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Damon Barrett Headshot

Children of the Drug War

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One of the greatest myths of drug prohibition is that it protects children.

Launching the US war on drugs in 1971 President Nixon talked about addiction coming quietly into homes and destroying children. Mexican authorities continue to justify a costly military assault on drug cartels in the name of children. International agreements on drugs that entrench the prohibitionist regime and provide it with the gravitas of the United Nations refer to children as our future, 'our most precious asset.' Drugs and the drug trade are posited in these documents and speeches as an existential threat to us, through our children.

Let's be clear - drugs and the drug trade now pose significant threats to children. And protecting them from these threats should be our goal. But whether the policies of the past few decades have in fact achieved that goal, have the potential to do so, or are making matters steadily worse, are entirely different questions.

In 2009, I was part of a delegation visiting Colombia's Guaviare province to better understand the effects of aerial fumigation of coca. We visited a home run by a priest who provides shelter to children displaced by fumigation and drug-fuelled conflict. Removed from their families, many had witnessed appalling violence, or had hidden in fear of military gunships escorting airplanes spraying unknown chemicals on their villages, or had watched their parents weep for their destroyed livelihoods.

These were the children of the drug war. Or at least some of them. Like most, however, their stories have rarely come to the fore, remaining hidden behind top line statistics about kilos seized, hectares eradicated, prosecutions secured, and how many people aged 15-65 have used a drug in the last year. To a considerable extent the situation in Mexico has changed that, as the short brutality of the lives many children are now facing becomes clearer, as the death toll of parents and children racks up, and as schools become targets of violence and intimidation. This cannot escape public attention.

But the stories of many of the children affected by drug policies in myriad ways continue to go untold.

Take Mario, for example. At twenty he is the eldest son and supported his family income by driving a motorcycle taxi in Jakarta, Indonesia. Following his arrest for possessing a small amount of drugs he was imprisoned for eighteen months. He is in a grossly overcrowded prison, far from home. His parents struggle to get by as they spend almost their entire household income visiting and protecting him.

Or Michael, eight years old, from Kisumu in Kenya. He was orphaned by AIDS and lives with his elderly aunt. He has sickle cell anaemia, a life-limiting blood disorder characterised by episodes of severe pain. Michael is suffering because access to morphine in Kenya is so poor. There are many factors contributing to this, but one of them is an international drug control system and national laws, including in Kenya, that prioritise fighting drugs over providing essential medicines. As one palliative care expert told me "We need to set our priorities straight".

What about the girls, bartered to drug lords in Afghanistan to pay opium debts? Their families are already poor, surviving hand to mouth on small opium farms. They are at the mercy of drought, isolation and credit. When their crops are eradicated in an effort to control heroin production, their choices are stark - sell a child or the family starves.

And then there is LaCoste - a white, rich, teenage drug dealer in a US college campus. Someone for whom the drug war is of no consequence, but a child of the drug war nonetheless. His is a case of the privileges of race and class and speaks volumes to the criminalisation of America's black and Latino youth. The fact is that most of us are children of the drug war. Certainly for those of us born in the last fifty years, we have grown up in the midst of a political and increasingly punitive and militarised enterprise. But our experiences of it, and those of today's young people, are hardly uniform.

In this midst of this there are those children and young people who use drugs and are falling victim to health harms - those things from which they were supposed to have been protected. In many countries, where we have data, their numbers are increasing.

There is a book called Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist which begins and ends with the same plea - "You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions" If drug policies are to be justified with reference to children and young people, then those policies must be interrogated with reference to them. We know enough to do this. Evaluation is a standard process. But which politicians have the moral courage to call for it?

Children of the Drug War: Perspectives on the impact of drug policies on young people (IDEA, iDebate Press, 2011) is available for free download on a creative commons licence at www.childrenofthedrugwar.org