Written by Nike Vrettos
This article is Part 2 of a series on cocaine in Columbia. Read Part 1 here.
The war on drugs. The war against weed, cocaine, heroin and every other recreational drug. Conservative, white governments have the power to shape our reality, and they have a clear idea of how it should look. And no surprises, mind-altering drugs don’t fit in the picture.
A handful of countries have successfully experimented with decriminalizing drugs for the most part. But I would argue for a more radical solution: legalization. It could save billions of dollars.
Drug cartels are the key problem in the struggle with illicit drugs, and the way to deal with that problem is to pull the rug from under their feet. Decriminalization keeps most of this underground system in place, it alleviates the pressure on drug consumers, but leaves the rest of the drug trade in place. If implemented in a thought out manner, legalization is the way to completely eradicate the horrendous situation of the criminal underworld.
100 billion dollars, roughly the amount at stake, is a lot of money. That’s the annual amount of money invested to fight the war against drugs worldwide. That is more money than annually spent on foreign aid. Furthermore, there are around 1,4 million convictions every year for drug-related crimes in the US, while Saudi Arabia and Iran have increased executions significantly. Those are lives ruined for no greater purpose.
Those billions of dollars are spent sending soldiers overseas, destroying coca harvests, and tearing apart the lives of individuals who are somewhat involved in the sale or production of drugs. The ones being punished in relation to drugs are usually not the ones that pull the strings. People imprisoned for drug offenses are usually convicted for bagatelle delicts, smuggling, or growing coca; individuals who are only one element in a bigger structural problem. Incarcerating those people won’t solve any problems. Mostly people convicted and sentenced to imprisonment aren’t given any chance to turn their lives around.
The bigger players are smart, they find new routes and new ways of setting up production. As it stands, any current attempt to weaken their power is easily overcome. Legalizing and regulating production would hit them where it hurts.
In Colombia for example, legalizing cocaine production would have tremendous advantages from a political and economic perspective. It’s estimated that over 410 metric tons of cocaine were produced there in 2010, which is about twice the weight of a blue whale. Revenue from the US would top 36 billion dollars. That money could be used for the benefit of the people currently disadvantaged by the drug industry.
During the 2008 financial crisis, “profits from criminal organizations were the only liquid assets available to allow some banks to avoid failure […].” The financial system was paralyzed until drug cartels came to the rescue. “A large part of the 352 billion drug dollars—the estimated annual revenues from drug trafficking—was thus absorbed into the legal economic system. Yet no one seemed scandalized by this declaration, which should have truly alarmed any Western government.” So it’s fine to use drug money, as long as it’s for the rich.
Valeria Posada Villada, a Master’s student in Amsterdam who has been studying the impact of drugs in her home country of Colombia, explained the economic opportunities as a circular movement: International legalization could create a source of income for the government, which in turn could be used to fund investments into development, and counteract the need for illegal cartels. “Farmers would receive a decent payment for coca production and also be able to grow other crops as the security threat posed by rebel groups would diminish.”
Agonizing violence would decrease, coca farmers would have protection from the blackmail, kidnapping, and murder linked to illegal drug-dealing. As Valeria continued:
“The areas which are currently used to produce cocaine… there is no proper infrastructure. The government has no real influence in those parts of the country. Barely any roads or facilities for farmers to do much else than obey the groups that make them grow coca. Besides most of those farmers simply produce coca to survive. They trade coca leaves for food.”
There are examples of successful drug policies. Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina have legalized the production of coca leaves for traditional uses, and last year the sale of government-produced marijuana started in Uruguay. These moves have resonated positively. Already in Colombia, the constitutional court decided to decriminalize the possession of 1 gram of cocaine and 20 grams of Marijuana for personal use in a recent ruling. To add the cherry on top, people caught with cocaine are offered psychological help by the police. These measures will hopefully serve as a role model for other countries in Latin America and beyond.
This momentum has created space to move forward after the failed prohibition policies imposed by the U.S. “Today, what the United States says has never mattered less,” said Eduardo Blasina, the founder of the Montevideo Cannabis Museum in Uruguay. “We don’t see its president as a reasonable individual whose opinion is worth anything.”
The Colombian government taking over the cocaine industry would have benefits for the rest of the world too. Ever considered what’s in that white line?
You might know that gasoline is used in its production, but what’s less known are the even more toxic substances added by the dealers and producers. Up to 80% of the cocaine on the street will contain other added substances such as Phenacetin, a painkiller banned in the US since 1983 for causing cancer and kidney problems. Then there’s Levamisole, a parasite purge for livestock that reportedly caused the flesh of heavy cocaine users to rot off their bones. An analysis last year of 103 random cocaine samples from around the world, conducted by the Energy Control drug testing service, found that the average concentration was 11%.” But it also increases your high!
In Switzerland a report found that “throughout the 8 years the researchers examined, the purity remained stable at around 40%, meaning that less than half of the ‘cocaine’ bought is actually cocaine.”
Those concerned about addiction should know that addiction depends on many factors, such as the personal gene code, your environment, etc. In an experiment, rats were either isolated in cells, or placed in a happy rat pack and were given both water and water with cocaine. Alone, rats always chose the drug water. However, in the pack with places to mate and be in a group, they didn’t touch the drug water. People who feel without purpose or are socially isolated are also more likely to end up addicted, whether it’s alcohol or cocaine.
Sluggish reliance on outdated ethical considerations are not going to solve the drug issue, and is disdainful to all the victims that living in hardship. Public discourse is needed to put the legalization on the agenda. We can put a plaster on the wound caused by drugs with haughty condemnation but that won’t cure anything.
Colombia’s decriminalization of the ownership of one gram of cocaine is a break in the clouds. A step towards a world where the cocaine business is not by default a bloody, dehumanizing war but an effective means to development and peace. It is a quagmire, the UN has just recently agreed to continue funding the war on drugs, underlining the unwillingness to accept it is a failure. For me, the world needs legalization included in the public debate.