Guidelines for Colombia’s New Drug Policy under Petro

Petro's new Government and his commitment to drug policy change could usher in a new future of drug control for Colombia and the world. Source: Gabriel Leonardo Guerrero

In an effort to guide future Colombian drug policy, several researchers from the Centro de Estudios y Seguridad y Drogas (CESED) in the University of the Andes have come together to identify the key goals that the national government should pursue in the future.


Colombia is the largest cocaine producer in the world. An estimated 68.8% of the world’s cocaine is produced in this country. In 2018, it was estimated that Colombia’s cocaine market represented 1.8% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP); twice the product of the coffee market.

With the cocaine economy remaining illegal, its activities have been linked to the urban violence generated by the drug cartels during the 1980s, to micro-trafficking in recent decades, and to armed conflict as a source of revenue for these groups. Multiple studies have shown that there is a spatial correlation between the presence of coca crops, cocaine processing laboratories, and the presence of armed groups. Although coca crops do not fully explain the violence in the municipalities, both their presence and supply-side control strategies are associated with territorial disputes  due to the incomes derived from this illicit economy.

Despite economic and institutional efforts, such as the annual drug policy expenditure of 1 trillion Colombian pesos, the results of the traditional prohibitionist approach are limited. Even though it is not the correct measure to assess the evolution of cocaine production, the same number of hectares of coca crops detected in 2020 were the same as in 2000. There have been few advances in controlling this market.

The potential production of cocaine has increased since 2013, from an estimated 300 metric tons to approximately 1,200 metric tons in 2020, despite an intensification in law enforcement operations. Criminal enterprises have become more productive in cocaine manufacture: even when coca cultivation decreased by 7% in 2020, the potential of cocaine production increased by 8%.

Alternative development programmes based on voluntary substitution have been implemented since 1996. The Peace Agreement included the design of the Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Use Crops (PNIS in Spanish): 99,000 households were enrolled in the PNIS, which encouraged people to eradicate coca cultivation in exchange for immediate food security, technical assistance, home-grown vegetable gardens and transition to productive projects. The program stipulated that productive projects would be delivered nine months after the verification of eradications. Five years after the program’s inception, 9% of the enrolled households have received this benefit.

In terms of drug consumption in Colombia, the latest available national data was last calculated in 2013. Between 2008 and 2013, the lifetime prevalence of any substance use increased from 8.8% to 12.2%. It reported that 87% of last year’s users consumed cannabis. The substances with the highest frequency of use, after marijuana, are cocaine, bazuco [“crack cocaine”] and ecstasy. Specifically, in Bogota, there is information available for 2013, 2015 and 2017. The lifetime prevalence of marijuana and cocaine use was noted to have increased between 2013 and 2017: marijuana use increased from 31.3% in 2013 to 51.8% in 2017; for cocaine, the increase was from 7.4% to 16.7%.

As a producer nation, Colombia has faced the brunt of the costs of an illegal market for decades, felt especially by the most vulnerable population groups, such as peasants, women, ethnic minorities, and community leaders. Meanwhile, global cocaine consumption keeps increasing, currently estimated at 20 million consumers. These indicators reflect the failure of the prohibitionist approach, both globally and within Colombia, which has not led to a reduction in neither consumption nor production.

Based on our research and the current state of drug policy, we present ten ideas based on existing evidence, which we believe should be included in the Colombian government’s drug policy.


  1. A Global Discussion on Cocaine Regulation

The Colombian government should lead the global discussion on the need for the regulation of cocaine. In 2016, the Colombian government put this discussion on the global agenda and efforts should continue in that direction. Portugal’s experiences are lessons learned that help to address substance use. In 2001, they decriminalised consumption from a public health approach by creating medical treatment centres and providing support to consumers in order to address the consumption crisis they faced at the end of the past century, resulting in a short-term decrease in problematic drug use.

  1. An Effective Supply Control

The focus of a drug policy cannot lie on the weakest links of the cocaine production chain. Reducing cultivated hectares should not be the focus of the drug policy, and aerial spraying should not be resumed given its ineffectiveness and potential health and environmental risks. In the current context of prohibition of production and the trafficking of psychoactive substances, actions should primarily focus on dismantling criminal organizations. Therefore, information and financial tracking systems need to be strengthened in order to increase the seizures of drug trafficking resources. Likewise, it is necessary to attack the cocaine production chain links that generate the highest added value to the final product, like trafficking, through seizures and the destruction of laboratories.

  1. Comprehensive and Planned Interventions

Despite being more effective and less costly, alternative development programs should not be limited to the replacement of coca plantations for other crops. The success of these interventions is determined by their sustainability over time, which requires a long-term vision to solve structural problems. Therefore, the design of these programs should be comprehensive: including land titling and better provision of public services such as constructing tertiary roads and strengthening community security.

Additionally, alternative development programs must have clear community-participation mechanisms that should be maintained while the intervention is being implemented. These programs should be designed in accordance to environmental and ethnic terms, bearing in mind the characteristics of the territories. The barriers set by the current substitution program and the conflicts among communities that it has generated can be avoided in future interventions by applying a rigorous design that addresses pre-existing territorial disputes.

  1. Drug Policy Must Protect Communities

Cocaine production and its trafficking is associated with higher levels of violence. Moreover, the interventions to control its production have further increased the violence. It has been shown that fumigation intensified attacks by insurgent groups and that the current substitution program increased the assassinations of social leaders. As aforementioned, a drug policy with a comprehensive approach should be oriented toward the provision of public goods, including the security of communities. Developing drug policies together with security mechanisms from the Armed Forces are fundamental to ensure community safety, particularly when alternative developments programs are implemented.

  1. Regulation of Adult and Recreational Use of Cannabis

In the Latin American region, only Uruguay and Mexico have regulated the cannabis market for recreational use. Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Paraguay have regulated its medical use. In Colombia, the possession of the minimum dose has been decriminalised, but not its commercialisation. The most important argument here is that the regulation of cannabis prevents early consumption and controls access to it. Furthermore, criminalising the consumption of this substance misallocates law enforcement resources from other criminal activities, such as homicides and thefts. For example, the Colombian Drug Observatory showed that one out of every three arrests for the possession of substances corresponds to amounts under 25 grams. Therefore, the efforts of the Police and the Judicial Branch are overloaded by activities that do not impact criminality. There is evidence of a reduction in crime rates when cannabis possession is decriminalised. As for production, shared benefit models need to be designed and the cannabis growers should be protected so that they may receive the economic benefits derived from the regulation of recreational and medical use.

  1. Overcrowded Prisons

Most of the people arrested for crimes associated with illicit drugs are for minor offenses and small amounts of substances. The cost of the capture of people for possession, trafficking, and manufacturing of illicit drugs has been estimated at around 11 trillion pesos over 15 years, where one in every three people was detained for possession of under 25 grams of illicit substances.

In addition to this, the female prison population has increased considerably in recent years, especially due to crimes related to illicit drugs. Since 1991, the female prison population has multiplied by 5.5, of which one out of every two women deprived of liberty is held for crimes related to illicit drugs. 52% of the female inmate population are mother heads of households, compounding the societal problems due to their arrest. Measures other than incarceration, in line with current penal provisions, for minor offenses related to illicit drugs need to be implemented, respecting human rights and proportionality.

  1. Public Health for Problematic Drug Use

The problematic use of psychoactive substances should be addressed from a public health perspective, with an emphasis on the prevention of underage consumption, instead of the criminalisation of users. In Colombia, outpatient programs need to be implemented from a harm reduction approach, as well as prevention programs at school. CESED’s calculations based on previous studies show that the average annual expenditure on demand reduction programs is equivalent to 0.02% of the GDP, while 0.09% of the GDP is spent annually on arresting people for possession, trafficking, and manufacture. Resources need to be redirected to strengthen the investment in public health, including programs for harm reduction and the prevention of underage drug consumption.

  1. Scientific Research on the Coca Leaf

In Colombia, the coca leaf has traditionally been used by indigenous communities. We must recognise the traditional uses of these indigenous communities and promote this knowledge.  Furthermore, it is necessary to create benefit-sharing models, as is done with cannabis, including ethnic and peasant communities who may benefit from and participate in the entire production chain of licit products derived from the coca leaf. To this end, it is key to implement actions that strengthen local abilities, not only in cultivation, but also in empowering social enterprises and promoting intercultural research.

The coca leaf has unexplored components that have not been researched due to the obstacles set by international and national regulations. These components may have nutritional and medicinal benefits that remained underexplored. The process for obtaining licenses to advance research into coca leaf components and to foster alliances between producing communities, academia, and  industry associations should be promoted in order to increase knowledge about its potential benefits .

  1. Micro-Trafficking

The regulation of the production and the use of substances is not enough to end crime and violence. The fight against the micro-trafficking phenomenon requires effective measures. One of the most harmful effects of micro-trafficking is the territorial control of criminal gangs over streets, parks or entire neighbourhoods, leading to the deterioration of urban environments.

A comprehensive strategy to combat this issue should include community prevention programs, a closer relationship between the authorities and the communities, and a territorial control effort by relevant authorities.

  1. Consistent Drug Policy Assessment

All public policies should be evaluated, and drug policy is no exception. For example, there is no knowledge about the impact of ongoing crop substitution programs, neither on the coca crops nor on the socioeconomic conditions of beneficiary households. However, the resources committed to financing the subsidies of those households that joined the program at its inception are equivalent to 0.4% of Colombia’s GDP. Evaluating the effectiveness of the spending on different programs and interventions is critical to maximise social returns.

Experimental interventions could contribute significantly to the design of drug policies. Thus, as in other programs, it is necessary to conduct pilots before expanding interventions to understand potential outcomes and the effectiveness of their designs. It is possible to conduct pilots, as has been done through Conditional Cash Transfers, with the purpose of knowing the results and to adjust those policy elements that can be corrected.

We are aware of the limitations and barriers that global cocaine regulation faces in the short term. Nevertheless, within the current international context, there is a widening window of opportunity as the discussion for non-prohibitionist approaches to drugs are taking place. In Portugal, the consumption of all substances has been decriminalised; in some US states, progress has been made in regulating the use and production of cannabis, with Oregon even decriminalising the consumption of multiple drugs. In Uruguay, a model of state-led recreational cannabis has forged ahead. Within this international context, one of the objectives of the Colombian government’s foreign policy should be to lead in global discussions on cocaine regulation, prioritising the interests of the most vulnerable populations affected by prohibition and the War on Drugs.

During this process, it is necessary to implement a transition policy within the guidelines here discussed. Firstly, we must implement a public health approach to take care of people who have a problematic relationship with psychoactive substances through harm reduction. Secondly, we must prioritise the socioeconomic conditions of households with interventions to substitute illicit crops. Finally, we must guarantee territorial security, not through the militarisation of territories, but rather through the implementation of community protection mechanisms, primarily focusing on the protection of social leaders. These should be the guiding principles for the government’s next steps.