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Illegal Drugs and Science: The Forgotten Link

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The international illicit drug trade has harmed the economies of nations, the safety of civilians, and the well-being of the future generation. According to the LA Times, Currently, at least 125 million people use marijuana, 14 million people use amphetamines, 12 million people use opioids, and 14 million people use cocaine. Illegal drugs have a plethora of negative impacts. Illegal drug users run the risk of getting infected by diseases like gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV, hepatitis, and tuberculosis. Illegal drugs are expected to cost the international community more than $1.3 trillion from efforts like necessary healthcare policy and law enforcement against drug-related criminal activity. The illegal drug trade is an international crisis.

However, world leaders have tried to combat the drug trade with public policy rather than scientific policy. As Brian Taylor, a former member of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime reports, most of the policies against the narcotics trade have centered on strengthening borders of countries, specializing law enforcement training, and improving law enforcement cooperation. There is a lack of effort to combat illegal drug trafficking with science, and world leaders haven't capitalized on the biological dimensions of the illegal drugs trafficking problem to solve it. Only in the late 21st century were the International Drug Abuse Research Society scientists called to tackle potential treatment options for victims of illegal drugs.

Most of the illegal drug trade travels from Latin America to developed nations like the U.S. and Europe. As the Congressional Research Service explains, South America is the sole producer of cocaine for the global market; Mexico and Colombia produce most of the opiates; and Mexico and the Caribbean direct the cannabis trade. Also, about 95 percent of cocaine entering the U.S. comes from Mexico, while 25-30 percent of the world's cocaine production flows to Europe from Venezuela.

However, Latin America is not the only problem in the international drug trade. European-bound illegal drugs often pass through West Africa. In five years, the amount of cocaine flowing through West Africa jumped from 273 kg to 14.6 tons. Afghanistan dominates opium poppy cultivation and generates 380-400 metric tons of heroin annually. In Afghanistan and West Africa, clandestine labs devoted to illegal drug production have skyrocketed in the past few years. Along with security and health issues, the drug trade in these regions is threatening the basic development and economic progress of many countries.

Illegal drugs can be easily produced through legal substances, and cartels are quick to take advantage of social and geographic situations. The chemicals needed for synthetic drugs like amphetamine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy are often secretly diverted to illegal drug laboratories. These drugs are often produced based on biological knowledge. For example, the human body makes endocannabinoids, so drug scientists will probably try to produce substances similar to endocannabinoids to stimulate cannabinoid receptors. Obviously, drug cartels and trafficking groups want to maintain the addictive aspects of these drugs. Illicit drug producers seek to amplify the potent neurological impacts of substances like cocaine which increase the density of dendritic spines in the frontal cortex. As more spines are produced, humans prefer cocaine substances, so a vicious cycle ensues. In addition, as the Congressional Research Service explains, the Andes is the only region that can effectively produce cocaine and coca. Most of the illegal drugs are produced in underdeveloped countries or developing countries where law enforcement can't effectively control the flow of drugs according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). In some countries, the illicit drug trade is the only way to maintain a living.

Formal governmental action against international drug trafficking has already taken place because of the immense dimensions of the drug trade. The United Nations has begun the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, and other efforts to aid countries affected by drug violence according to a report with the Policing Across Borders Project by John Jay College. In addition, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will allow the U.S. government to help cure any form of drug addiction.

However, challenges still remain. Some of the United Nation's policies are obsolete, since they fail to account for expanding drug routes and are often too broad with drug regulation according to a report by Chatham House. In addition, the balloon effect -- a decrease in drug activity leading to an increase in other regions of the world -- seems to be affecting certain regions like West Africa. Internal efforts to reduce drug users are inefficient as the UN reports only one in six "problem drug users" -- those who engage in high risk consumption, use drugs daily, or are diagnosed as drug-dependent -- receives proper treatment. Thus, more countries should begin to look at the illicit drug trade under a scientific microscope.

To combat the illegal drug trafficking, the international community should focus on the source of illegal drugs in developing and underdeveloped nations, not on the demand in developed nations. Since cocaine, marijuana, and METH production are concentrated in Latin America, international solutions should be targeted at those countries. The solution should be a three-pronged approach by expanding drug courts, investing in alternative cash crops, and supporting eradication efforts.

First, although the international community has concentrated on non-scientific solutions, drug courts -- rehabilitation institutions for drug abusers -- have continually been ignored and might be a worthwhile investment. The Western Hemisphere accounts for 81 percent of all cocaine interdictions worldwide. However, many of those nations don't have proper rehabilitation centers with their judicial system. The U.S. has begun changes in Latin America's judicial system by allowing the Drug Enforcement Agency to maintain 37 country or regional offices at the U.S. embassies in Latin America. The U.S. should encourage other foreign actors, especially European countries, to set up drug courts in underdeveloped or developed countries to help treat drug criminals. As shared in a report by The Research Consortium on Drugs (CEDD), drug courts effectively reduce recidivism and incarceration rates, but Latin America hardly has any drug courts compared to developed nations. Hence, more money should be placed to give high quality treatment in Latin America, especially because countries like Australia, England, and Canada have experience with drug courts and can provide quality assistance.

Second, alternative cash crops should be developed and modified so farmers of illegal substances can make a profit on safer and legal substances. More countries should invest in science programs to solidify alternative crops like coffee and cocoa. Many alternative cash crops aren't used because they are not profitable and often unfit to grow due to different ecosystems. The Western Hemisphere, especially Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru, and West Africa relied extensively on cocoa and coffee until more diseases and pests started killing those crops. Coffee and cocoa plants often have a uniform gene pool, so breeding is extremely difficult, which makes them more vulnerable. Thus, transgenic, genetically modified, crops should be introduced to improve alternative crops and to make them a viable alternative for narcotic farmers. As the Biotechnology International Journal explains, scientists have successfully introduced genes like cry1Ac to allow coffee plants to produce Bt toxins against the dreaded, universal coffee berry borer. World leaders should prompt more research in genetically modified alternative crops to allow them to withstand diseases, weather, and pests. Scientific advances in universal crops like coffee and cocoa will stabilize their market value and allow farmers to experience the additional sense of safety when cultivating crops.

Finally, the international community should use aerial eradication to destroy illegal drug crops like coca. Before countries intervene, the UN should justify aerial eradication so that countries like Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico can't claim that aerial eradication is a violation of state sovereignty. Chapter VII of the UN Charter can be used to justify this non-military intervention. It declares that the Security Council can "determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression" and to take military or non-military action against the "threat." Aerial eradication involves foreign countries spraying chemicals to defoliate drug production. The international community should continue aerial eradication programs modeled on the Plan Colombia eradication. In the early 2000s, Colombia allowed the U.S. to spray glyphosates (glyphos) on tens of thousands of illegal drug hectors. In 2008, the U.S. and UN showed dramatic reductions in the amount of cocaine that Colombia could produce. Although critics have cried that glyphosates caused environmental damage, the glyphosates used had almost no adverse impacts on humans or animals in the environment. Glyphosates have an active ingredient and a formulated product (Roundup), but both don't present any risk to humans.

Opponents claim there was a direct link between birth defects, DNA damage, and binucleated lymphocytes with micronuclei (BNMN) formation and glyphos. But, as the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health elaborates, no direct correlation was found between any of these negative health impacts and glyphosates. In addition, most of the attacks against glyphos affecting the food chain were based on the impacts on amphibians. Although various frog species were sensitive to the glyphosates, the pesticide had a negligible impact on land frogs. Also, the frog larvae, the specific life-stage truly at risk, will not be significantly affected because glyphos is easily absorbed by the soil and the larvae must be within a five-meter radius of the spraying. Glyphos is very adhesive and is converted to AMPA, an acid with as less toxicity as glyphosate, so glyphos is unlikely to move towards groundwater or continue to persist in the soil. Thus, the glyphos eradication of illegal drug crops had no risk on the environment. However, the international community should learn from its public policy mistakes. The Plan Colombia sometimes had farmers merely cultivate illicit crops elsewhere, and in more remote regions. The farmers often don't have the necessary skills to take on other professions. Thus, the other countries should also try to invest more in infrastructure and job programs along with the alternative crops in drug hotspots like Colombia.

With cohesive international support, this plan would produce economic benefits, a reduction in crime, and even a reduction in terrorism. Drug policies are obviously costly. The U.S. alone spends over $40 billion to enforce the war on drugs according to the Wall Street Journal. In addition, as countries provide universal healthcare services like the Affordable Care Act, the government has to pay for the negative health impacts caused by illegal drugs. Thus, countries would save significantly more money by investing in necessary fields like infrastructure and education. Illegal drug trafficking is analogous with crime. Since most countries attempt to crack down on illegal drugs, law enforcement and illegal drug traffickers continually brawl with each other. Similarly, various drug cartels often rely on violence to compete. Thus, criminal activity would greatly subside as illegal drug trafficking declines. Strangely, illegal drug trafficking has solidified terrorist groups like Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. Since drug trafficking creates guerrilla warfare groups that have a large amount of political capital in unstable regions, terrorists attempt to develop ties. Hezbollah collaborated with well-financed narcotic groups to train and proselytize operatives. The Lebanese drug lord Ayman Jouma siphoned money to Hezbollah and extremist Shiites to bolster Hezbollah. As illegal drug trafficking declines, terrorist groups also lose power and can't threaten civilians.

The international community has focused too much on public policy alternatives exclusive of scientific policy for the past 50 years. Alternative crops and aerial eradication prove to be useful scientific maneuvers, while drug courts can also curtail illegal drug trafficking. To facilitate stronger nations, the international community should quickly begin to analyze the illegal drug trafficking problem under a scientific lens.