The Case For Legalizing Colombian Cocaine Production

The war on drugs continues to feed the flames of violence in Colombia, even in this so-called 'post-conflict' period.

A file photo of a coca eradication raid in Colombia
Santiago Villa


BOGOTÁ — I was surprised, speaking some weeks ago with a police chief in the coca-growing region of Nariño, in southern Colombia. We were standing outside a roadside house daubed with the big black letters A.U.C., the initials of a notorious, disbanded, paramilitary force, the specter of which seems to persists like a nightmare.

But it wasn't the graffiti that caught my attention. In this new phase of war in Colombia, which optimists insist on calling post-conflict, with its splintered criminal gangs and dissolved authority, I am not surprised to see nostalgia for some old symbols of power. Some in that region are even calling themselves Black Eagles (Águilas Negras) — another disbanded militia that might, if criminals cared for intellectual property, take these people to court, or to task, for copyright violation or undue appropriation of its dismal brand.

No, I was surprised by the police major's response when, talking about the spiral of local violence, I asked what would happen if cocaine were legalized. "Well that would solve the problem," he said.

Cocaine should be, like coffee, an export product.

When the people we put on the frontline of the war on drugs see legalization as the solution, we need to seriously consider the moral consequences of continuing with this impossible conflict. Within the intuitive, debatable scale of sins, combating the production of drugs may well be more immoral than not doing it. The state, in forbidding the processing and sale of cocaine and the entire chain — from cultivation to exportation — is fomenting criminality. It is not the mafia's enemy but its accomplice.

I am convinced posterity will judge the war on drugs as one of the great stains of the 20th century, and deem Colombia to have been its great victim. We've been abducted by a war that isn't even own, but rather that of the consumer countries. And we're being extorted by firms and politicians who profit from the war on drugs. The only winners are the producers of arms and herbicides, of helicopters and supplies, the money launderers and prison administrators. There is an entire industry around fighting drug trafficking that makes the trafficking seem pedestrian in comparison, in its size and stakes. Therein lies the essential immorality of fighting the production, sale and consumption of cocaine.

Anti-Narcotics Police in Colombia — Photo: William Fernando Martinez

I realize it is somewhat deceptive to dub the fight against drug trafficking immoral as, strictly speaking, it is the trafficking that is illegal. But the trafficking emerged from the decision to outlaw the products now sold by gangs and the mafia. Cocaine should be, like coffee, an export product. Indeed its effects are very similar and in the 19th century, it was used in medicine.

Let us not fall into the false debate on legalizing certain psychoactive substances, but only for medical use. It would not solve the problem. What we must do as a society is accept its recreational use. If it is legal to consume cocaine on the street, how can its production and sale be illegal? Where do they think it came from?

What we must do as a society is accept its recreational use.

Almost nobody I have spoken to, from law enforcement officers to departmental governors and members of the public, disagrees with legalizing the production and sale of cocaine as the best solution for Colombia. The fear is that the United States will take punitive reprisals and its sanctions will send us into a Venezuelan-style abyss. But perhaps this is just the time to legalize cocaine, while Venezuela is in crisis. The United States surely wouldn't want to demolish our economy with Venezuela's in ruin. The region would break down, although with Donald Trump, who really knows ... He might be happy to send Colombia reeling, just to give it a slap in the face.

It might be more prudent to wait for the next administration, and forge alliances with European countries and multilateral institutions to enact legalization in a more secure framework. Maybe we could even enter into alliance with producer countries for a collective legalization, and see then if Uncle Sam would really dare try to punish us all. The problem, though, is that few of those countries really even care about the problem, as those in power do not suffer but rather benefit from it. We producers are all in the Third World where we shall remain, bleeding under prohibition's jackboot.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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