In recent years, calls to end the global war on drugs, particularly against cannabis, have grown louder — and show no signs of stopping. As evidence continues to mount showing the decriminalisation of cannabis can have profound benefits, however, one potential side effect of ending the costly battle against the plant is only beginning to gain attention.
In recent years, governments and media outlets alike have highlighted the role drug trafficking plays in sustaining terrorist groups around the world. A brief report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes:
“Indeed drug trafficking has provided funding for insurgency and those who use terrorist violence in various regions throughout the world, including in transit regions. In some cases, drugs have even been the currency used in the commission of terrorist attacks, as was the case in the Madrid bombings.”
Similarly, as far back as 2003, the FBI observed the connection between terrorism and the drug trade. “Drug trafficking is a highly lucrative enterprise generating billions of dollars in profit that terrorist organizations can easily tap into,” said the then assistant director of the FBI’s Office of Intelligence, Steven McCraw, in a testimony before the Senate judiciary committee. “That is why all aspects of the terrorist enterprise including funding and support must be attacked.”
Of course, neither of these governmental observations considered decriminalising cannabis, let alone all drugs. As a recent Reuters report details, however, cannabis plays a direct role in the way ISIS obtains its funding. In an interview with Italian prosecutor Franco Roberti, the nation’s top anti-terrorism and anti-mafia attorney, he discussed the way illicit hashish empowers the Islamic State.
He contends, as Reuters summarized, that “the main smuggling route for North African hash – compressed cannabis resin – now runs from Casablanca, Morocco, through Algeria, Tunisia to Tobruk in eastern Libya. Along that route is the seaside city of Sirte, which now serves as a Mediterranean base for the most powerful Islamic State (IS) branch outside Syria and Iraq.”
Citing investigations not yet made public, Roberti said police have found “evidence that Italian organized crime, which has long controlled most of the country’s illegal drug supplies, and ‘suspected terrorists’ in North Africa are trafficking hash together.” Though Italy has not experienced a terror attack by Islamic militants, ISIS has threatened Rome and the Vatican, making Roberti’s concerns about drug prohibition all the more valid.
In another example, Lebanese cannabis farmers — who have previously taken up arms to fight ISIS militants — continue to work with the terrorist group. One farmer, Imad, told the Daily Beast that though he “hates ISIS with a bitter passion” and still seeks revenge against them for killing one of his relatives, the war in Syria has blocked off their traditional trade routes to markets in Jordan and Turkey — leaving them desperate for business. “Before the war in Syria we would cross the mountains with 200 kilos [of hash] each, get the cash and come back,” he said.
Amid sparse commercial opportunities, he began selling hashish to ISIS soldiers — both for their militants to smoke, themselves, and for the group to traffic. “Last month we sold one ton of hash to ISIS,” he said in April of last year. One of the biggest hash exporters in Lebanon, Abu Hussein, told theDaily Beast most of his product ends up in Egypt, Syria, the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia, though it has also made its way into Israel. He said he expected his 2015 crops to yield $200 million.
As hashish makes its way along ISIS-dominated trade routes — both as a drug for fighters and as a means to raise funds for their conquests — prohibition continues to fuel the illicit drug trade and its ties to terrorism.
“Decriminalization or even legalization would definitely be a weapon against traffickers, among whom there could be terrorists who make money off of it,” Roberti said. He further expounded on the problems with prohibition, noting, “We spend a lot of resources uselessly. We have not succeeded in reducing cannabinoid trafficking.”
Though he does not endorse legalizing or decriminalising of all drugs — which would likely go a longer way in weakening ISIS’ hand in the illegal drug trade — he strongly questions increasingly archaic policies on cannabis. “Is it worth using investigative energy to fight street sales of soft drugs?” he asked rhetorically.
Reuters referenced a new report released this month by analysis company IHS, which concluded ISIS obtains just under 7 percent of its funding through the illicit narcotics trade. Other sources of revenue for terrorist groups come, as Roberti noted, from “smuggling commercial goods, smuggling oil, smuggling archeological relics and art, kidnapping for ransom, and extortion.”
While governments contribute to the intersection of drug traffickers and terrorists, the U.S. government has, on multiple occasions, played an additional role.
Don Winslow, an expert on both drug trafficking and terrorism, explained in an article for the Daily Beast that during the Vietnam War, “American intelligence was helping heroin traffickers fly their product in order to assure their loyalty against the Communists.” He also discussed how the Reagan administration worked with Mexican cocaine traffickers to undermine a left-wing Nicaraguan government in the 1980s.
Regardless of who is trafficking drugs, committing acts of terrorism — or both — it is increasingly clear the prohibition of cannabis and other drugs has contributed to the power and scope of terrorist organizations and drug rings.
“Terrorists and traffickers can easily connect because they inhabit the same spheres and in many cases share the same enemies: law enforcement and intelligence services,” Winslow said.
“Make no mistake, our drug policies have driven these groups into each other’s bloodstained arms.”