Why Colombia Should Legalize Drugs Unilaterally


It’s Time to End The Drug War in Colombia (English subtitles available)

EspañolOn November 27, 1989, a bomb’s detonation brought down a Boeing 727 aircraft — Avianca Flight 203 from Bogotá to Cali — shortly after its takeoff from El Dorado Airport. The explosion and subsequent crash killed each of the 107 passengers and crew on board. It soon emerged that the Medellín Cartel, led by Pablo Escobar, had planted the bomb in the airplane with the aim of assassinating then-presidential candidate César Gaviria, who was supposed to be on board. He wasn’t.

This was but one of many senseless, ruthless, and vicious acts of terror that I remember from my childhood in Bogotá (I was born in 1982), yet it is the one which struck closest to home; a relative, a bright young fellow who had married my father’s first cousin that very year, was one of the victims of Flight 203. Like thousands of Colombian families, we too have felt the drug war’s devastation.

There are numerous arguments in favor of legalization, but the most important is clearly prohibition’s human costs. It is difficult to calculate the tens of thousands of deaths that the war on drugs has left in this country; purportedly Marxist guerrillas, who have been fighting the government since the 1960’s, have become one of the world’s largest drug cartels. Still, it suffices to think of the 57,000 human beings who lost their lives in Mexico’s drug war between 2006 and 2012. Clearly the medicine is far deadlier than the disease.

Since I was a child, there has always been a public enemy financing bloodshed in Colombia with the drug trade’s astronomical profits. The official story has been that peace will arrive once the current threat is eliminated. Nonetheless, each time the bête noire is killed, arrested, extradited, or dismantled, a successor arises immediately thereafter. First it was Escobar; then it was the Rodríguez-Orejuela brothers who ran the Cali Cartel; then it was the paramilitaries and the guerrillas; now it’s the guerrillas, the BACRIM (demobilized paramilitaries) and small-time Mafiosi.

Currently, President Juan Manuel Santos claims that, once his government reaches a peace agreement with the FARC, a 50-year-old war will come to an end. However, it is merely logical to expect that the violence will continue even with a full-scale demobilization of the FARC, which is a best-case scenario. Eventually, some new armed group (perhaps led by old guerrilla hands) or a capo will gain control of this multi-billion dollar export business which the state, ignoring the markets, has tried to eradicate with disastrous results. A new round of carnage will ensue.

I think that, ultimately, peace in Colombia depends on the legalization of cocaine and other drugs (Mary Anastasia O’Grady has argued along the same lines in the Wall Street Journal). Apparently, Santos does too, for he has spoken several times in the United States about the need to adopt “new strategies, new visions, and new approaches” in a global debate about the drug war. The president has stressed the need for a new international consensus, since he insists that “we [Colombians] cannot do it alone.” I beg to differ.

According to a 2010 Princeton University study, Colombia would reduce the number of homicides committed annually by about 5,000 if we were to legalize drugs unilaterally. We would also save approximately US$7 billion, the sum wasted each year in the failed attempt to eradicate the production, commercialization, and consumption of drugs. As I explain in an interview, this is not exactly pocket change for the Colombian government, which spends a higher proportion of its GDP on the military than the United Kingdom — even though we haven’t deployed troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya (in 2009, it was 3.9 percent versus 2.6 percent).

This is fine in theory, a skeptical reader might argue, but how exactly will unilateral legalization be brought about in Colombia? Won’t the country become an international pariah comparable to Iran and North Korea? My answer is that legalization can be achieved in the following way.

There needs to be a serious national debate — led by parliament, the private sector, academia, and the informed citizenry — about legalization’s true costs and benefits. Then, we should hold a referendum on the matter, which the pro-legalization side can surely win. At the same time, we need to carry out a diplomatic offensive in Europe, Latin America, and in Anglosphere countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United States.

It’s simply not true that there is an international consensus in favor of prohibition; in practically every western country there are pressure groups (e.g. Drug Policy Alliance), prominent individuals (Richard Branson, Kofi Annan, Vicente Fox), and active politicians, such as the brilliant UK Conservative Daniel Hannan, who would support our efforts to end the drug war once and for all (certain countries such as Mexico may want to legalize at the same time as Colombia). Our diplomatic success, however, will depend on our diplomats’ skill; Colombian ambassadors can no longer be named based solely on their being the president’s chums!

Once we have won a referendum and gained diplomatic support for legalization, we can begin transferring funds from the military and from the taxation of cocaine sales and production — which should be regulated just as is the case of the tobacco and alcohol industries — towards education, prevention, and rehabilitation. This will ensure that we enjoy the same success as Portugal, where drug decriminalization has led to one of the lowest drug usage rates in the European Union, as the Cato Institute’s Glenn Greenwald has publicized.

My argument boils down to this: regardless of what President Santos expects, US and European policy-makers don’t make decisions based on the moral outrage of Colombian presidents. We simply can’t wait for other countries to solve our problems for us. We must act now and lead the charge to end the drug war, for legalization is the great, global civil liberties struggle of the 21st century, comparable to the abolition of slavery and the fight for universal suffrage.

Let this campaign, ladies and gentleman, be inspired by Epaminondas in Messenia.

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