Colombian lawmakers are debating a radical new bill that would legalize the production of coca leaves and cocaine.
Indigenous Colombian and Bolivian farmers have grown coca plants to make traditional medicines for centuries. Global demand for coca exploded in the 19th Century once doctors discovered it had a wide variety of medical uses. But as recreational cocaine use grew more popular in the mid-20th Century, the US made the drug illegal, and demanded that Colombia do the same. Prohibited from growing and selling their traditional crop via legal avenues, Colombian farmers began selling coca to drug cartels, who process the raw plant material into cocaine and smuggle it across the world.
Colombia now spends four trillion pesos ($1 billion US) a year on law enforcement operations designed to target and destroy illegal coca production and smuggling. Yet, like the US War on Drugs, these programs are highly ineffective. Colombia still illegally exports 1,500 tons of cocaine every year, providing 90 percent of the world's coke supply. Local law enforcement can barely hold their own against powerful drug cartels, and nearly 500,000 acres of Colombian land is still being used to grow coca.
Colombian Senator Iván Marulanda has proposed a bill that aims to end these problems by legalizing the production of cocaine entirely. Under this proposal, the Colombian government would buy the country’s entire annual coca harvest. At current market prices, this would cost the government about $680 million US – much less than the $1 billion currently wasted on prohibition. This move would cut illegal cartels out of the business entirely and prevent coca farmers and cocaine users from having to deal with organized criminals.
“With that intervention from the government, two fundamental things would happen,” said Marulanda to VICE. “First, you would bring 200,000 families into a legal sphere where they would no longer be persecuted by the state... Second, Colombia is destroying around 300,000 hectares of forest per year. It’s estimated that coca-growing families are responsible for 25 percent of that annual deforestation. Colombia’s ecosystems are the collateral damage.”
What would Colombia do with all this raw coca? Under the new bill, raw coca plant material could be sold to indigenous artisanal industries for the production of food, baking flour, tea, and traditional medicinal products. In addition to providing a mild stimulant effect, raw coca leaves also contain a significant amount of calcium and can also be used to make fertilizer.
The bill would also allow the production of legal cocaine. The country would then be able to legally export the drug to be used for its analgesic and anesthetic properties, or for research. The government would also devise a public health program to distribute legal coke to citizens who wish to use it. Personal cocaine use is actually legal in Colombia, but since coca production is illegal, users are forced to buy the drug on the black market – and often end up buying impure coke mixed with unregulated additives and unknown contaminants.
Colombia has been “throwing away enormous quantities of money on the war on drugs in the garbage, instead of dedicating it to social and human development in order to improve peoples’ well being,” said Marulanda to VICE. “That means this is 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.”
It is unclear at this point whether the bill has any chance of success, but Marulanda said he will be happy if the proposal kicks off a public conversation about ending Colombia's war on drugs. “Colombia’s anti-drug policy has become almost like a religion for two generations,” the senator explained. “Yet in 40 years, we haven’t had a real, honest conversation about this policy and its results... In our upcoming presidential elections in 2022, I hope that candidates get asked by the public: ‘What do you think about the legalization of cocaine?’ Because that’s never happened before in Colombia.”