Sri Lanka: Is the War on Drugs Aggressive Enough?

The manner in which operations are carried out in Sri Lanka can be understood when one looks at how it is being done in the United Kingdom. 

by Mass L. Usuf

The cache of illicit drugs unearthed by the recent spate of raids by the law enforcement is literally mindboggling. If one is to assess the extent of damage that society as a whole would have been subjected to had these seizures not been made is beyond imagination. How many more youth would have got addicted? How many more drug related violence, crimes and death would have been committed? How many more marriages would have ended up in divorce? How many more families destroyed? How many growing up children would have been isolated by society? How many of our sisters and daughters would have been pushed towards illegal sex? The list of evil consequences can go on. Are not the suppliers, distributors and carriers of narcotics aware of the irreparable loss they are causing to the society and the country? They are aware and they know well the consequences of their actions. How then is the society going to respond to this situation when its very existence is being exposed to peril? Ask yourself if it is enough only to be happy that there is a crackdown on illicit drugs or is there much more you can do to save your child, spouse or sibling?

According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the global cocaine manufacture alone reached its highest level ever in 2016: an estimated 1,410 tons. Based on retail prices, the global illicit drugs trade is valued at an estimated US$320 billion. (UK Drug Policy Commission, Policy Report July 2008). The drug basket includes crack, heroin, cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines and ecstasy. According to the above report the market is usually described as having three levels:

1. an international trafficking level.
2. a local retail level and,
3. between these two a loosely defined ‘middle market’ operating at national/regional level.

However, the lines between these different levels are far from clear and markets tend to be disjointed and fragmented in nature. The UK illicit drug market is extremely lucrative. Its size has been estimated to be £5.3 billion (using 2003/04 figures). There are no numbers that have been made public about the estimated value of the trade in Sri Lanka.

Dons of the Society

The illicit drugs business in any part of the world has an impact on the political, cultural and economic landscape of the country. Sri Lanka is not going to be an exception to this phenomenon. When the politicians, police and the judiciary are in the pocket of these mafia bosses they become invincible. They are the architects of organized crimes - killings, abductions, torture, threats, intimidation etc. They silence or subdue their opponents using these techniques. With the guaranteed reluctance of the law and the legal system to apprehend and prosecute them, they transform themselves to being the Dons of society. Basically, the entire society is held to ransom. The government and public servants are made helpless. This is what has been seen in certain countries. Sri Lanka has apparently not matured to that extent and that it will certainly come to that stage is not surprising if this menace is not eliminated now.

The manner in which operations are carried out in Sri Lanka can be understood when one looks at how it is being done in the United Kingdom. Apart from the importer, there the local/retail distribution chain has been identified as follows.

Wholesaler: Buys and sells in one area in bulk.
Buyer: Buys drugs in one area in bulk.
Seller: Sells drugs in one area in bulk.
Transporter: Facilitates local transportation within the UK.
Storer: Holds drugs between purchase and sale.
Retailer: Sells drugs to users (a dealer).
Runner: delivers drugs to users for a retailer/dealer.

From Hierarchical to entrepreneurial

Another revelation is seen in the findings of the following study. “In relation to heroin trafficking, there is some research which indicates that there has indeed been a shift from historical affiliations and ties with hierarchical structures among some groups, towards more open and entrepreneurial networks of individuals who lack any formal connections with traditional syndicates. In relation to Chinese heroin traffickers: These enterprising agents have no identifiable organisations, no rigid structure, no clearly defined deviant norms or values. They can conceal their criminal activities through their involvement in lawful business activities. Their participation in criminal activities is sporadic rather than continuous. (Zhang and Chin, 2003: 485)”.

While there is no single accepted definition of a drug market, the research literature tends to conceptualise two types of distribution system: a pyramidical one and a more fragmented, non-hierarchical and entrepreneurial free market. It is difficult to judge which system is dominant and in which country. There is some research that indicates there has been a shift from historical affiliations and ties with hierarchical structures, towards a network of individuals who lack any formal connections with traditional syndicates.
Government support

The drug trade is a highly sophisticated commercial line operated from the top by the ‘drug barons’. There is a lot our authorities have to learn from the researches and experiences of other countries. The government must provide the officials involved sufficient international exposure and networking opportunities to help them in the difficult job they are engaged in. The narcotics trade is a phenomenon that mutates very often to avoid detection. The enforcement officials will be left high and dry if they fail to adapt to these everchanging modus operandi.

International research has found out the factors which encourage the growth of dealing and distribution networks. They are the minimal entry barriers to the market, the limited deterrent effect of law enforcement and the sheer scale of the revenues that can be generated. Therefore, the unwary, that innocent poverty-stricken man or woman can be deceptively attracted at the beginning by the ‘masters’ of the game. The unwary and the innocent then in turn become ‘masters’ in their own right.

How much has been allocated in our recent budget to fight illicit narcotics? What incentives have been provided to develop research materials on the drug trade in Sri Lanka? To what extent have our professionals, academics, intellectuals and subject experts been made to involve themselves in the fight against this menace? Has there been a study on the amount of government expenditures relating to time, manhours and materials dedicated from the point of commencing a detection operation up to the stage of securing a conviction? Calculate the total breakdown - the allocation of men and material for detection, the days and weeks of intelligence gathering, the time spent on the detection process, the seizure and the arrest. The monies spent by government to keep the suspects in remand custody, the time of the courts and all of its legal machinery, the use of resources of the Attorney General’s department, the Police, rehabilitation and medical services and the list can continue further. All of this has a cost attached to it. The government must proactively initiate legal measures to fast track the process from arrest to conviction without compromising on rights and liberties of the suspects.

It is striking to read what researchers say about their work in relation to the illicit drug industry. In the UK where a budget of GBP 1.5 billion has been allocated for their drug strategy, researchers have concluded as follows. According to May and Hough (2004: 558) the “relationship between the supply of illicit drugs, the demand for them and enforcement activities remain somewhat poorly conceptualised, under-researched and little understood in this country”.

The above is after allocation of Rupees 350 billion for drug strategy. Where does Sri Lanka stand in comparison to the UK efforts if despite all that they have done researchers are painting an unsatisfactory picture? While appreciating the work that is currently being done, the following questions remain valid. “Are we sincerely doing enough?” Or, is it a case of much more needs to be done?


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