A trail of dust

We constantly hear about the cocaine transiting through our country. But what about the white powder that stays here?

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10864894_1568159913399481_1983573533_nWe hear a lot about Venezuela serving as a bridge for drugs between Latin America, and Europe, and the U.S. Reports of Venezuelan planes jam-packed with cocaine and marihuana being found by law enforcement or being involved in accidents are not uncommon. But do all drugs that hit our soil really leave the country? Is Venezuela really just a transit point, or does the drug that flows through our country leave a trail for local consumers to indulge in?

It’s hard to say precisely, because data on domestic drug consumption is, ahem, scant. The latest report by the National Antidrugs Office dates from 2011, and let me know if you are able to find it. The only thing on their website is a study on drug consumption among teenagers, which concluded only 1.7% of kids between the ages of 13 and 17 have tried an illicit drug.

The latest United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNDOC) estimates put Venezuela’s consumption of marijuana at 1%, and cocaine at 0.6%.  These numbers are, at least, ten years old. My sense is that in these ten years, acceptance of recreational soft drugs like weed and ecstasy has increased dramatically among young adults and teenagers. It is no surprise, with global attitudes towards pot changing dramatically, that our Miley Cyrus-meets-Jowell y Randy infused youth is not behind on these trends. Hell, even high-ranking chavista Elías Jaua spoke favorably of Uruguay’s legalization of marijuana.

Whatever the numbers, it’s clear that Venezuela doesn’t have a good way to treat addicts.

Imagine coming from a broken family in the middle of a slum. You grew up surrounded by violence and drugs, lots of them. Your environment, and some wrong decisions, lead you to becoming an addict. On top of that, your luck is bad enough and you end up incarcerated, perhaps for selling a few grams on some corner. They remove you from your social network, your friends and your family. You are placed in a hostile environment filled with even more drugs, and more violence. Prospects of rehabilitation are none, and you have every incentive to play into the whole prison-drug-industrial-complex.

According to the Ley Orgánica de Drogas, you can have up to 20 grams of cannabis and get away with a minor charge of possession and some rehab sessions. However, getting caught with a gram or more of cocaine or other hard drugs can land you two years in prison. That may not be such a harsh penalty compared to other countries, but when you consider the years inmates spend in jail waiting for a trial, and the conditions of our prisons, the picture changes drastically.

If you are not from a wealthy family and cannot pay to go to a rehab center in Margarita, and you don’t get picked up by one of the few and struggling nonprofits that help addicts, the prison system has the potential of turning you from a regular addict into a sociopath with lots of connections in the criminal world and, if you work hard, even some firsthand experience in the drug trafficking business.

These policy failures contribute to a related problem: our unmanageable crime wave. While our violence problem has been widely attributed to the Chavez’s administration by both national and international commentators, and with reason, the wave of violence did not start when the Comandante took office: between 1989 and 1998, the homicide rate per 100,000 habitants went from 8 to 20. Yes, the homicide rate more than doubled in the ten years prior to the beginning of the Revolucion Bonita. Interestingly, during these years Venezuela also experienced a dramatic increase in drug trafficking.

But is that correlation causal?

The International Crisis Group would say yes: “It is not only the so-called macro trade that has contributed to violence. As the flow of drugs in transit has increased, more drugs have also entered the domestic market, leading to a significant increase in micro-trafficking, which has been a major contributor to the homicide rates in poor urban neighbourhoods,” and former Interior Minister Rodriguez Torres might agree. Drug sales have recently been called “the great economic engine” of criminal gangs in the country.

Preliminary results from a study by Stanford’s Dorothy Kronick suggest that, controlling for other factors, Venezuelan municipalities close to major drug routes (like the Pan-American Highway) have experienced a larger increase in murder rates, compared to those further away from these routes.

Causality is never easy to untangle in cases like this, of course, but there sure is a lot of anecdotal evidence to link street trafficking with violence.

Violence is just one more reason for a new opposition-controlled AN to take action and see addiction in new light. Taking care of the drug problem would be a step in the right direction towards tackling violence. But our current legal and institutional framework don’t really help.

Neither does our sometimes overlooked conservatism. It’s not likely we’ll see real social change in our attitudes towards drugs and addiction in the near future. The subject is pretty much taboo, only ever mentioned along associations with gangs and politicians investigated by the DEA.

Being a social progressive is not a smart political move in this country. That’s why I would not expect the new National Assembly, regardless of its composition, to adopt a reform of the 2010 Ley Orgánica de Drogas, softening its approach to drug consumption.

Then again, soñar no cuesta nada.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Good article. Venezuelans caught with drugs, from my experience, rarely go to jail, particularly if with small amounts for personal consumption, since they simply bribe themselves out at the local level.The same actually goes for traffickers, with the bribes just bigger. Anecdotally, having two nephews involved in the marijuana/cocaine small personal consumption trade, there is probably increased personal use in the lower socio-economic classes in the last 15 years, with a corresponding increase in crime, but this use is probably not nearly so great as in the more developed/affluent countries.

    • To tackle criminal violence in Venezuela, one must first tackle dishonesty at all levels of law enforcement, from local on up through the courts–a formidable social/cultural problem, to say the least.

  2. Your whole argument is based on the assumption that Venezuela arrests too much and badly, and that what would be inoffensive/low-level addicts/drug dealers end up becoming monsters after their (long) stay inside the (conservative) penal system.

    Alright, but when we know that Venezuela is a country with weak rule of the law and without a very effective police, it’s kind of hard to believe that Venezuela arrests that much people. I think Net’s comment above is probably more in touch with reality, and that most addicts/drug dealers do their crimes with total impunity, and bribe their way out when the extremely rare occasion of being contacted by a police officer happens. Unless you show a source proving that most inoffensive/low-level addicts end up in jail, you don’t have a very strong case, sir.

    • The two basic points of this piece are:

      1) The country does not have a good way to treat addiction. We need a prison system that provides real prospects for rehabilitation and reinsertion into society.

      2) There is an apparent causal relation between drug trafficking and an increase in violence measured by homicides.

      We are far (oh, so far) from jailing everyone who commits a crime.

  3. My understanding is that personal drug use in Venezuela is, like most of LA, still very small compared to North America. I’ve wondered why that is. I’ve always thought higher drug use had something to do with affluence, but also that middle class kids in LA tend to be more family oriented. I wonder if decriminalization can spare Venezuela the brunt of the drug wars that have afflicted Mexico, Colombia and Central America. There is so much violence already, I don’t see how the society could bear a sustained frontal war on organized crime.

  4. Thanks very much for this post.

    I have no hard figures at all. I just know from a couple of physicians who have worked for many years in public hospitals in Venezuela that the amount of young men – usually gangsters – who arrive in emergency under the effects of hard drugs – cocaine and the like – started to increase dramatically in the nineties. They told me that for the first time then when I, coming back from Europe, told them how I thought drug use in Europe was worse than in Venezuela.

    It might perhaps not be too crazy to see a possible correlation with the murder rate in Venezuela, which went from about 8 murders per 100,000 from the seventies to 19 in 1995-98, where it stabilized and from there to the fuzzy figure we have now of 65 or something like that.

    I was telling these friends my experience in Europe is that you can see the use of (usually light) drugs in many music events etc, something I had hardly any recollection of in Venezuela. They told me reality is a bit different “si vas a los barrios”.

    To some extent it might have to do with the fact distribution of drug users in different regions might be quite different. I can say a high amount of my friends in Venezuela and Europe are “gente sana” and even “zanahorias” but the proportion of their friends who have used marihuana in Venezuela is much lower than in Europe. From that data I cannot be sure whether Venezuela has a lower percentage of cocaine users than this or that country in Europe.

    Notice that within Europe (USA, etc) there are big differences in the use of drugs, from “normal” cigarettes to cocaine

    Here an interesting EU map:
    http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/countries/prevalence-maps

  5. This is not based upon rigorous analysis, but (on Margarita Island) I see far less drug use today than I did 10 years ago. It could be because I don’t get out as much as I used to, but then who does these days…

  6. I can say that there is a lot of consumption, for sure, of not only cannabis and cocaine, but virtually every other popular drug like mdma and many mdxx substances, 2c-x, lsd (and doX) and shrooms, dmt, heroin, meth, opiates, virtually all pharmaceuticals, and plenty of ayahuasca going around (shaman rituals in some of the wealthiest urbanizaciones attended by dozens). The question is asked whether Venezuela sends all it receives, but it is a short sighted question. Not only does Venezuela receive and send while seeping into domestic supply, it produces a lot of these drugs. From early 2000s to lates 2000s, there was an ever increasing domestic demand for not just marijuana, but high quality marijuana, something that wasn’t coming en mass from Colombia. It was referred to as Cripi or hidro (to describe that it was grown from hydroponic indoor settings, most likely within the country) and nowadays many people know the names of strains (their dealers tell them). It has been a boom and I know for a fact that after a govt. program to teach farmers to grow hydroponically in the Oriente area failed, much of the supplies were taken by locals to begin growing weed for the trade (funny huh).

    There is a huge domestic production now, and many other drugs listed above are grown/synthesized in Venezuela, and they are definitely consumed by a lot of people. But that is not where it ends, even medical marijuana from the U.S. makes it to Venezuela, and marijuana from Europe, as well as many psychedelics/party drugs that are imported from abroad.

    My sources? I could find stats to back up some of my claims, but I am also speaking as a person who attended extremely poor public schools in Maracay, various private schools of differing demographics, as well as an international high school and had contact with other international high schools in Venezuela. Though I study abroad now, I have many friends in Uni and there is plenty of consumption going around of such a wide range of drugs across all levels of society, and those that could only be imported as well. I knew a lot of people involved in this trade, and it is definitely not so simple as just a transit point. LSD is very pervasive. Once in Maracay around 2009 a school near el Centro of Maracay had tons of warning flyers of LSD blotters going around with mickey mouse’s face on it, as many of the students were taking it. In fact, I have seen so much Venezuelan youth take unimaginable doses of psychedelics compared to what I’ve seen in the U.S. and Europe. In my schools in Maracay and in the East, many students didn’t know anything about drugs. Many of them thought all drugs came from a single plant. In my view, this makes them more susceptible to drug abuse, unable to discern the differences and risks these differences pose.

    I know a lot more than this, but it’s not like I’m going to prove it, or can for some claims. But there are many other things that I don’t think I should write about publicly.

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