New drug called diplomacy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 February, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 February, 1994, 12:00am

PABLO Escobar may be dead, but Colombia's cocaine cartels are very much in business, while Khun Sa still sits pretty atop a mountain of Burmese opium. Despite America's efforts, it is business as usual in the world of international narcotics.

Under the administration of George Bush, the solution to clearing drugs off the decaying streets was thought to lay in interdiction; 70 per cent of the anti-narcotics cash was spent on trying to smash the big world producers and traffickers, the rest going towards treating addicts and killing demand.

It was not a strategy that seemed to work. In 1991, the economic cost of drug abuse in the US had soared to an estimated US$76 billion (HK$587.5 billion), while over 60 per cent of all crimes are now thought to be drug-related.

Last week, President Bill Clinton unveiled a new national drug control strategy that turned much of the received wisdom of the Bush era on its head. The new line of thinking goes: if you can't beat the traffickers, you don't have to join them, but you can sure try to take away their market.

Domestically, this means a lot more money and emphasis placed on treating addicts and trying to prevent the spread of addiction through care and education.

This new ''touchy feely'' home-based approach has some critics amongst political hardliners, who like the sight of US military helicopters flying round in circles in the jungles of Peru and Thailand. However, a similar shift in strategy is also being touted in the international arena, where the problem of how to stop the drugs coming from source countries still exists. And nowhere is the new tactic more clearly visible than in dealings with the Southeast Asian heroin scourge.

Although cocaine (and its deadly offshoot, crack) is still America's biggest social headache, heroin is showing a worrying comeback in popularity and availability, officials say. Not only is its quality becoming purer, but there is more of it - and, by extension, a new generation of addicts.

There are an estimated 600,000 hardcore heroin users in the country and, disturbingly, there was a 34 per cent jump in the number of heroin-related hospital emergencies in 1992, rising to 48,000.

THERE is no doubt that drug enforcement officers have struck some important blows against Asian traffickers in recent years, not least Hong Kong-based gangsters. However it does not stop the flow. There are always new faces to fill the smuggling gaps. For instance, the arrest of Nigerian couriers at Bangkok or Hong Kong airport, suitcases crammed with thousand of dollars to buy heroin, is becoming a routine occurrence.

The US not only sees this as a threat to its own streets but also as nothing less than a corruption of world democracy. As the drug strategy report states: ''From a global perspective, heroin may pose a greater long-term threat to the international community than cocaine.'' The new buzzword in the fight against opium is ''institution building'', allied to what State Department anti-narcotics chief Robert Gelbard calls ''a regional problem that requires regional solutions.'' Put simply, the thinking goes that the only way Burma can be convinced to crack down on its domestic producers is if everyone else in the region gangs up on it.

And Burma clearly is the bad guy: it accounts for nearly two-thirds of total world opium production. Rangoon is to drugs what Pyongyang is to nukes - frustratingly immune to intelligence activities and diplomatic moves. Hence the recent trip by Mr Gelbard to Thailand and China to ask for help in putting political pressure on Burma.

Mr Gelbard's trip has already yielded more than polite discussions. Kunming authorities, in the frontline against the heroin flow, have already asked for more help and advice from US agents based in Hong Kong. American cash, as well as equipment, will also be forthcoming.

Washington is also likely to step up efforts to persuade opium producers to grow substitute crops, and will ask international financial institutions for the first time to start lending to such projects.

In America's eyes, there is now more to battling drugs than jailing traffickers. What matters is diplomacy and ''promoting democracy''. There is no indication that the likes of Khun Sa will appreciate the subtleties of the shift, but those with the powerto defeat him just might.