(CNN) — It is the home of notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar and the birthplace of the legendary Santa Marta Gold — once the most coveted strain of marijuana in the United States — named for the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
For many, Colombia is synonymous with drug cartels and drug traffickers. It is one of the largest producers of narcotics in the world; last year, the US government estimated it produced more than a million kilograms of cocaine, the most in the world and more than the two closest nations, Peru and Bolivia, combined. So when the new president of the South American country says that he intends to regulate the use of illegal substances, or at least some of them, the world listens.
“It’s time to accept that the war on drugs has been a complete failure,” Colombian President Gustavo Petro said during his inauguration ceremony earlier this month, commenting on a bill his government introduced recently to Congress to legalize recreational marijuana.
Colombia’s law already allows the production of cannabis for medical purposes, mainly for export to foreign markets such as the United States and Canada, but supporters of the new legislation believe that only the legalization of recreational cannabis can keep thousands of farmers away from drug trafficking and take them to the market and legal trade.
To this day, the Colombian state faces challenges for control of its territory from a variety of criminal actors, from former leftist guerrillas and paramilitaries to drug cartels and organized crime syndicates. Drug trafficking is a powerful source of income for these criminals, and for the last 50 years public authorities have pushed a prohibitionist agenda, restricting the trade and consumption of drugs to hit criminals in their pockets. But the flow of illegal drugs never stopped.
“We will never achieve peace in Colombia until we regulate drug trafficking,” said Senator Gustavo Bolívar, one of the signatories of the new bill and a close ally of the new president.
“Not even the United States, with all its power and money, could win the war on drugs… Right now, Colombia produces more drugs than when Pablo Escobar lived, there are more consumers, more growers. Drug trafficking is growing despite the money we invest in fighting it and the thousands of deaths we suffer,” said Bolívar, who recently traveled to Colorado to see first-hand the economic benefits of legalizing marijuana.
Bolívar said in an interview with CNN that it is hypocritical for the United States to legalize marijuana at home and support drug wars abroad, such as in Colombia, where Washington sends millions of dollars each year to arm and train Colombian forces in its fight against the cartels.
A landmark report by the Truth Commission, an interdisciplinary panel tasked with investigating more than 50 years of civil conflict in Colombia, found that drug trafficking helped prolong the conflict despite nearly $8 billion in US military aid. . to Colombia. At least 260,000 Colombians, the vast majority civilians, were killed in the violence.
A new generation of Colombian leaders
The campaign to legalize marijuana in Colombia unites leftist senators like Bolívar with civil society organizations and wealthy foreign investors, and has received a boost in the last 12 months due to political changes in the country, with Petro ascending to the presidency. and progressive parties, now a majority in Colombia’s congress.
“We saw the legalization of recreational use for adults in two, three or four years later … but now we expect it to be this year,” said Luis Merchan, a Colombian businessman who is CEO of Flora Growth, a Toronto-based company. that invests in Colombian marijuana from medical cannabis to textile hemp.
Activists who have demanded this change for years agree.
“We believe that now is the right time to do it,” says Luis Felipe Ruiz, a researcher at the Colombian NGO Dejusticia, which supports drug decriminalization and has documented the war on drugs for years. Drug trafficking is the main cause of detention in Colombia and, according to the Colombian Ministry of Justice, 13% of detainees in the country are serving a sentence related to drug trafficking. Ruiz argues that one of the benefits of legalizing marijuana would also be to reduce the prison population in the country.
“There is a large part of the political world that is ready to have a debate about the legalization of marijuana and, frankly, removing the stigma against cannabis is already a big victory for us,” Ruiz told CNN.
Those who oppose legalization come from the conservative right and believe the change would simply make drug abuse easier. Former President Álvaro Uribe, political mentor of Petro’s predecessor, Iván Duque and main exponent of conservatism in the country, tweeted in 2020 that “recreational marijuana escalates to other drugs, affects neurons, the consumer reaches states of alienation, loses control of their decisions, which is the loss of their freedom”, after celebrating that a previous project to legalize marijuana was blocked in Congress.
Historically, marijuana in Colombia is grown by small farmers who cannot afford the pharmaceutical licenses required to produce medical cannabis, so they sell their product to drug cartels.
The bill presented to Congress could allow these small farmers, most of them settled in chronically underdeveloped rural regions of Colombia, to finally enter the legal market.
COCCAM, a confederation of coca, marijuana and poppy growers that functions as a lobby group for illicit growers, estimates that as many as 3,000 families depend on illegal marijuana as their main source of income, mostly in the southwest of Cauca department. In most cases, these farmers live in isolated rural areas that are hours away from the nearest paved road.
Compared to legal agricultural products such as fruits and vegetables, marijuana and coca leaves do not spoil for days and are sold at a higher price per kilogram. They also have the advantage of growing throughout the year, while most plants only give a harvest a few months a year.
Due to Colombia’s historical role, legalizing recreational use would be a big cultural change and perhaps a source of pride, Marchan said.
“Not only would it be a source of pride for someone like me that it was frowned upon: I’ve been in the business for several decades and when someone finds out I’m from Colombia, I always get the ‘ahh’ with that weird look,” said.
Bolívar, the senator, believes that the Colombian regulatory system will eventually follow the same path by legalizing not only marijuana but also cocaine, the most lucrative source of income for the cartels.
Drawing numbers on an illegal market is never an exact science, but a 2016 study by the Colombian government estimated that drug trafficking, the flow of illegal drugs, primarily cocaine, that is produced in Colombia and sold in international markets from Europe to North America , to Asia, was worth up to 3.8% of Colombian GDP at the time.
By comparison, the consumption of illegal drugs –those that are consumed illegally in Colombia and where marijuana plays a larger role– was worth 0.75% of Colombian GDP.
“Marijuana is a small change in the drug business. The big money that the cartels make, and most of the problem, is called cocaine. And people in Colombia and Mexico will continue to die as long as we hypocritically analyze the problem.” Bolívar told CNN.
The politician imagines a network of state-regulated dispensaries where cocaine could be sold under medical prescription and regional agreements in other drug-producing countries. The three largest cocaine producers in the world (Bolivia, Colombia and Peru) are currently governed by ideologically aligned leftist leaders. Bolivia has a thriving legal market for coca derivatives, mostly dry leaves chewed by the indigenous population, and as early as 2012, the Bolivian and Colombian governments pushed for a regional rethink of drug policies at multilateral meetings.
“We could, for example, make a small treaty in our countries to modify the 1961 Narcotics Convention and plant the first flag of legalization in the world, other countries can follow”, assured the senator.
But before international treaties are rewritten, Colombia could still have a legal battle ahead. As it stands, the Colombian constitution explicitly prohibits the use of narcotic drugs without a medical prescription; so even if Congress were to pass a law legalizing recreational marijuana, the Supreme Court could find it unconstitutional.
An appeal to eliminate that article has already been initiated by another legislator, Congressman Juan Carlos Losada.
“It is a battle on two fronts. Our legalization project in Congress and Losada’s appeal before the constitutional court. We will support whatever happens first, because this country needs peace,” Bolívar said.