“It’s time to accept that the war on drugs has been a complete failure,” Colombian President Gustavo Petro announced at his inauguration festivities earlier this month, commenting on a bill his government recently introduced to ban recreational marijuana. legalize it to Congress.
To this day, the Colombian state faces challenges over the control of its territory by a variety of criminal actors, from former left-wing guerrillas and paramilitaries to narco cartels and organized crime syndicates. Drug trafficking is a powerful source of income for these outlaws, and over the past 50 years, public authorities have pursued a prohibition agenda by outlawing the trade and use of drugs to pocket the criminals. But the flow of illegal drugs never stopped.
“We will never achieve peace in Colombia until we regulate the drug trade,” said Senator Gustavo Bolivar, one of the signatories to the new bill and a close ally of the new president.
“Even the United States, with all its power and money, could not win the war on drugs… At the moment Colombia produces more drugs than when Pablo Escobar was alive, there are more consumers, more farmers. The drug trade is growing despite the money we invest in fighting it and the thousands of deaths we suffer,” said Bolivar, who recently traveled to Colorado to see firsthand the economic benefits of legalizing weed.
In an interview, Bolivar told CNN that it was hypocritical of the United States to legalize marijuana domestically and to support drug wars abroad, such as in Colombia, where Washington sends millions of dollars each year to arm and train Colombian troops. in their fight against the cartels. .
A new generation of Colombian leaders
The campaign to legalize weed in Colombia unites left-wing senators like Bolivar with civil society organizations and entrenched foreign investors, and has been boosted over the past 12 months by the country’s shifting politics, with Petro ascending to the presidency and progressive parties now a majority in the Colombian Congress.
“We saw the legalization of adult recreational use two, three or four years later…but now we’re hoping for this year,” said Luis Merchan, a Colombian businessman who is the CEO of Flora Growth, a Toronto-based company that invests in Colombian marijuana, from medicinal cannabis to textile hemp.
The activists who have been demanding this shift for years agree.
“We think the time is right to do it,” said Luis Felipe Ruiz, a researcher at the Colombian NGO Dejusticia, which supports the decriminalization of drugs and has documented the war on drugs for years. Drug trafficking is the leading cause of detention in Colombia and according to the Colombian Ministry of Justice, 13% of detainees in the country are serving sentences related to drug trafficking. Ruiz argues that one of the benefits of legalizing marijuana would also be a reduction in the country’s prison population.
“There is a big chunk of the political world that is ready to have a debate about legalizing marijuana and frankly, removing the stigma against cannabis is already a big win for us,” Ruiz told CNN.
Historically, marijuana in Colombia has been grown by small-scale farmers who cannot afford the pharmaceutical licenses needed to produce medical cannabis, so they sell their product to drug cartels.
The bill before Congress could allow these small-scale farmers, most of whom are based in Colombia’s chronically underdeveloped rural areas, to finally enter the legal market.
COCCAM, a confederation of coca, marijuana and poppy growers that works as a lobby group for illegal farmers, estimates that up to 3,000 families depend on illegal marijuana as their main source of income, mainly in the southwestern department of Cauca. In most cases, these farmers live in remote 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 all year round, while most plants only yield a few months of the year.
Because of Colombia’s historic role, legalizing recreational use would be a huge cultural shift — and perhaps a source of pride, Marchan said.
“It wouldn’t just be a source of pride for someone like me for what was frowned upon: I’ve been in business for several decades and when someone hears I’m from Colombia, you always get the ‘ahh’, that weird look, ” he said.
Bolivar, the senator, believes the Colombian regulatory system will eventually follow the same path by legalizing not only marijuana but even cocaine – the most lucrative source of revenue for the cartels.
In comparison, illicit drug use — referred to as the drugs consumed illegally in Colombia where marijuana plays a larger role — was worth 0.75% of Colombia’s GDP — $2.18 million.
“Marijuana is a small change in the drug trade. The big money the cartels make, and the bulk of the problem, is called cocaine. And people in Colombia and Mexico will continue to die as long as we look at the problem with hypocrisy,” Bolivar said. to CNN.
“For example, we could make a small treaty in our countries to amend the 1961 Narcotics Convention and plant the world’s first flag of legalization; other countries could follow,” the senator said.
Another lawmaker, Congressman Juan Carlos Losada, has already called for that article to be deleted.
“It is a battle on two fronts. Our bill for legalization in Congress and Losada’s appeal to the constitutional court. Whichever comes first, we will support it, because this country needs peace,” Bolivar said.