Could Colombia Make Peace in the War on Drugs?
By Susana Pimiento
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos surprised many on November 12 when he told the British newspaper The Observer that he favors rethinking the war on drugs and that he would consider legalizing marihuana and cocaine. He warned that he was not ready to take the lead in promoting the change: “What I won’t do is to become the vanguard of that movement because then I will be crucified. But I would gladly participate in those discussions because we are the country that’s still suffering most and have suffered most historically with the high consumption of the UK, the US, and Europe in general.”
Less than a week later, Colombian interior minister Germán Vargas-Lleras, addressing the British Chamber of Lords, repeated the message and talked about Colombia’s willingness to participate in a global debate on drug policy.
The voices calling for an end to the war on drugs have been piling up, particularly since the June 2011 Global Commission on Drug Policy report, in which several former presidents, prime ministers and even the former United Nations chief declared that the War on Drugs has been a failure. They called for ending criminalization and adopting public health solutions. On October 19, ex-Mexican president Vicente Fox (2000-2006) rejected the militaristic approach of Plan Merida and went so far as to call on the US to legalize all drugs to stop the bloodshed that has taken 50,000 lives in Mexico since 2006.
Even though all those voices came from prominent people, they came after they had left positions of power. And that is precisely what makes President Santos’ statements so remarkable: unlike the others, he is in a position to make a difference.
Place and timing: Santos’ interview with The Observer was timed just prior to an official trip to the UK, which coincided with a summit organized by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Reform, marking the 50th anniversary of the 1961 UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The summit was expected to end with a declaration signed by politicians and well-known figures such as the singers Sting and Yoko Ono. (7A) Great Britain is one of the leading countries in demand for illicit drugs; with Europe’s largest number of drug users, it falls just behind the United States. Like the United States, it also has tough prohibitionist laws. Voices there calling for an end to the War on Drugs are growing, including from some ‘hard liners’ like the former head of the M15 intelligence agency, Baroness Manningham-Buller, which may explain why President Santos’ voice had so much echo in the British media.
It was not the first time that he had expressed such views. He had made a more timid call for legalization in an October 23 interview with Metro, when he said he would favor legalizing marijuana “provided everyone does it at the same time.”
Colombian reaction to Santos position: In Colombia, the news of Santos’ statements was received positively, even by mainstream conservative media. Observers saw them as a courageous move and noted the credibility that Colombia has in the debate, considering the high toll in human lives and in democracy that drug-related violence has taken. That toll includes an alarming level of drug money penetration in the armed conflict, as both the guerrillas and the paramilitaries fund their military operations through illicit drug production and trafficking. Santos was urged to abandon his extreme caution and take a more proactive role in reform efforts.
How to move forward in the debate: On November 20, Colombian researcher Francisco Thoumi published an open letter to Santos with some valuable advice on how to move forward the debate. Among his recommendations were to take the discussion beyond US-Colombia bilateral relations to the United Nations system.
Even though a majority of US public opinion is, for the first time, in favor of legalization of marijuana, Thoumi advised against trying to achieve changes in drug policy through bilateral relations considering the politicized nature of the issue in American politics, and noted the 2012 presidential election process already under way, where conservative voices predominate.
Thoumi takes the “global solution for a global problem” approach. A serious reform, according to Thoumi, would only take place if there is a global debate that opens the door to modification of the international legal framework governing the fight against drugs - that is, in the United Nations.
The framework dating back to 1946 is strictly prohibitionist, based on the premise that the only allowable uses for drug production, distribution and use are pharmaceutical and research. The UN ban includes even traditional and indigenous uses of some of the plants, such as chewing coca leaves, using ayahuasca in religious ceremonies by South American indigenous peoples, or the use of peyote by Native Americans and South Asian indigenous peoples. The UN agencies that deal with drug control neglect the negative impacts of prohibitionist policies, including the environmental disaster resulting from of aerial spraying, cases linked to manual eradication of rape of women, and even the forced displacement that disproportionally affects women, children and ethnic minorities. Not surprisingly, the modest change proposed by Bolivian president Evo Morales of granting an exception for indigenous peoples’ traditional uses of banned plants met with strong rejection. Thoumi’s advice, therefore, is to challenge why tobacco and alcohol are not in the list of banned drugs, even though both are significantly more deadly than most of the controlled drugs.
Winners and Losers
Making peace in the drug war will bring many winners: society at large would benefit from reducing crime and incarceration of non-violent offenders and from freeing up considerable financial resources - because treating drugs as a public heath issue costs less and is more effective -, to name a few. Of course, in that scenario, there would be losers as well, very powerful ones, and therefore, capable of exercising strong opposition. Colombian columnist Cristina de la Torre names some of the losers from a Colombian perspective: the US government; the mafias and their armies - which control a third of Colombian territory; the politicians who support them; the FARC guerrillas that have became another drug cartel; the Colombian military with salaries and bonuses funded with the astronomical war budget —some of whom became rich thanks to the bribery paid by the drug traffickers; and, of course, the international financial sector that laundries the proceeds of the illicit traffic. If one looked beyond Colombia’s borders, the list of losers would grow with their equivalent in other countries in the region, particularly in Mexico, Central America and the United States. It is estimated that less than 4% of drug money goes back to the producer countries.
There are signs that it’s possible to advance the drug reform debate in Latin America. Mexican president Felipe Calderón, in his United Nations Assembly speech in September, voiced his frustration over the consumer countries’ failure to curb demand for drugs and called for seeking “market solutions” to reduce the earnings of criminal organizations. In July, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala began his term by appointing a drug reform advocate, Ricardo Soberón, as the country’s drug czar, suspending all eradication programs and announcing Peru would undertake an overall review of its drug policy. This blunt set of measures was not well received by the United States and spraying to eradicate coca was resumed soon after, reinforcing the argument against unilateral moves. Colombian Senator Juan Manuel Galán called on Colombia, Brazil and Mexico to bring a drug reform proposal to the United Nations. UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) is one multilateral forum from which change could be promoted. On November 18, UNASUR adopted a resolution for undertaking a comprehensive counter-narcotics effort that would result in the creation of a “regional observatory,” but Colombia did not participate in the meeting.