Colombia cocaine: Petro pursues decriminalization

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — It is the world’s largest cocaine producer, the source of more than 90 percent of the drug seized in the United States. It is home to the largest office of the Drug Enforcement Administration abroad. And for decades, it has been a key partner in Washington’s strategy. endless “war on drugs”.

Now, Colombia is calling for an end to that war. Instead, she wants to lead a global experiment: decriminalize cocaine.

Two weeks after taking office, The country’s first left-wing government proposes an end to “prohibition” and the start of a government-regulated cocaine market. Through legislation and alliances with other leftist governments in the region, officials in this South American nation hope to turn their country into a laboratory for drug decriminalization.

“It is time for a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed,” President Gustavo Petro said in his inaugural address this month.

It is a sea change in this historically conservative country, one that could upend its long and lucrative anti-narcotics relationship with the United States. US officials past and present are showing concern; the drug was responsible for Estimate 25,000 overdose deaths in the United States last year.

“The United States and the Biden administration are not supporters of decriminalization,” said Jonathan Finer, the White House deputy national security adviser, who met with Petro here before his inauguration.

A former DEA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his current the employer had not authorized him to speak on the matter, he said he feared the move would limit the agency’s ability to collaborate with Colombians in drug trafficking investigations.

“It would gradually kill cooperation,” he said. “It would be devastating, not just regionally, but globally. Everyone would be fighting from the outside in.”

Billions of US dollars have financed a strategy focused primarily on destroying the cocaine trade at its point of origin: the fields of rural Colombia. US training and intelligence have fueled Colombia’s military efforts for decades to eradicate coca, the base plant for cocaine, and dismantle drug-trafficking groups. And yet, more than half a century after President Richard M. Nixon declared drugs “number one public enemy of the United States”, Colombian trade has reached record levels. Coca cultivation has tripled in the last decade, according to US figures.

Felipe Tascón, Petro’s anti-drug czar, said Colombians intend to take advantage of an exceptional moment in which many key governments in the region, including cocaine-producing countries Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, are led by leftists.

In his first interview since being appointed to the post, the economist said he wants to meet with his counterparts in those countries to discuss decriminalization at the regional level. Eventually, he hopes a unified regional bloc can renegotiate the international drug conventions at the United Nations.

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Domestically, the Petro administration plans to back legislation to decriminalize cocaine and marijuana. He plans to end aerial spraying and manual eradication of coca, which critics say unfairly targets poor rural farmers. By regulating the sale of cocaine, Tascón argued, the government would take the market away from armed groups and cartels.

“Drug traffickers know that their business depends on it being prohibited,” said Tascón. “If you regulate it like a public market… the high profits disappear and drug trafficking disappears.”

His goal is to reframe his work not as “anti-narcotics” or “anti-drugs,” but as “drug policy.”

“The government program does not talk about the drug problem,” he said. “It talks about the problems that drug prohibition generates.”

Tascón has discussed his plans with his counterparts in Peru. Ricardo Soberón, head of Peru’s anti-drug agency DEVIDA, said it was too early to say whether Lima would support decriminalization, but that he would welcome a regional debate on new approaches. Petro could find an ally in Bolivia, where in the 2000s the Evo Morales government began allowing farmers to legally grow coca in limited quantities.

As America’s most important ally against cocaine, Colombia is an unlikely pioneer in decriminalizing it. But it is also the country that has suffered the most from the war on drugs. Tascón said that it is the country where the need for a new strategy is perhaps most urgent.

the The Colombian truth commission highlighted this point. The panel, appointed as part of the country’s 2016 peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, recommended in June that the government move toward “strict legal regulation of drugs.”

In a report, the commission said the militarized approach to drug trafficking has intensified fighting in a half-century of conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of Colombians.

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The Washington-based National Security Archive, an independent nonprofit organization, provided the commission with declassified documents showing that the US government knew its approach would lead to many years of bloodshed in Colombia.

“We see no possibility that the cultivation and trafficking of narcotics in Colombia could be suppressed and maintained in that way… without a bloody, costly and prolonged coercive effort,” said a 1983 national intelligence estimate provided to The Washington Post by the file.

“One way to prevent this war from happening again is to rethink the way we relate to coca and cocaine,” said Estefanía Ciro, who led drug policy investigators for the truth commission. “The important thing is not that there are markets or that there is coca, but the violence that the cocaine market produces.”

Finer, deputy national security adviser to Biden, said the Petro administration The drug policy approach overlaps with the holistic strategy that the Biden administration announced last year for Colombia. But not in decriminalization.

“Colombia is a sovereign country. You will make your own decisions,” she said. “This is a relationship that is bigger and broader than just our cooperation and our collaboration in the fight against drugs.”

A delegation of US officials, including the deputy secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, plan to meet with Petro administration officials here next week.

USAID Administrator Samantha Power, who attended the Petro’s inauguration here, said US officials “have clearly heard [his] message.”

Jim Crotty, a former DEA deputy chief of staff, argued that a legal cocaine trade “is not going to end the illegal trade.”

“As we have seen before in Colombia and elsewhere, there is always someone to fill that void,” Crotty said.

Colombians are currently allowed to carry small amounts of marijuana and cocaine. But the proposed legislation intends to go much further, decriminalizing and regulating its use.

Cocaine decriminalization will face an uphill battle in a divided Congress. Bringing the debate to the international stage will be even more difficult.

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But it is a discussion that Latin America has already had, about marijuana. In 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the production and sale of recreational cannabis.

“We have to open the debate and break the taboo,” said Milton Romani, who served as secretary general of Uruguay’s national drug board. “It may be a long road, but I don’t think it’s impossible.”

Colombia would have the “moral authority” to lead this effort, he said, “because a lot of people have died for this.”

Mellington Cortes has seen this bloodshed firsthand.

In 2017, he was one of hundreds of coca farmers who gathered in Nariño department to protest forced coca eradication by security forces, when police began shooting into the crowd. A shot hit him. Another killed his brother, one of the seven protesters who died that day. The murders are still under investigation.

The 45-year-old man continues to grow coca, which pays more than double the $130 a month he earned as a driver.

“It is no secret to anyone that we grow coca to survive, to support our families, our children,” Cortés said. “There are no other resources here. They have forgotten us.

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