BOGOTÁ, Colombia — It’s the largest producer of cocaine in the world, the source of more than 90 percent of the drug seized in the United States. It’s home to the largest Drug Enforcement Administration office overseas. And for decades, it’s been a key partner in Washington’s never-ending “war on drugs.”
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Now, Colombia is calling for an end to that war. It wants instead to lead a global experiment: decriminalizing cocaine.
Two weeks after taking office, the country’s first leftist government is proposing an end to “prohibition” and the start of a government-regulated cocaine market. Through legislation and alliances with other leftist governments in the region, officials in this South American nation hope to turn their country into a laboratory for drug decriminalization.
“It is time for a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed,” President Gustavo Petro said in his inaugural address this month.
It’s a radical turn in this historically conservative country, one that could upend its long-standing — and lucrative — counternarcotics relationship with the United States. U.S. officials past and present are signaling concern; the drug was responsible for an estimated 25,000 overdose deaths in the United States last year.
“The United States and the Biden administration is not a supporter of decriminalization,” said Jonathan Finer, the White House deputy national security adviser, who met with Petro here before his inauguration.
A former DEA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his current employer had not authorized him to speak on the matter, said he feared the move would limit the agency’s ability to collaborate with the Colombians on drug trafficking investigations.
“It would incrementally kill the cooperation,” he said. “It would be devastating, not just regionally, but globally. Everyone would be fighting from the outside in.”
Billions of U.S. dollars have funded a strategy focused largely on destroying the cocaine trade at its point of origin: the fields of rural Colombia. U.S. training and intelligence have propelled Colombia’s decades-long military efforts to eradicate coca, the base plant for cocaine, and dismantle drug trafficking groups. And yet more than a half century after President Richard M. Nixon declared drugs “America’s public enemy number one,” the Colombian trade has reached record levels. Coca cultivation has tripled in the last decade, according to U.S. figures.
Felipe Tascón, Petro’s drug czar, said the Colombians aim to take advantage of a rare moment in which many key governments in the region — including the cocaine-producing countries Colombia, Peru and Bolivia — are led by leftists.
In his first interview since being named to the job, the economist said he wants to meet with his counterparts in those countries to discuss decriminalization at the regional level. Eventually, he hopes a unified regional bloc can renegotiate international drug conventions at the United Nations.
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Domestically, Petro’s administration is planning to back legislation to decriminalize cocaine and marijuana. It plans to put an end to aerial spraying and the manual eradication of coca, which critics say unfairly targets poor rural farmers. By regulating the sale of cocaine, Tascón argued, the government would wrest the market from armed groups and cartels.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro gestures during his swearing-in ceremony at Plaza Bolivar in Bogotá on Aug. 7. (Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters)
“Drug traffickers know that their business depends on it being prohibited,” Tascón said. “If you regulate it like a public market … the high profits disappear and the drug trafficking disappears.”
Tascón said the administration will continue operations by air, sea and river to target major drug trafficking links. But authorities will also focus on providing rural farmers with crop alternatives to coca.
He aims to reframe his job not as “counternarcotics” or “anti-drug” but rather “drug policy.”
“The government’s program doesn’t talk about the problem of drugs,” he said. “It talks about the problems generated by the prohibition of drugs.”
Tascón has spoken about his plans with his counterparts in Peru. Ricardo Soberón, head of the Peruvian anti-drug agency DEVIDA, said it was too early to say whether Lima would support decriminalization, but he would welcome a regional debate about new approaches. Petro could find an ally in Bolivia, where in the 2000s the government of Evo Morales began allowing farmers to legally grow coca in limited quantities.
As the most important U.S. ally against cocaine, Colombia is an unlikely pioneer in decriminalizing it. But it’s also the country that has suffered the most from the war on drugs. Tascón said it’s the country where the need for a new strategy is perhaps the most urgent.
The point was driven home by Colombia’s truth commission. The panel, appointed as part of the country’s 2016 peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, recommended in June that the government move toward “strict legal regulation of drugs.”
In a report, the commission said the militarized approach against drug trafficking intensified the fighting in the half century of conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of Colombians.
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The Washington-based National Security Archive, an independent nonprofit, provided the commission with declassified documents showing the U.S. government knew its approach would lead to many years of bloodshed in Colombia.