How to end the war on drugs in a country synonymous with drugs

For many, Colombia is synonymous with drug cartels and narco-traffickers. It is one of the largest narcotics producers in the world – last year, the US government estimated production More than a million kilograms of cocaine, the most in the world and more than the two contiguous countries, Peru and Bolivia, combined. So when the South American country’s new president says he intends to regulate the use of illegal substances – or at least some of them – the world listens.

“It is time to acknowledge that the War on Drugs has been a complete failure,” Colombian President Gustavo Petro declared during his inauguration earlier this month, after his administration recently asked Congress to legalize recreational marijuana. Comment on the bill introduced for making

To this day, the Colombian state faces challenges of control of its territory by various criminal actors, from former left-wing guerrillas and paramilitary forces to narco-cartels and organized crime syndicates. Drug trafficking is a powerful source of revenue for these outlaws, and over the past 50 years public officials have pursued a prohibitionist agenda, banning trade and drug abuse in order to put criminals in their pockets. can be given. But the trend of illegal drugs never stopped.

“Unless we control drug trafficking, we will not be able to achieve peace in Colombia,” said Senator Gustavo Bolivar, one of the signatories of the new bill and a close ally of the new president.

“Even the United States, with all its power and wealth, could not win the war on drugs … Right now, Colombia produces more drugs than when Pablo Escobar was alive, there are more consumers, more farmers. Of drugs The business is growing despite the money we invest in fighting it, and the thousands of deaths we suffer,” said Bolivar, who recently traveled to Colorado to see the economic benefits of legalizing weed.

In an interview, Bolivar told CNN that it was hypocritical for the United States to legalize marijuana at home, and to support drug wars abroad, such as in Colombia, where Washington would send millions of dollars each year. in order to train the Colombian army in its struggle against the cartel. ,

A landmark report by the Truth Commission, an interdisciplinary panel investigating more than 50 years of civil conflict in Colombia, found that drug trafficking helped to prolong struggle in spite of almost $8 billion In military aid from the US to Colombia. at least 260,000 Colombians, the vast majority civilians, were killed in the violence.

A new generation of Colombian leaders

The campaign to legalize weed in Colombia unites left-wing senators such as Bolivar with civil society organizations and deep-pocketed foreign investors, and over the past 12 months has received a boost from the country’s changing politics, including the Petro presidency and progressive parties. climbing for. Now majority in the Colombian Congress.

“We saw the legalization of adult-use recreational two, three, or four years down the line… a Toronto-based company investing in Colombian marijuana ranging from medical cannabis to textile cannabis.

Campaigners who have demanded this shift for years agree.

“We think now is the time to do that,” says Luis Felipe Ruiz, an investigator for the Colombian NGO Digesticia, which supports the decriminalization of drugs and has been documenting the War on Drugs for years. Drug trafficking is the top cause of detention in Colombia and according to the Colombian Ministry of Justice, 13% of the country’s detainees are serving sentences related to the drug trade. Ruiz argues that one of the benefits of legalizing marijuana would also be a reduction in the prison population in the country.

People take part in a rally to celebrate World Cannabis Day in Bogota in April 2022.

“There is a large part of the political world that is ready to debate legalizing marijuana and, frankly, removing the stigma against cannabis is already a huge victory for us,” Ruiz told CNN.

Those who oppose legalization hail from the conservative right and believe the change will make drug abuse easier. Former President lvaro Uribe, the political mentor of Petro’s predecessor Ivan Duque and the main exponent of conservatism in the country, Tweeted in 2020 that “recreational marijuana leads to other drugs, alters neurons, drives the consumer into a state of isolation, loss of control over his decisions, which is the loss of his independence,” celebrating when weed in Congress The previous project to legitimize was blocked.

illegal agriculture

Historically, marijuana is grown in Colombia by small-scale farmers who cannot afford the drug licenses required to produce medical cannabis, so they sell their product to drug cartels.

A bill introduced to Congress could allow these small-scale farmers, most of whom are located in long-underdeveloped rural areas of Colombia, to eventually enter the legal market.

COCCAM, a consortium of coca, marijuana and opium growers that acts as a lobbying group for illegal farmers, estimates that 3,000 households rely on illegal marijuana as their main source of income, mostly from cacao. in the South-West Department. In most cases, these farmers live in isolated rural areas that are hours away from the nearest paved road.

Police officers walk among packages of cocaine seized at the Pacific port of Buenaventura, Colombia.

Compared to legal agricultural products such as fruits and vegetables, marijuana and coca leaves do not spoil for days and are sold for a higher price per kilogram. They also have the advantage of growing all year round, whereas most plants produce only a few months a year.

Because of Colombia’s historical role, legalizing recreational use would be a huge cultural shift — and probably a source of pride, Marchon said.

“It would be a source of pride for someone like me, not only to be angry with me: I’ve been in the business for decades and you always get an ‘ahh’ when someone finds out I’m from Colombia, who Look strange,” he said.

legal cocaine?

The Colombian constitution explicitly forbids the use of narcotic drugs without a medical prescription.

Senator Bolivar believes the Colombian regulatory system will eventually follow the same path by legalizing not only marijuana but also cocaine – the most lucrative source of income for the cartel.

Drafting numbers on an illegal market is never an exact science, But a 2016 study by the Colombian government It is estimated that drug trafficking – the flow of illicit drugs, mostly cocaine, produced in Colombia and sold in international markets from Europe to North America, Asia – accounts for 3.8% of Colombia’s GDP, or $7.5 million. was worth up to. Time.

In comparison, illicit drug consumption – in the form of drugs consumed illegally in Colombia and where marijuana plays a large role – accounted for 0.75% of Colombian GDP – $2.18 million.

“Marijuana is small change in the drug business. The cartels that are making the big money, and the lion’s share of the problem, are called cocaine. And people in Colombia and Mexico will keep dying as long as we look at the problem of hypocrisy, Bolivar told CNN.

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He envisions a network of state-regulated dispensaries where cocaine can be sold under prescription, and regional agreements in other drug-producing countries. The three largest producers of cocaine in the world – Bolivia, Colombia and Peru – are currently governed by ideologically aligned, left-wing leaders. Bolivia has a thriving legal market for coca byproducts, mostly dried leaves that are chewed by indigenous populations and already in 2012The governments of Bolivia and Colombia insisted on a regional rethinking of drug policies in multilateral meetings.

“For example, we can make a small treaty in our countries to amend the 1961 Narcotic Drugs Convention and put the first flag of legalization in the world; other countries can follow it,” the senator said.

But Colombia may still have a legal battle ahead of international treaties being rewritten. as it stands, Colombian Constitution expressly forbids the use of narcotic drugs without a medical prescription; So even if Congress passed a law legalizing recreational marijuana, it could be deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

An appeal to eliminate that article has already been started by another MP, Congressman Juan Carlos Losada.

“It’s a two-front fight. Our legitimate bill in Congress, and Losada’s appeal in the Constitutional Court. We’ll support whoever comes first, because this country needs peace,” Bolivar said.