By Julia Buxton for OSF. Millions of people, mostly in the Global South, participate in the cultivation of plant crops—coca, opium poppy, and cannabis—that are used in the manufacture of psychotropic drugs. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the first and most influential of the three United Nations drug conventions, mandates ratifying state parties to uproot and destroy all cultivation of coca, opium poppies, and cannabis not related to medical and scientific needs. It enjoins countries within their respective legal frameworks to make the cultivation of crops declared illicit (hereafter ‘drug crop’) an offense punishable “by imprisonment or other penalties of deprivation of liberty” (Article 36).
In spite of this strong prohibition, which is reflected in many countries’ national laws, achieving “zero cultivation” has been an intractable challenge. The 2014 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report cites the total global area of land under opium poppy cultivation in 2013 as 296,720 hectares, which is “the largest area since 1998, when estimates became available.”3 Afghan opium cultivation increased 36 percent between 2012 and 2013 to 209,000 hectares. The area under coca cultivation in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia has gone up and down over the years, but still covered 133,700 hectares in 2012.
The persistence of drug crop production, in spite of possible criminal sanctions for producers, can be explained by many factors. Most importantly, producers rationally assess their livelihood alternatives, and drug crop production may offer the greatest economic security in spite of the risks (see examples in part III below). In addition, it is challenging to eradicate crops that are easily relocated across borders. The enforcement system assumes clearly demarcated nation-states with territorial integrity, state presence and state capacity to prevent cultivation displacement. This has not been the case in practice and particularly in remote border areas with itinerant populations.5 Furthermore, there is no international consensus on how (if at all) to compensate producer states of the Global South for losses associated with eradicating crops that have been the bedrock of some rural economies for centuries. As discussed below, efforts to replace drug crop cultivation with other livelihood activities have generally not succeeded. The militarization of drug crop eradication, moreover—for example, the United States-led eradication of coca in the Andes—illustrates the extremely high cost of methods that lead only to displacement and fragmentation of cultivation. This briefing paper highlights some relevant issues for debate in the UNGASS on drugs, focusing on strategies for addressing drug crop production as a development issue.