in 1961, there is no acknowledgement of “ancestral and traditional uses of psychoactive substances such as coca leaves and cannabis—thereby creating a conflict between Indigenous rights and drug policy that exists to this day”.

Aid money is another way for powerful countries to exercise their influence. This is a complex issue: countries have the right (within reason) to determine their own foreign policy and how they want to interact with other countries. Sometimes pressure is exerted via bilateral treaties or aid funding for things that are ‘positive’. For instance, when threats of withholding aid money are used to pressure tyrannical dictators to accept limits on their power or hold elections. But at other times, wealthy countries can also use aid money, investments or loans as a way to force through much more problematic policies. This is why the ‘do no harm’ principle is so important. The War on Drugs doesn’t meet this standard, but HRI’s report observes that the US has at times withheld or threatened to cut aid funding if recipient countries don’t adopt punitive drug policies.

The consequences of the global War on Drugs has been devastating. A lucrative and booming illicit drug trade has enabled violence, corruption and impunity; when everything has been pushed underground, the people operating in those shadowy networks act according to their own rules, with no accountability to the public or care for public health and well-being. There has been mass incarceration, derailing and disrupting people’s lives in ways that are difficult to recover from. Criminalisation of drug possession and consumption has driven people to obtain supplies via the black market where there are no health and safety regulations, thus placing them at more risk of accidental overdoses and other dangers. Public health services trying to deal with infectious diseases have found their outreach efforts hampered by criminalisation, stigma and fear that deters people from seeking medical attention or going for testing. Indigenous communities who have for generations used substances for medicine and cultural practices have found their traditions effectively criminalised. The death penalty for drug offences, still retained in over 30 countries around the world (including Singapore), has inflicted trauma that starts on death row and ripples out across families and communities.

Aid money has fuelled some of this around the world. As HRI reports:

“Some US aid in 2021... supported a ‘counter-narcotics training programme’ in Indonesia—where, that same year, a record of at least 89 people were sentenced to death over drug-related offences. Japan, meanwhile, spent millions of dollars of its aid between 2012–2019 on counter-narcotics projects in Iran, including to provide police with resources such as ‘specialised vehicles for transportation of anti-narcotics police drug detecting dog units.’ In 2021, Iran executed at least 131 people for drug offences.”

The costs of the drug war are disproportionately borne by people who experience poverty, discrimination, marginalisation and oppression. It’s not unique to any one country. In multiple countries pushing drug prohibition, we see how “narcotics control” is used to justify or legitimise practices that discriminate against and control minority or marginalised communities. In jails and prisons all over the world we find an over-representation of people from segments of society that have less resources, power and privilege.

“Though data availability and transparency vary across projects and donors, this analysis reveals how aid money has supported approaches that undermine global development goals and ‘do no harm’ principles. Put simply: aid funding is supposed to help poor and marginalised communities, while punitive drug control regimes have been shown to disproportionately negatively affect them.
— Harm Reduction International in ‘Aid for the War on Drugs’ (emphasis mine)

Singapore does not appear in this new HRI report. We are neither on the list of top donors nor the list of top recipient countries, so you might be wondering what any of this has to do with us.

While this report isn’t about Singapore, we do not stand apart from the overall context HRI describes. The Singapore government likes to point to other countries that they characterise as being unsafe or in trouble because those countries are 'lenient' on drugs and drug use, but the reality is that prohibition, to varying degrees, has for a long time been the prevailing approach to drugs around the world. Singapore did not magically come up with our War on Drugs on our own; the rhetoric that we adopted was in many ways an echo of things said elsewhere. And while we might not be a big donor, we continue to be active and enthusiastic participants in perpetuating the drug war ideology both domestically and internationally, even in the face of all the evidence showing that it has already failed.

We also spend an incredible amount of money on this war. In 2022, the Ministry of Home Affairs’s total expenditure on its drug enforcement programme was $192,818,600. It’s worth noting that this is highly unlikely to be all the money spent on drug-related policing and control; considering the number of people in prison (or in the prison system) for drug-related offences, the budget for the “offender management and rehabilitation programme” is also affected by Singapore’s drug policy, as is the police programme (not to mention what we might spend on prosecution of and trials for drug offences). MHA estimates that $1,855,800 will be spent in the 2023 financial year on the Next Generation Reporting Centre project, used to monitor people under supervision after having been caught for drug offences—the total project cost for this is $19,458,000.

That is a lot of money to invest into policing and surveillance. What isn’t as well funded, not just in Singapore but around the world, is harm reduction. Evidence of the efficacy of harm reduction measures—such as opioid agonist therapy, needle programmes, safe consumption rooms, etc.—for drugs is piling up. Yet these programmes tend to be under-funded and nowhere near as widely available and accessible as they need to be. For example, in HRI’s The Global State of Harm Reduction 2022 report, Singapore fails to check off even a single box in their table tracking whether countries adopt a harm reduction approach in either policy or practice.

No measure can be a silver bullet. A harm reduction approach still needs to be designed and implemented with plenty of care and consideration for each country’s context and needs. It also needs to be constantly reviewed and supported, so that services can be delivered consistently and reliably for the long-term. But if implemented well with adequate funding and resources, harm reduction programmes have shown that they can be both effective and cost-saving, especially in relation to the staggeringly expensive and merciless drug war.

As we see from both HRI’s Aid for the War on Drugs report and MHA’s own budget, there is money out there. Imagine if, instead of going to police and prisons and surveillance systems and guns and forced treatment and detention centres, funding went to providing harm reduction services staffed by trained and empathetic medical professionals, counsellors, social workers and peers. If resources went towards policies that redistributed wealth more equally, that provided more opportunities for education, that provided more labour protections for workers and created environments in which people could meet their basic needs. If money went towards providing support and care to currently under-served communities, and to address causes of trauma and stress and pain that might lead to people developing chronic and unhealthy dependency on substances or behaviours. What a difference we could make.

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