The Biden administration and Colombia's new government seem to agree on the need for a new approach to drugs policy. But will they be able to find support in their countries to forge a new strategy?
BOGOTÁ - Some early directives by Colombia's new president Gustavo Petro suggest he sees the 2016 peace accords with the The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as failed or at best unfinished. Founded in 1964, FARC, the armed wing of the Communist Party, have been fighting the longest-running armed insurgency in the Western hemisphere.
Signed in 2016 under former president Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, the accords were meant to bring peace to the country, yet that peace has been patchy. This is not because another communist guerrilla force in the country, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has refused to join the peace arrangements, nor is it because of the last government's failure to implement the accord.
The problem clearly concerns drug trafficking, which has continued unperturbed since 2016. While drug use remains illegal, drug trafficking, which has long helped FARC fund its insurgency, will always be highly profitable and foment violence. So is it time to decriminalize drug use?
It is difficult to establish whether it was civil war in Colombia that fueled drug production in the twentieth century, or the other way around, or whether both fed each other. It may even be pointless trying to establish this because the important point is to see what we can do in present conditions.
After a half-century of the U.S.-led war on drugs, its failure is all too evident. Drugs and trafficking are also behind the continued killing of social and community leaders, unarmed civilians and members of the armed forces under Colombia's current government.
Growing demand, changing policies
Nobody could be upset then by the United States and Colombia exploring different solutions, in view of the failure of past strategies. As drug use and violence increase in Colombia, clinics, hospitals and morgues in the United States are in turn packed with their own victims of addiction or shootings. A recent UN report on drugs found that demand for drugs grew 26% in the past 10 years. This means 284 million users or 5.6% of the world's population.
A change of policies is presently at an exploratory stage.
The report also contains the findings of executing different drugs policies. In regions where marijuana consumption was legalized, while users did increase, violence and hospitalizations relating to marijuana fell. The voluntary eradication of drug crops clearly yields more lasting and positive results than forced eradication. Prevention budgets are still tentative and small in less-developed countries, which is the case in Colombia.
The governments of the United States and Colombia seem to agree the war on drugs has failed, and have similar visions for other priorities like the environment and income redistribution. But they have yet to reach formal agreements or define alternative joint policies. The head of the U.S. National Drug Control Policy, Rahul Gupta, has called for new, "holistic" and more caring, anti-narcotic policies, but his comments so far are general and insufficient. His calls on the Justice Department to coordinate a new drug strategy with the Petro government confirm that, as in Colombia, a change of policies is presently at an exploratory stage.
A recent UN report on drugs found that demand for drugs grew 26% in the past 10 years
Traffickers like ambiguity
Meanwhile, problems caused by drugs continue to afflict Colombians as a daily part of their lives. Colombia's defense ministry is to take new actions to contribute to "total peace" in the country, reflecting the government's new direction. But these are not yet part of a systematic policy. The old policies are being dismantled, but Colombians are not sure what will take their place. The only people pleased with a period of ambiguity are drug traffickers.
In terms of a convergence of good ideas, this would be the best time to transform the failed war on drugs. A new Plan Colombia, financed by the United States and the European Union and focusing on environmental issues and crop substitution, would be more likely to achieve "total peace".
Banning drug use has been shown to be ineffective and costly, not to mention fueling the drugs trade. We now have conditions for considering other options, which will in turn have to cross some political filters. One, notably, is the coming congressional elections in the United States, which will be decisive for Biden and any accord he may envisage with Colombia.