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Recent comments made by Colombia’s President Iván Duque signaled his administration’s reluctance to legalize the country’s most famous export.  

On a trip to Israel, a major partner for Colombia in the development of its corporate cannabis industry, Duque said that promoting legal weed is “a different story” than taking a similar attitude towards coca. 

The president — who recently attended the United Nations’ climate summit, pledging to make the country carbon-neutral by 2050— focused on the environmental impacts of the two drugs. 

“In order to plant one hectare of coca in Colombia, two hectares of tropical jungle are destroyed,” he said in an Associated Press interview. “The other thing is that to produce cocaine you have a very high carbon footprint. You use a lot of gasoline, a lot of cement.”

Sounds like someone needs to read up on the devastating effects cannabis production can have on environmental resources. This August report by Politico would be a great place to start — it cites a report that estimates that the cannabis industry already consumes a full 1 percent of the United States’ total electricity consumption.

Duque’s comments also seem to evade the fact that legalizing coca hardly signals the creation of a new industry in Colombia. There, it is a traditional crop that has been grown by small farmers for thousands of years as an ingredient in plant-based medicine. In fact, coca’s world-famous processed, powdered version called cocaine was not even invented until the 19th century — by German chemist Albert Nieman. It soon gained popularity in Europe as a surgical anesthetic and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Starting in the early 1900s, the United States began restricting access to cocaine and eventually placed it into the Schedule II category by 1970, which put pressure on Colombia to follow. The move forced Colombia’s small farmers to find buyers for their crops from the illegal market. Prohibition hardly hindered the cocaine industry, which became among other things, a source of income for the FARC revolutionary forces. The Colombian government now spends around $1 billion USD every year targeting the industry. The country remains the supplier of 90 percent of the world’s coca stock.

Many have argued that Colombia would be far better served by legalizing cocaine and collecting taxe on it. In fact, last December, Senator Iván Marulanda introduced a bill that would legalize the production of coca and cocaine.

At the time, Marulanda charged the War on Drugs with “destroying the lives of our youth, of our soldiers, and police. The economy is totally disfigured because of this business. And look at the problems of corruption. It’s brutal. Our current anti-policy is destroying Colombia.”

One year later, however, his president is green-washing his prohibitionist politics. In fact, Duque took the opportunity to tell the press that he is not even in favor of legalizing adult-use recreational cannabis. 

“We’re not using cannabis for recreational purposes,” said the president. “We’re using it for medical purposes.”

That reluctance is disappointing, given that the country is a world leader in certain aspects of decriminalization, removing criminal penalties for up to 22 grams as far back as 2012. Medicinal marijuana legalization going back to 2015 has largely prioritized the production of cannabis extract by large firms which often use Colombia as a production site, later shipping product overseas. 

Of course, should plans proceed to legalize the production of coca, it would be far from the only environmentally-damaging consumer good that is completely regulated. Your new winter wardrobe, for example….

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