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6 March 2024

The narcotopian dilemma

Why liberal societies are helpless in the face of the global illegal drugs trade.

By John Gray

The Amish build furniture. The Swiss make watches. The Wa cook meth – and before meth was in vogue, the Wa churned out heroin.” The Wa are an indigenous people living in the mountainous borderland between Myanmar and China, with a population of some 600,000 in an area the size of Belgium. They created the most developed narco-state in the world. Unrecognised in international law but enjoying functional autonomy, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) manufactures vanilla-scented methamphetamine pills on a gargantuan scale. According to the American journalist Patrick Winn in Narcotopia: In Search of the Asian Drug Cartel that Survived the CIA, the pills – measured in terms of the units sold for a few dollars each – “outperform Big Macs and Starbucks coffee orders worldwide”.

Led by its treasurer-in-chief Wei Xuegang, “the most successful drug lord of the 21st century so far”, the nominally socialist one-party state has its own army, schools, electricity grid, tax system, anthem and flag. Unlike the US, which has waged a trillion-dollar “war against drugs” against Latin American cartels only to see new syndicates springing up to replace those it disabled, China tolerates the drug industry on its border. By exploiting rivalries between the CIA, which protected the Wa industry, and the US’s Drug Enforcement Administration, which aimed to shut it down, the Wa created a Chinese client-state outside the American sphere of influence.

The story of the Wa teaches some hard lessons. Illegal drugs have become a deciding factor in geopolitics. In the Middle East, Captagon – a stimulant popular among partygoers, over-worked labourers and Islamic State terrorists – is the chief export of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, providing revenues without which it probably could not survive.

Technology is making drug control more difficult. Learning to make crystal meth without illicit crops, Wa laboratories were pioneers in synthetic narcotics. With the Taliban prohibiting opium production in Afghanistan, the global drug trade is turning to nitazenes, synthetic opioids that can be hundreds of times more potent than heroin. In the US, more than 100,000 overdose deaths were recorded in 2021, nearly 90 per cent of them involving fentanyl and other synthetics. Technological innovation and criminal entrepreneurship are making narcotics cheaper, more profitable and more lethal.

Where the trade has been curbed, it is by repression. In El Salvador, the current president and popular autocrat Nayib Bukele has brought peace and a kind of order to a country once ruled by warring gangs at the price of mass arrests and sentences of lifelong incarceration. In the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Singapore, trafficking can be a capital crime.

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The progressive panacea of decriminalisation has had mixed effects. Without penalties, addicts may consume more while the drugs do not become less toxic. Produced in unregulated environments, their potency and side effects are unpredictable. In Thailand, the first Asian country to make cannabis consumption legal, the new government is on the verge of overturning the policy and confining the drug to medical use.

In the US, the Oregon legislature has approved a bill reversing drug decriminalisation. American cities where it has been tried, such as San Francisco, have become zones of dereliction and death, abandoned by businesses and the affluent liberals who promoted the policy. A similar experiment in Portugal has worked better, though global traffickers continue to use the country as a portal into Europe. As yet there is no first-world counterpart to the UWSA, but some Dutch politicians fear that the Netherlands, a major transit point for drug smuggling, is on the way to becoming a narco-state. A more radical policy of full legalisation in which the state produces and distributes regulated products works only if governments can stem the flood of underground designer drugs, which is impossible without resorting to authoritarian methods.

Here we reach the nub of the dilemma. Liberal states cannot eradicate illegal drug use. An anomic society in which choice is elevated over all other values and an economic system in which everything is for sale have made recreational use part of the way we live.

In some ways a ubiquitous drug culture is the perfect embodiment of hyper-capitalism. The American opioid epidemic began with doctors being given financial incentives to overprescribe painkillers whose addictive properties pharmaceutical companies concealed or downplayed. The goal was profit, and the consequences for society were irrelevant.

The epidemic is society-wide in the US, but it is no accident that casualties are particularly high in America’s post-industrial wastelands. “Deaths of despair” are inevitable when entire communities are treated as disposable commodities. The same process is at work in British towns such as Blackpool, where lives are shortened by a well-founded sense of abandonment. This is the flip side of a culture that has normalised chemical highs.

Policies can be tweaked to strengthen enforcement, reduce harms and help users cope with their habit. But all societies are now narcotopias, and each must deal with the resulting problems in their own way. In countries such as Britain, mass drug use is inseparable from the decay of a liberal way of life.

[See also: Nigel Farage is shaping Britain’s political future]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain