This is the first article of Mauro Echeverria’s “The Great Colombia: A Drug Policy Profile of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador” series, investigating the development of Colombian drug policy in the recent years.
Because of its particular history, Colombia’s drug policy is constantly evolving. In an endless attempt to fight against drug trafficking, the Andean nation found in the United States a key ally. For the US, Colombia used to represent a major threat, as its weather was perfect for marijuana, cocaine, and heroin production. However, this war on drugs has been extremely violent for many civilians and consumers, more so than for the drug lords. According to the Latin American Working Group, more than six million people were victimised through diverse human rights violations during Plan Colombia.
At first, Plan Colombia was conceived by the United States and Colombia as an agreement that would strengthen democracy and the State, assist development initiatives, target attacks on drug traffickers, and nourish peace and human rights in the nation. However, Plan Colombia has violated the integrity and rights of many people in its path. A humanitarian crisis struck the country, leading towards a massive exodus of Colombians across the region. Jorge Rojas, in his paper “Plan Colombia, conflicto armado y migraciones forzadas”, covers some of the human rights violations in the region of Chocó. These include systematic attacks to the civil society, rapes of indigenous women, collective homicides, threats to local leaders, and more.
In spite of the humanitarian failure of Plan Colombia, the government is now continuing with a similar approach focused on eradicating drug dealers and lords. According to the executive report presented by the Observatorio de Drogas de Colombia (ODC), the plan until 2022 will focus on five main axes: reducing the consumption of psychoactive substances, reducing the availability of illicit drugs, dismantling criminal structures, limiting criminal’s income, and a transversal focus on improving policy efficiencies. The second axis, which is the primary function of the war on drugs, has a budget of more than $4.2 billion Colombian pesos. Meanwhile, the other axes in total get just $200 million Colombian pesos. This illustrates that the approach the Colombian government will continue to pursue the damaging War on Drugs, limiting the funding and thus the impact that other public policies may have in the country.
However, drug decriminalisation is generating an increasingly strong debate in Colombian society, which means it is also getting more debate at a political level. It is important to highlight that the Andean country has a drug possession table that allows authorities to differentiate whether a person is a drug consumer or dealer. This table is a commendable public policy effort that can pave the way towards drug decriminalisation. The consumption table allows people to possess 20 grams of marijuana, 1 gram of cocaine, and 2 grams of methaqualone and still be legally considered consumers and not drug dealers. Nevertheless, it is fundamental to keep moving forward with an intersectional plan that can assist people in need.
Yet the goals set by the government until 2022 provide a negative outlook of what is to come. It seems as if we are about to experience a stronger war on drugs without even considering how education, reparation, and public healthcare play a part in reducing drug use and trafficking.
Thankfully, in the past year there have been plenty of discussions about marijuana legalisation, which is a huge step forward in improving Colombia’s drug policy, although away from drug decriminalisation. In September 2020, congressional representatives Juan Carlos Losada and Juan Fernando Reyes presented a Constitutional reform that allows the commercialisation of marijuana in Colombia. It is important to remember that the use of cannabis for medical purposes has been legal since 2016, and currently its recreational use is being discussed among policy makers and society. Moving towards full cannabis legalisation is a huge step and can be crucial for the State as it would increase its tax collection. This money could be used for underdeveloped policies in rural areas and supporting the most affected groups by the war on drugs.
In this year, Colombia is already exporting some cannabis-based products, but the restrictions imposed by the government are still blocking the maximization of this industry. According to Diario El País, the cannabis industry has attracted more than 500 million dollars in Foreign Direct Investment. Recent authorisation facilitating the export of cannabis flower (no longer limiting the market to extracts) is hoped to increase the country’s global competitive advantage. Colombia could potentially become a leader in the industry, which could translate to national improvements such as lower poverty and unemployment rates.
It is fundamental that we keep generating a dialogue on drug decriminalisation in Andean societies so it will eventually reach the political decision-makers, who will have the opportunity to make a change. Colombia, the country that was once home to drug lords like Pablo Escobar, will then continue to develop as a stronger society.