Almost five decades after Nixon’s infamous speech that gave birth to “The War on Drugs”, Latin America is still living with the devastating consequences of prohibitionist politics and enforced crop eradication. For many, this has been a war that has left more losses than victories. (I)
Up to now, the US Government has spent over a trillion dollars attempting to destroy drug cartels and eradicate drug crops with strategies that have caused immeasurable environmental and social harms throughout Latin America, and that have had little effect at achieving their goals of a ‘drug-free’ world. However, with more countries in the region opening up to legalisation, the opportunity to rewrite history is emerging as a way to heal decades of violence.
The beginning of chaos- a cannabis bonanza
After the Vietnam war and countercultural movements of the ’60s, Andean countries entered the trafficking game due to the high demand for cannabis in the United States. Colombia joined in and started exporting marijuana, launching the famous ‘Bonanza Marimbera’ that marked the start of the country’s exportation history in the ’70s.
As consumption grew within the US population, Nixon declared the ‘War on Drugs’ and defined the actions aimed at stopping illegal drugs distribution, use and trade. With Nixon’s statement of drug abuse as ‘public enemy number one’ in 1971, federal funding for the drug war increased, and the stigma around drug use grew. The more prominent cannabis suppliers to the US at this time were Mexico and Colombia.
In 1973, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was created, and with it, many countries developed mutual agreements supporting the US-led drug war.
The marijuana bonanza was Colombia’s first step into the drug economy, and at that time, around 500,000 pounds of marijuana were shipped by land or sea to the Florida coast, and the largest plantation found in Colombian territory was over 40 thousand hectares.(II)
The promise of making an income 10 times higher than growing coffee, cotton or corn, pushed roughly 300,000 families of farmers, unemployed workers and indigenous people to join the illegal cannabis market, and later the cocaine market. At that time, cannabis generated US$2.2 billion for Colombia, that would be valued today at US$7.3 billion. (III)
Prohibition efforts successes were measured by counting the hectares of cultivation and laboratories destroyed, and people detained. Surprisingly, Colombia was the only country that allowed aerial spraying of glyphosate for counter-drug purposes. (IV) However, these actions were not enough: the aerially fumigated areas were grown again, cartels reinvented ways to produce and ship drugs, and the internal conflict was aggravated by the lack of opportunities to generate income within the region.
The Cannabis Bonanza finished for several reasons:
1) The market’s shift to cocaine.
2) The attractiveness of the high profit of cocaine.
3) Growers mixing cannabis with oregano or other things to meet the demand that was not covered by 2 cycles of cultivation a year.
4) Cultivation of cannabis at the end of the ’70s inside the USA.
In the ’80s, after cocaine became popular, drug cartels like Cartel de Cali and Cartel de Medellin, became important influencers in the internal Colombian armed conflict. In fact, they were the main financial supporters of paramilitary groups, guerrillas and organized crime, and had a direct impact on the political, social and economic life of the country. As a result, Colombia became the world’s primary producer of cocaine, and eradication programmes with glyphosate were reinforced. In fact, Peru, Colombia and Bolivia were entirely responsible for the world’s production and supply.
Although the war on drugs was able to reduce violence and coca cultivation momentarily, Colombia remains one of the major cocaine-producing countries in the world, alongside Peru and Bolivia. Colombia transformed from being a producer country, to having the dual condition of producer and consumer. Colombia is currently the country where the cheapest gram of cocaine and heroin is sold, and is the country where most drugs are consumed in a session. (V) Access to drugs is relatively easy and arrives faster to consumers these days with illegal delivery services.
The reality is that even when there is a clear direction towards forms of legalisation, there is an immediate need to reform drug laws to stop the growth of drug trafficking, the continuous expansion and growth of drug-dealing organisations, the danger of an unregulated market directly affecting consumers health, and the new illegal microdistributors within the cities that add to the standard crime scene. (VI)
Although there is a legal framework for the cultivation, extraction, manufacture, and export of cannabis-based products established since 2017, there are still many gaps in the current legislation. (VII)
In fact, the government of President Ivan Duque has been outspoken in favour of prohibition. In 2018 a decree was passed by the president that bans the possession of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine in public, allowing authorities to confiscate the drugs and impose fines: the result, more arrests for possession and an increase of violence within the cities. The State has focused efforts on the sanction of users. (VIII)
Additionally, the country does not have current data regarding illegal cannabis, most of the analytical approaches are based on the quantities of marijuana seized, and the ongoing illicit exportation is believed to be destined for other countries within the Latin American continent. (IX)
Drug production and trafficking in the region has financed corruption, wars, cartels, guerrillas and politicians. It has defined, and distorted economies and has left thousands dead in the process.
The region’s fight against drugs has caused more damage than governments care to agree upon. The strategy based on prohibition funded by the US government has created the following realities:
- The creation of new criminal organisations that have reinvented themselves despite every new government position.
- Thousands of deaths in the name of the war on drugs.
- Despite eradication strategies, the cultivation of coca leaf has increased significantly in the past two years.
- The soil has been destroyed making it hard for new non-drug crops to grow due to air eradication processes.
- Human rights are being violated every day.
- Black markets prices are rising and with it common delinquency.
- Unsafe new drugs have been introduced raising the risk of overdoses.
- Latin American countries have transformed from predominantly producing countries to become consumers.
- Entire towns and villages, farmers and their communities, have been forced to move to cities being displaced due to the violence.
As we mentioned previously, socio-economic issues have been the driving force behind the drug market in Colombia. Lacking economic opportunities, people resorted to illegal markets to survive. Nowadays, 65% of Colombians are in favour of full cannabis legalization for medicinal purposes. However, recreational use is not generally accepted despite the increasing number of consumers. (X)
The current Colombian medicinal cannabis industry is one of the crucial steps to improve the overall country’s economy. It could generate 100,000 new jobs to create new income streams, and exceed the tax collection of the entire agricultural sector, according to a study by the E-Concept signature. (X)
Embracing legalization and decriminalization in the region can help prevent drug-trafficking, violence and death. Having a controlled market could potentially decrease the current micro-trafficking occurring in the cities, reduce the profits of organized crime, assure fair prices and create access to safe products.
It’s empirical to change the belief that “legalization” is a state intervention to promote drug use, to the view that the government is acting to defend the interests of its population. (XI)
Providing a legal framework for the production, distribution and sale of drugs for adult consumption, giving appropriate consideration to the harm associated with each particular substance, addresses the realities of drug use and the presence of drug markets. (XI)
By demanding legalization, we are advocating for a more effective, durable and humane solution. Colombia has already had enough of the war on drugs, having a new vision can bring healing to decades of cartels and crime. However, the country will need the support of its government to implement laws that promote regulated markets.