Cocaine trafficking surges following COVID-19-related slowdown


Routed through new hubs and expanded criminal networks, cocaine trafficking has made a dramatic comeback following an initial slowdown caused by the emergence of COVID-19, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said in a hard-hitting new report.

“Since Richard Nixon launched the infamous ‘war on drugs’ more than a half a century ago, the flow of cocaine into the United States has surged and global production has hit record highs,” said justice advocate Lisa McCormick. “It is time to adopt a new strategy for healing the disease of addiction, because what we are doing has been an utter failure.”

 Global production of cocaine has jumped dramatically over the past two years following an initial slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).  

The Global Report on Cocaine 2023 details how coca cultivation soared 35 per cent from 2020 to 2021, a record high and the sharpest year-to-year increase since 2016.

The rise is a result of both an expansion in coca bush cultivation and improvements in the process of converting coca bush to cocaine hydrochloride.   

The steep growth in supply has been matched by a similar swelling in demand, with many regions showing a steady rise in cocaine users over the past decade.

While the cocaine market remains quite concentrated in the Americas and parts of Europe, the report warns that there is a strong potential for a large expansion in Africa and Asia. 

Interceptions of cocaine shipments by law enforcement around the world have also risen sharply, with seizures reaching a record high of nearly 2,000 tons in 2021.  

“The surge in the global cocaine supply should put all of us on high alert,” said UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly in reacting to these findings. “The potential for the cocaine market to expand in Africa and Asia is a dangerous reality. I urge governments and others to closely examine the report’s findings to determine how this transnational threat can be met with transnational responses based on awareness raising, prevention, and international and regional cooperation.”

“The goals should be to raise awareness about the challenges that addiction represents to society as a whole, to inspire people to act against drug abuse, and especially to protect the young,” said McCormick, who added: “We cannot solve a public health problem with a criminal justice or military solution, particularly those that have consistently failed over a course of decades.”

“Although cannabis is fully legal in 21 American states, at the federal level it is still considered to be as treacherous as heroin and more dangerous than fentanyl, two drugs that contributed to the deaths of more than 100,000 Americans from opioid overdoses last year,” said McCormick. “Prohibition failed to stop alcohol and it is not working with drugs—and that can be seen with cocaine as well as cannabis.”

“The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is moving to legalize a cocaine derivative even as the agency continues to dismiss public comments arguing that cannabis and psilocybin should be removed from federal control and participates in a review of marijuana’s scheduling status directed by the president,” it is” said McCormick, who explained that the cocaine derivative compound, [18 F]FP-CIT, may now be employed as “a diagnostic substance that is used in assisting the evaluation of adult patients with suspected Parkinsonian syndromes” and for the “visualization of striatal dopamine transporters (DAT) using positron emission tomography (PET) imaging.”

“DEA has opposed the full removal cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) or even rescheduling on the basis that it has medical value and low abuse potential over several decades,” said McCormick. “It is time to look at the problem with a mind toward understanding and solving it, rather than simply trying to do what evidence suggests cannot be done.”

The UN report examines the emergence of new hubs for cocaine trafficking, noting that countries in Southeastern Europe and Africa – particularly those in West and Central Africa – are increasingly being used as key transit zones for the drug. 

Ports on the North Sea like Antwerp, Rotterdam, and Hamburg, meanwhile, have eclipsed traditional entry points in Spain and Portugal for cocaine arriving in Western Europe. Traffickers are also diversifying their routes in Central America by sending more and more cocaine to Europe, in addition to North America.

The modalities of cocaine traffickers are also examined in the report, with findings showing that the criminal landscape is fragmenting into a myriad of trafficking networks.

The demobilization of fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – who had previously controlled many of Colombia’s coca-growing regions – created an opening for others to step in, such as new, local actors; ex-FARC guerillas; or even foreign groups from Mexico and Europe.

Additionally, the report reveals that so-called “service providers”, i.e., specialized groups that lend their services at all stages of the supply chain for a fee, have proliferated.  

“With its latest knowledge and trends on the routes, modalities, and networks employed by criminal actors,” noted Angela Me, chief of the Research and Analysis Branch at UNODC, “it is my hope that the report will support evidence-based strategies which stay ahead of future developments in cocaine production, trafficking, and use.” 

President Joe Biden issued a mass marijuana pardon last year, while also directing federal agencies to carry out a scientific review into cannabis scheduling that could result in a recommendation to change the classification or remove it from control altogether.

Biden’s executive action may benefit thousands of people by making it easier for them to find housing, get a job or apply to college, but it does nothing to help the hundreds of thousands of mostly Black and Hispanic Americans burdened by state convictions for marijuana-related offenses, or the millions more with other drug offenses on their records.

By pardoning Americans with federal convictions for marijuana possession, Biden said he aimed to partially redress decades of anti-drug laws that disproportionately harmed Black and Latino communities but the move will have a limited impact.

Biden’s clemency does not cover people found guilty of intent to distribute and experts say it did not actually result in anyone being released from federal prison.

Still, McCormick and other advocates for overhauling the nation’s drug laws were hopeful that Biden’s pardons lead states to pardon and expunge minor drug offenses from people’s records. 

It took five years after he campaigned on legalizing marijuana for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to get recreational weed sales started in the Garden State, in an arrangement that can still land people in prison for decades while corporations grow rich on cannabis sales.

“Murphy is a fraud. Legalizing marijuana does not mean 20-year prison sentences for marijuana possession,” said McCormick.

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