Unveiling Colombia’s new national drug policy recently, President Gustavo Petro recalled smelling the odor of marijuana wafting through the streets of New York City during a recent visit to the U.S., remarking on the “enormous hypocrisy” of legal cannabis sales now taking place in the nation that launched the global drug war decades ago.
“Marijuana is sold today in Times Square,” Petro said, according to a translation of his speech. “It smelled on all the streets, all the way around the corner, and they sold it…like any other product. I suppose they charge taxes and that New York City or the state of New York lives partially from them.”
“That’s where the war on drugs began,” Petro continued, calling out the U.S.’s lead role in globalizing the drug war more than 50 years ago. “How many people have been imprisoned? How many people have died? Because undoubtedly illegality brought violence.”
Durante la presentación de la Política Nacional de Drogas, el Presidente @petrogustavo hizo una reflexión sobre cómo la prohibición de las drogas y la marihuana han generado violencia y muerte en el mundo, y hoy en países Europeos y en EE.UU. la venden con normalidad.… pic.twitter.com/5GHZXkc0G3
— Presidencia Colombia (@infopresidencia) October 3, 2023
The president spoke October 3 while announcing a new national drug policy that will loosen criminal penalties and instead work to transition Colombians to legal sectors of the economy. He described the plan as an effort to break cycles of poverty, violence and criminal prosecution facing families in drug-producing regions.
The plan seeks to cut the country’s cocaine production by nearly half (43 percent), mitigate environmental impacts of illicit drug production and trafficking, minimize violence caused by the drug trade and its criminal enforcement and “promote the inclusion, social protection and care of people who use drugs,” according to a description from his office.
“We want a prosperous peasant economy that allows—as I said in my campaign speeches—any daughter or any son of the peasant to study medicine, mathematics or philosophy,” Petro said. “That is the goal.”
Part of the approach will include advancing legalization and regulation of adult-use cannabis and “non-psychoactive” uses of the coca leaf. Lawmakers in August gave preliminary approval to a marijuana legalization bill as part of a the two-year process of enacting the reform. A prior version stalled in the Senate last session. Championing that legislation is Rep. Juan Carlos Losada.
Petro, for his part, is a progressive who’s strongly advocated for an end to international drug criminalization since taking office last year. In September 2022, the president delivered a speech at a meeting of the United Nations (UN), warning member nations that “democracy will die” if leaders don’t end the drug war and pursue a different approach.
He’s discussed legalizing marijuana in Colombia as a means of reducing the influence of the illicit market and has also signaled that the policy change should be followed by releasing people who are currently in prison over cannabis.
Petro also took a lead role at the Latin American and Caribbean Conference on Drugs last month, noting Colombia and Mexico “are the biggest victims of this policy,” likening the drug war to “a genocide.”
At that event, 19 countries jointly issued a statement asserting that “the expected results have not been obtained when combating the world drug problem, leaving in many cases the underlying problems to be solved and exploiting and exacerbating vulnerabilities of our territories and societies.”
Petro said at the closing of that conference that “what I propose is to have a different and unified voice that defends our society, our future and our history and stops repeating a failed discourse.” He argued that it was wrong to look at drug control “as a military problem and not as a health problem in society.”
In his new speech earlier this month, Petro acknowledged that by criminalizing cannabis and other drugs, Colombia and the international community have victimized peasant families as well as Indigenous and Black communities.
“Drug trafficking was not born in Colombian blood. They built it for us,” he said, noting that the low cost of producing drugs makes Colombia an appealing area to grow illicit crops like marijuana and coca, which are processed and then smuggled to sell at higher prices in wealthier countries.
Those countries “never wanted to develop a policy of prevention or regulation or mitigation of harm among consumers,” Petro said, instead preferring to blame poorer, less white countries like Colombia. “That’s an easy policy,” he added, accusing the U.S. and other developed nations of “xenophobic and racist complexes.”
Blaming Latin American and Caribbean nations for pedaling drugs “seemed easier to them politically,” he continued, “instead of wondering why their youth are drugged.” But in the ensuing global war on drugs, more than a million Latin Americans have died.
“Never did an Indigenous person from 2,000 years ago think of making the coca leaf into cocaine,” Petro said. “It was a European capitalist in the 19th century. Indigenous people had knowledge the leaf could be used in other things, and that’s why they used it and it became a sacred bush.”
Colombia’s minister of justice, Néstor Osuna, said earlier this year that he hoped “we will move to a world without illegal drug economies, with responsible, reasonable regulation of cocaine, heroin, opioids, cannabis,” but he acknowledged those steps would be difficult under international law.
At a public hearing of a Senate panel last year, Osuna similarly said that Colombia has been the victim of “a failed war that was designed 50 years ago and, due to absurd prohibitionism, has brought us a lot of blood, armed conflict, mafias and crime.”
Many of the points made by Colombian officials about the cyclical harms of the drug war were included in a recent report by the International Coalition on Drug Policy Reform and Environmental Justice. The 63-page document says global drug prohibition has fueled environmental destruction in some of the world’s most critical ecosystems, undermining efforts to address the climate crisis and disproportionately harming vulnerable communities.
Authors of that report described drug policy as the “missing link” in climate justice, noting how prohibition has pushed drug production and trafficking into “key environmental frontiers” like the Amazon rainforest and the jungles of Southeast Asia.
“The drug trade can offer a decent income or means of survival, where no other exists,” the report said, noting that an estimated 200,000 families make a living growing coca in Colombia. “Even when those farmers are persecuted by police or military, the pragmatic livelihood benefits of growing illegal drug crops often compel them to return to the business despite high risks.”
While low-level, disadvantaged small farmers face eradication of their crops, arrest and incarceration, “those at the top of the trade remain largely unscathed as their power, money or violence buys them immunity from prosecution and influence over elite policy making.”
The reports come amid a changing global mindset about controlled substances, even as the drug war rages on. A United Nations agency report last month highlighted human rights concerns raised by the war on drugs, urging member states to shift from punitive drug-control policies to an approach rooted in public health. Dealing with drugs as a criminal problem, it said, is causing further harm.
UN experts and global leaders echoed those points in June as part of World Drug Day.
In 2019, the UN Chief Executives Board, which represents 31 UN agencies including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), adopted a position stipulating that member states should pursue science-based, health-oriented drug policies “including the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use.”
Nevertheless, a recent report by the organization Harm Reduction International found that wealthy countries gave nearly $1 billion to further the global drug war.
Image element courtesy of Bryan Pocius.