In a collaboration with Proyecto Soma, TalkingDrugs has had access to an interesting interview with one of the leading figures of the Colombian drug policy reform movement, who has some fantastic insights into the international power South America has on the global drug policy sphere. The original version is available in the Spanish version of our website.
For his work as founder and director of Échele Cabeza, Julian Quintero (born in Caldas, 1978) has been presented on public television in his country as "the person who has educated Colombians the most about drugs." That description is radical in one of the Latin American countries most marked by drug violence in its recent history. Even more so when, for example, when his turn came in the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, he said that "the new generations of citizens -the youngest and the oldest as well- are not going to stop using drugs as [it's] part of our vital experience of living life" and that not understanding that reality is "going against evolution as a civilisation".
Quintero, hand in hand with Vanessa Morris and a constantly growing team of volunteers, has made Échele Cabeza the most advanced drug risks and harm reduction project in Latin America in twelve years. The only one with total legality to analyse drugs at parties and capable, for example, of having, in a single night, teams working simultaneously in the cities of Bogotá, Cali and Medellín to prevent people from putting their health or life at risk for consuming adulterated substances.
The growth of Échele Cabeza is palpable. Its premises, currently being remodelled to go from serving two days to four, are the prelude to the future Quintero sees as imminent: the organisation's evolution into a harm reduction logistics company. An even closer change after the recent victory of Gustavo Petro, the next president of Colombia, an ally of drug policy reforms. Thus, he calculates, Échele Cabeza may leave behind the work that is more focused on the community. But that, for now, seems difficult. This last weekend at the Baum festival, when they announced that they would finally open the doors to more than 18,000 people after 7 hours of queues due to logistical problems, it was not enough to have managed to have a new stand for people to serve themselves free water. He set up a table, covered it with glasses, carried a barrel of water with both hands, and began to fill them all to the brim. "Here, stay hydrated", he began to distribute. Quintero not only "educates" Colombians about drugs, but he also -and perhaps above all- takes care of them.
Several times you have referred to the Échele Cabeza team as your children. If they are your children, then what do all those people who come to a party and as soon as they enter you offer them glasses of water so they can stay hydrated mean to you?
They are the anonymous people who should be the beneficiaries of public policies or a principle that human beings should have to live in a community. It's like those principles of ethics: do good so that others are well or do good without looking at who and without expecting a reward. It's like that other human being I don't know much about, and I don't want them to know much about me either, but who, because of what I do, will improve their well-being and be happier in life.
In your latest book, you are described as someone who understands in the first person the motivations of those who seek pleasure through substances. What motivations can you recognise when people come to analyse their substances to get high?
For many years we have put satisfaction, pleasure, and social interaction at the centre of drug use and the goal of getting high. The first time we analysed drugs was in 2013, so all the people who come now I think have already processed during all these years that substances can help to have a pleasant experience in connection with the environment, but this experience, if you don't know how to handle it, it can be dangerous. So, all those who go there to ask for a recommendation, to talk openly about drugs, are looking for a level of trust and security to have a more pleasant experience. This weekend's party enters the ranking of unforgettable for more than half of the young people between 18 and 25 years old who attended. They will remember that day they were with 4 or 5 friends, with their partner, siblings, and that they were thrilled because of the music, the drugs, but also because there was someone who told them how they could make that moment more fulfilling. And that is political; it is fucking political. On the front, without realising it, you could see the son of the minister or industrial worker, domestic worker, peasant, the paramilitary, and the guerrilla passing by. All of them are waking up on a Sunday with a heavy hangover from pills, and the father would say, 'look, a girl died', and then the son would answer I did go to analyse it; they analysed mine [substance], and here I am, in the house. And that moves the foundations of society.
Today you promote drug policy reforms; you are betting on the regulation of substances to create a formal market, and you analyse drugs to find out if they are adulterated. What is the perception that the narcos have of you?
So far, they haven't declared me a threat. Obviously, that day is going to come, and every time I can, in an interview, I say, please, let me know beforehand because I'm not going to get myself killed for this, and I'm leaving this country. I will not be a martyr, please; I will leave. But I think that, deep down, the sensible ones see us as a market controller because the market's quality affects a good business for them. When we started to analyse drugs, the proportion was 70% negative substances and 30% positive. Today we are 15% negative and 85% positive. Many dealers come and ask us to open only for them. Sometimes it scares us because you open that door and three come in, and one is here armed, one has a bag with twenty samples, and the other has a bag full of money, and they say, well, friend, this is what I'm going to start moving, and I do need to know what I am going to sell to people. That happens. And it seems to me that this dealer is very responsible too.
Julián Quintero directing the Bogotá District Cannabis Board, an independent organisation to channel the demands and ambitions of marijuana users towards public policies in the capital. (Photo: Fran Brivio)
There is a whole discourse and a theory regarding the possibilities and benefits that the regulation of drugs would bring. But how real is it to think about that when you see the number of people behind drug trafficking?
I see regulation as the State entering to compete in a market that is illegal. And the State is going to generate conditions to compete. It can be the State or someone with licenses, and they are going to provide new added values. And that is: we are going to sell a gram of cocaine for the same 50 thousand pesos that are on the street. But I am going to give you quality, security, moral tranquillity, and health support. I will provide you with the possibility that your taxes will help this country. It will be a process of 20, 30, and 40 years. That will be just the beginning. As in all businesses, there will be a range of illegality, but I hope that in 20, 30 years, the scenario of cocaine illegality will be between 15% and 20%, not like today, which is 100%. And where will they be? Well, Petro has said it: we must negotiate with the owners of market-related violence and negotiate from the perspective of humanity. The narcos do not reach 50 years. The few over 60 years old are either because they were in jail, they are in hiding, or they have seen everyone die. We must see how to tell them that story. Tell them: let's democratise the business; they will not have as much profit, but they'll live a little longer, and they'll be a little calmer because there is something for everyone. That, I think, is the task now. We must call the owners of violence and ask them to cut their ties with corruption, politicians, and the mafias that wear ties and those who launder money. In exchange for that, there will be freedom, tranquillity, and pardon.
Colombia is often said to be one of the most innovative and progressive countries in terms of drug policies, and yet it continues to be a country where users are stalked, where drug trafficking is everywhere. So, what is the real impact on the daily life of public policies on the issue of drugs?
I have a phrase: you realise that you are advancing in terms of public drug policies when the right arrives and sweeps you back. What remains standing is what you advanced. In Colombia, between 2010 and 2018, harm reduction arrived, medicinal cannabis arrived, the Mobile Attention Centre for Drug Addicts (Camad), the provisioning dose arrived, differentiated criminal treatment arrived, and then this son of a bitch arrived and threw everything away backwards. What was left standing? In Colombia, there are doses of provisioning; you can smoke in the parks and carry. I would say that this is progress in terms of politics, but, of course, we are not for a moderate change. A moderate change is the same. That of saying, let's take a little step, let's go slowly… I'm already tired of the moderate change. That was Juan Manuel Santos (former president of Colombia), the moderate change. The most revolutionary thing he did was stand up at the UN and say that harm reduction had to be done. Ohhh, the first president to say harm reduction at the United Nations! No, we have to say: we need to legalise pericooo (cocaine)! That's what needs to be said. It is simple. Whom are we going to talk to? Canada, Switzerland, are we going to do it or not? The United States of America can go to eat shit. We are going to do business with you; the three of us could be covered in silver.
If you had the Latin American presidents here in front of you, what would you say to them?
Seriously, seriously, I would tell them: look, if you help me to solve this problem that I have of poverty and violence in my country by relying on regulation, it will be beneficial for the whole neighbourhood. And I'm not going to tell you to jump in headfirst, but if you help us solve this, surely there is a motherfucking level of pacification on our continent, and not just in rural violence or urban violence stemming from war, but in the levels of corruption in the states associated with drug trafficking.
You have spoken and participated in international meetings on drug policies, such as those of the UN. What is discussed there in the seats, in the bars?
One thing I learned in Vienna and New York is that everyone in the halls agrees to legalise. Everyone says this doesn't work. Sure, and when they go up there, they say no, it's because the one above and the other one above are the gringos or the Chinese or the Muslims or the Russians. But everyone in the halls agrees to legalise. Obviously, I also learned that the slowest and most pachyderm, delayed, outdated, traditional, bureaucratic, thieving is the United Nations: the worst that there can be in the drug system in the world. It's the one that gets in the way the most, the one that fucks the most, the one that spends the most; it’s the hindrance, asshole. And we pay for all that bureaucracy.
What is the role of Latin America in that discussion?
In Latin America, it depends a lot on the political moment of each country. I loved one of the days I was there. China, the United States, the Muslims, and Russia said that drugs are the worst and such. And Uruguay, little boy, said: good, I'm going to legalise, so what! Just like that! And who are you? I am going to legalise and what! Any problem? China, the United States, shouted let's close the borders! It was monumental to see that. And the year that followed, well, keep quiet: no, they were checking, looking at the impact. So, it depends greatly on the political moment, but I think they see us as the most innovative continent, from top to bottom. They do see us as the one that is most pulling the reforms in the world. They look with great curiosity at Latin American civil society. They respect us a lot. We are among the most powerful. The big European NGOs are working here for a reason. This is where things are going on. And well, I throw the best parties.
Quintero, on the façade of Échele Cabeza's fixed premises, a space where, once a week, people can go to analyse their drugs. (Photo: Fran Brivio)
What do you think Latin America has to teach the drug policies of the world?
The dignity. The first hand. Pragmatism. I don't know if this is good or bad, but we have had to suffer a lot as a continent. Poverty, corruption, coups, drugs, drug traffickers and despite that, we are happy. The ability to recover, to stop, to innovate, to feel like it. In part, we also want to be halfway upstarts and believe we belong to the first world and give us some first world debates and propose things to the first world when the first world says, hey, calm down now, now, you are not even 2% of the economy of this world, then sh! I think that the belligerence. Mate, I love that there are guerrillas on this continent; it seems that this is still a demonstration of those primary feelings that have not been tamed by the international polite of diplomacy, that of keeping silent and saying that one day everything will be better. No way!
And vice versa, what do you think Latin America has not understood about the drug policies of other places?
The money. We have not understood that this is a business. Here we keep thinking about Pablo Escobar, that he planted bombs, and, oh, my God. We have not understood what THE business is. We have every right to be traumatised by drug trafficking, I don't deny it, but that blemish and trauma have not allowed us to see the business opportunities.
You have written in Cáñamo Magazine that the regulation will have to face all this discourse oiled by 60 years in the United States about prohibition, but that the work of the neighbourhoods, academia, of civil society has already promoted a phase of inevitable change. Can the work of Latin American civil society really confront the US policies that have been established in the region for all these decades?
I think you have to try. We already see the result… I am going to be a little humble, but it will hurt the gringos a lot, just as it hurt the English that we started legally doing drug tests before them. And they're not going to say that, because it's Colombia, it's the third world, horrible, how you can think of it. The English started five years ago and have a thousand times more money than us, and there is no recognition and impact. Someone asked me the other day how many bots we had for our social media accounts and how much we paid for advertising. Pay? This has been one on one. And that they will not recognise it. We are going to be the ones that say where the way is, brother. In a few years, we are going to have a project signed for the regulation of cocaine. And what motherfucker are we going to do? Spooky! But it must be done. And we will do it.
You have said that there will be a very wild conflict when the corrupt politicians, the police and the drug traffickers realise that their business is going to end. And that when the day arrives they are going to kill you and all those who think the same. If you don't want to be a martyr, what would be the resolution of this story for you?
I hope I find out before that happens to run away. It's the only option I have. I'll probably keep quiet for a while, but yes, the day they find out, they're going to be pissed off. But these people who presented the cocaine bill, none of them were threatened. If they didn't say anything to these guys who are presenting a bill -which really is something to make drug dealers tremble-, it must be that the drug dealers are also a little tired. Or they have such a level of control of the business that they know it's not going to be real. No brother. I wish I could find out before something happens. What a nuisance. I am terrified of weapons. But that's what you're exposed to in this country and everywhere.