A trail of dust

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

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.