CALI, Colombia—Pablo Escobar once said that cocaine trafficking “might be illegal at the moment but in the long run, in the future, it will tend to be legalized.”
The future predicted by the self-styled King of Coke might now be here. An explosive piece of legislation has been introduced into the Colombian Senate that would make Escobar’s words prophetic, sanctioning cocaine for both local consumption and international research.
Colombia remains the world’s top producer of cocaine, exporting about 1,700 tons per year—around 90 percent of the world’s supply. The Andean nation is also a hotbed of armed groups that traffic in the marching powder. The new measure is aimed at curbing violence through legalization—by reducing the coffers of cartels and other criminal organizations—as well as saving the state money and advancing discoveries for medical applications of the drug.
The plan would have huge ramifications for the U.S.-backed drug war in Latin America. It would also cause a flashpoint with the international cartels, guerrillas, paramilitaries, and other crime groups that use cocaine trafficking to fund their operations. Some insiders expect them to use violence to try and cling to their share of the market, others say they could be rendered toothless and collapse all together.
‘All the Violence Would Disappear’
If passed the bill would immediately decriminalize the growing of coca leaves, which are the main ingredient in cocaine. Colombia is currently home to approximately 495,000 acres of coca crop, which constitutes the primary source of income for hundreds of thousands of rural families.
The leaves have been used for centuries as traditional medicine by indigenous peoples. In its natural state, coca can act as a topical anaesthetic or mild coffee-like stimulant when chewed or taken as a tea.
Under the bill, “indigenous families that cultivate coca leaves would stop being persecuted by the armed forces and police,” Senator Iván Marulanda, who authored the proposal, told The Daily Beast. Marulanda envisions an expansion of artisanal products such as coca-based foods, beverages and even cosmetics that could be legally produced and sold to alleviate poverty in indigenous communities.
“They would become part of the institution, they would work and live in peace under the protection of the state,” he said.
Similar moves aimed at ending eradication efforts and the persecution of indigenous farmers have proven successful in Peru and Bolivia. But the Colombian plan would break new ground in that it would actually put the government in charge of purchasing the nation’s entire harvest of coca leaves—thus eliminating cartels and other crime groups from the equation.
“The state would buy all the coca leaf produced at market prices,” Marulanda said. “Colombia would stop being an exporter of cocaine and the business that finances all the violence in this country would disappear.”
In addition to buying the coca leaves, the state would also oversee and regulate production of cocaine for medicinal and recreational use. Pharmacies would dispense the cocaine to qualified users—in fact, an amendment to the Colombian constitution already allows citizens to possess up to a gram. And strict licensing would ensure it was not diluted with harmful substances, as is often the case today.
The policy would cut organized crime off from the coca leaf, and it would cut consumers off from organized crime, according to Marulanda, who estimates there are about 250,000 users in the country. At the same time, treatment programs for addicts or users of crack cocaine would also be made more widely available.
To prevent export, excess coca leaves or paste could simply be destroyed under international supervision. Meanwhile, substitution programs for legal crops would help rural farmers transition away from growing coca.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America [WOLA], said legalization was “a net gain for a country like Colombia, which has a lot of organized crime but a relatively small addict population.”
“Drugs are artificially expensive—they’re easy and relatively cheap to make, but their illegality creates scarcity. Legalization and regulation would eliminate the price markup that scarcity creates. That would mean a lot less money for criminal and armed groups,” Isacson said.
Marulanda also emphasized the steep cost of criminalization: “We have sacrificed hundreds of thousands of human lives, yet we no longer exercise sovereignty over vast territories of the country that are dominated by the armies of organized crime. Politics, justice, and the public trust are corrupted by drug mafias and laundered money.”
Legalization would also pave the way for medical research programs aimed at exploring cocaine’s special analgesic properties. The drug can be used to narrow small blood vessels, and so is sometimes used to limit bleeding in delicate sinus procedures and other facial surgeries.
The U.S. currently imports its medicinal cocaine from Peru, but under Marulanda’s plan Colombia could also supply researchers in North America and Europe.
A 2016 scientific paper stated that “there is no direct replacement for [cocaine’s] useful unique characteristics.”
Marulanda’s proposition appears to make fiscal sense. For example, the Colombian government currently spends about $1 billion a year on coca eradication efforts. But buying the harvest would run to just $680 million.
The strategy would also lessen deforestation, because farmers wouldn’t have to resort to slash-and-burn tactics to create new cultivation sites after their coca plots were razed by force.
And legalization would reduce overcrowding in prisons.
“At least 80,000 people a year are incarcerated for growing, small-scale dealing, and consumption. They’re the most vulnerable people in the entire chain of drug trafficking,” said Senator Feliciano Valencia, a member of the indigenous Nasa community.
“The impacts that this legalization process would have on indigenous peoples, peasants, Afro-Colombians is quite profound,” said Valencia, who is part of a multi-party coalition of more than 30 members of congress who back the bill.
But of course the bill does have its detractors, including some coca growers who fear the legislation would result in multinational pharmaceutical corporations moving in to take over production.
“We’ve already seen this with medical marijuana production here in Colombia,” said William Orozco, a union leader for the Campesino [Peasant] Cultivators of Coca, Poppies, and Marijuna. “Only farmers with corporate contracts can move their product legally because of the restrictions and testing. So it’s almost impossible for most of us to get contracts due to the cost of the paperwork.”
As a result, Orozco and other small farmers worry they would still have to sell their coca on the black market.
“Even after legalization we will continue to suffer the rigors of war, of abandonment by the state, and with more deplorable conditions. We would go from small producers to simply begging for jobs from the centralized producers,” Orozco said.
A congressman opposed to the bill, Jaime Vallejo, of the right-leaning Center Democratic party, warned that: “The regularization of this crop and its derivatives in an isolated way and without achieving consensus with consuming countries, would be the biggest error committed in the history of Colombia in relation to the fight against drugs.”
Vallejo told The Daily Beast in an email that passage of the bill in question could result in serious economic, political, and social consequences—including alienating the U.S., Colombia’s top trading partner.
“Without a doubt, it could lead to this country becoming a narco-state,” Vallejo said. Although some might argue that Colombia already verges on being a narco-state, Vallejo said the new bill could worsen conditions to the point where "there would be a risk that various countries break commercial and political relations with Colombia."
Dr. Hector Zuleta, a security analyst at the University of the Andes, also expressed concern about Colombia becoming a “pariah nation if it acts unilaterally on this issue.” Passing the current legislation would be akin, he said, to “severing diplomatic ties to the U.S.”
However, Zuleta added that if a bilateral agreement were in place the results could be “fabulous,” particularly in Mexico, where cartel warfare over cocaine imports is surging.
“If cocaine were legalized in Colombia, Mexico and in the United States, violence would drop off,” Zuleta said. “But the fundamental problem is that it is totally unfeasible to think that the U.S. accepts the legalization of cocaine.”
Legalization as a ‘Sovereign Right’
Colombia remains one of Washington’s strongest allies in the hemisphere, and the U.S. has spent billions of dollars in counter-narcotics operations, while also pressuring Bogota to increase eradication efforts by any means necessary. So officials in D.C. are unlikely to look favorably on the bill now before the Colombian senate.
“The U.S. government would be likely to come down hard on Colombia if it sought to legalize cocaine without coordinating with the rest of the world,” said Isacson. “Even a Biden administration would likely treat Colombia like a rogue state deliberately flooding an illegal market.”
Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, said there would be swift pressure to push back against such a move and that, “potential economic sanctions could possibly come into play to prevent it.”
Vigil also said there was an underlying question of values at issue.
“It is very difficult morally and ethical to reconcile the legalization of a drug that has killed millions of people,” he said, citing the sharp rise in cocaine overdose deaths recently in the U.S.
But Vigil also accused the U.S. of sending mixed messages, citing both the Trump administration’s demand for toxic aerial spraying in Colombia—using the known carcinogen glyphosate—even as the trend toward legalizing certain drugs grown Stateside.
“The U.S. has to be careful about how they tread on the snake of legalization and then with great hypocrisy bully other countries to combat drug production and distribution,” Vigil said. “The question many nations are asking themselves is: Why are we losing lives and spending tens of millions of dollars each year on prohibition, and yet the biggest consumer market in the world is legalizing drugs?”
Senator Marulanda concurred with Vigil, calling cocaine regulation “a sovereign right of Colombia, just as 35 or more states in the U.S. legalized marijuana and Oregon decriminalized cocaine without Colombia or any country saying anything.”
Marulanda added: “The international conventions that criminalized psychoactive substances 60 years ago are collapsing.”
‘The Decades-Old Drug War Is Broken’
Peru has already decriminalized cocaine, while Bolivia has fully legalized coca. Uruguay has made marijuana legal, and Mexico appears poised to do the same. Combining all of that with recent developments in Colombia, could lead to a sea change in the perception toward narcotics in Latin America?
“The decades-old Drug War is broken. It has pretty much failed as policy but no agreed-upon replacement policy presently exists in the U.S.,” said Dr. Robert Bunker, research director at the security consulting firm Futures.
“In many Latin American countries, the current policy initiatives are to decriminalize or even legalize some or all illicit narcotics. Over time this will create more inconsistencies with U.S. drug war policies,” Bunker said.
However, Bunker also cautioned that the cartels and other trafficking groups won't be easily vanquished, even if their revenue streams are reduced by state intervention. "If narcotics trafficking becomes legalized and criminals are eventually pushed out of it then those criminals will be forced to look for other illicit business opportunities. This may cause more crime of other types to take place or new forms of criminal enterprises to emerge," Bunker said.
Former DEA agent Vigil agreed: “The cartels, paramilitaries,and [narco-guerrillas] will definitely not take a passive stance. They will engage security forces and at the end of a gun barrel force and the farmers to continue cultivating coca for illicit purposes. The government will have a difficult time dealing with legalization.”
Nevertheless, WOLA defense chief Isacson said that, “Within Latin America—like in many U.S. states—there is exhaustion with the punitive model... I think that will spread, especially in more urban areas.”
Of that punitive model Senator Marulanda said: “The failure is obvious.”
“We have fought the war against drugs for 40 years, and we lost this war. To continue on such a path would merely be foolish,” Marulanda said. “To seek new paths is now the only way for us to discover a better future.”