A controversial bill proposing the legalization of the coca leaf and its derivatives, such as cocaine, is gaining traction in Colombia, with some hoping a radical government shake-up under incoming president Gustavo Petro may favor the measures.
The bill, first proposed in August 2020, outlines plans for Colombia to regulate the coca trade by directly buying coca harvests from growers in the communities hardest hit by decades of drug-related armed conflict. It also contains provisions that would allow the government to set a legal market price for the coca leaf.
Though a controversial idea in a country that has long tackled the cocaine trade with force, the bill has already gained some political backing. In April 2021, it received unanimous support from the Colombia Senate's First Commission (Comisión Primera del Senado) – a government body involved in the approval of new legal proposals.
Since then, the bill has been in political limbo, with no subsequent debates or votes. But with the recent election of Gustavo Petro – the country's first leftist leader whose stance on drugs radically differs to his predecessors – some hope the bill could pass after the new president takes office in August.
Though Petro's exact position on coca legalization was not clear during his election campaign, in the past he has strongly backed the legalization of marijuana and has also proposed using cannabis as part of a broad program for substituting coca crops.
To get to grips with the proposed bill, InSight Crime spoke to Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a British non-profit that recently published a guide on regulating stimulants with a range of proposals for coca and cocaine regulation specifically adapted for Colombia's coca legalization bill.
InSight Crime (IC): How likely is it that the coca leaf and coca derivatives regulation bill will be passed in Colombia? Why is the bill important?
Steve Rolles (SR): The bill was an opposition bill and the government of President Iván Duque was opposed to it. Statements made by Petro in the past show that he has been very critical of the war on drugs and [he has shown] an openness to drug law reform. His vice president [Francia Márquez], has tweeted about the need to regulate drugs, and she wasn’t just speaking about cannabis. Certainly, senators in their party [Colombia Humana] have embraced the bill. So, I don’t know what the prospects for it are, but they are certainly better now than they were under the past government.
But whether the bill passes or not – it was tabled at the national assembly [and] garnered significant support in the Senate – it included a set of serious and credible proposals. It has changed the nature of the debate in Colombia and globally around coca and cocaine regulation. It broke through a taboo in the drug policy debate, namely looking at serious proposals for regulation for drugs other than cannabis. And, even if this bill fails, I suspect it will have set the stage for a similar bill to follow. It may be a modified version of this bill that would just focus on coca leaf and not cocaine regulation.
It reminds me a bit of Uruguay's efforts to legalize cannabis back in 2012 and 2013, which were ground-breaking not just within Uruguay, but globally. They opened a much wider debate around cannabis regulation across the world. That was only ten years ago, and now we have jurisdictions on every continent legalizing cannabis. I think possibly what is happening now in Colombia could herald a similar change.
IC: Why do you think coca and cocaine regulation is the way to go in Colombia?
SR: Colombia has been at the epicenter of the war on drugs for decades now. Colombia, and other countries in the region, have fought the war on drugs, at the behest of the global north. It has also borne the heaviest burden of the failures of the war on drugs.
If you look at what drives the drug law reform debate in Europe, it’s much more around health, addiction and drug-related deaths. In Latin America, the security crisis related to the illegal drug market is what seems to be driving the debate.
It bears repeating how destabilizing the illegal cocaine market has been in Colombia, in terms of empowering organized crime and armed groups, fueling conflict and violence, fueling corruption and undermining good governance. It has resulted in the displacement of people, environmental damage and hundreds of thousands of deaths.
At some point, the crisis becomes so bad, that alternatives start to become viable. While conspicuously riskier than cannabis, most of the same arguments apply for cocaine. These include the historic failure of the war on drugs, the need to pragmatically deal with drug use and accepting that responsibly managed markets are going to deliver better outcomes than the chaos, carnage and corruption that always accompany illegal drug markets. In that context, regulation starts to have some traction.
It’s been really interesting to see how well the bill has been received. Former [Colombian] president Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) has talked about it. He has since joined the Global Commission on Drug Policy and has been much more outspoken on the need for regulation. He has supported the bill.
IC: This bill aims to take control of drug markets away from organized crime groups. Do you believe the proposal can achieve in this objective in Colombia?
SR: This bill is not going to disempower organized crime groups. The bill only proposes a pilot legal cocaine market in Colombia. This would be a small fraction of the total cocaine market, as the vast majority of cocaine is exported. I don’t think the bill's drafters are suggesting this would end the war on drugs or disempower the cartels to a significant extent. It’s more like a proof of concept. What they want this bill to do is to show what is possible.
If Colombia can demonstrate a viable model for supplying cocaine in a responsible way to adult users, and there wasn’t some kind of public health catastrophe or spike in addiction or deaths related to cocaine, it would start a process that other countries could build on. If you want to disempower the cocaine cartels in Colombia, you would have to legalize cocaine in North America and Europe. Obviously, that is some time away. So, I don’t want to overplay what this bill can achieve. Cocaine legalization on a global scale would certainly have a significant impact in terms of shrinking the power and wealth of the cartels.
IC: Does the legalization and regulation of coca and its derivatives necessarily mean that the black market will disappear in Colombia?
The illegal cocaine market is worth somewhere between $100 and $200 billion. If you could reduce that by even a small percentage, that’s still a big win. Our view is that illegal drug markets are here whether we like it or not and we have a pragmatic choice to make. We can either regulate those markets within a legitimate economy, or you can leave it in the hands of dealers and organized crime groups. There is no third option in which those markets disappear or the war on drugs can be declared as won.
IC: What is your response to those who say that cocaine is a public health and national security risk?
SR: I would separate those two things. The health risks are associated with [drug] use and the security problems are associated with the illegal market. Would more people use cocaine if it were legalized? This is an argument that has come up at every stage of drug law reform debates. The prohibitionist line has always been that, if you remove controls, more people will use those drugs. But that has not been the case.
The Netherlands has had de facto legal cannabis for decades, and has similar or lower levels of use to neighboring European countries. States in the US that have legalized cannabis haven’t seen divergent patterns in use from neighboring states yet to legalize [the drug].
There is a misunderstanding that, if you legalize these drugs, they will suddenly become available. But they are available now, despite prohibition. The illegal drug market has been incredibly successful at meeting demand for drugs, and demand has been going up despite prohibition. So, it is not really a question of drugs being available under legalization. The difference is that the availability would be regulated.
IC: How would a regulated market work?
SR: There are different ways you could do it. You could have a laissez-faire commercialized market, where cocaine would be a branded product that could be advertised, with lifestyle advertising, sponsorship, and celebrity endorsements like we have seen with alcohol. If you did that, I’m sure cocaine use would go up.
But the Colombian coca bill talks about unbranded products and a complete ban on all promotion, branding and marketing [for cocaine]. It would effectively create a state monopoly that would remove the kind of commercial incentives to increase use. Sales from pharmacy-type outlets to adults would be rationed and the packaging would have health warnings on it, and the people that buy the product would be advised on risks, addictions and harm reduction, and we don’t have any of that in the illegal market when you buy a little bag of cocaine from a street dealer. You don’t have any idea about how pure it is, you don’t get health advice from your dealer.
It’s entirely possible that the health risks would go down. People would use [cocaine] more responsibly, the products themselves would be safer and we could invest some of the money that we spend on enforcement and the war on drugs into public health programs, drug risk education, prevention, and treatment programs.
IC: Can Colombia pass the bill while still adhering to the United Nations' policies on drugs?
SR: The coca leaf, and more obviously cocaine, are prohibited under the UN Conventions on Drug Control. However, with coca leaf, there is a kind of constitutional loophole which states that, if the UN treaties go against a member state’s constitution, then [it may be granted] an exemption. That’s basically what Bolivia did. They withdrew from the conventions and reacceded with permission for the traditional use of coca, so they didn’t violate the letter of the conventions with their coca legalization program.
Colombia is a little bit murkier. Colombia does have a constitutional argument for the traditional use of coca in indigenous cultures. But it doesn’t have the same legal standing. While things like chewing coca leaves or using them to make tea is negotiable within the UN conventions, cocaine production is not. If Colombia established a legal cocaine market, as this bill proposes, it would make the country non-compliant with its treaty obligations.
Dealing with that is tricky. Colombia could just withdraw from the treaties altogether, but that would undermine the wider UN treaty system. They could withdraw and reaccede with a permission for cocaine, but I don’t think this would be granted. One option might be to form a regional bloc of Andean countries and modify the treaties together, which is allowed.
IC: Do you want to add any final points?
SR: The coca leaf market is actually, in physical terms, really small. Based on UNODC [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] figures, you could grow enough coca to supply the entire global cocaine market in a 14 square mile area. Compare that to coffee or tea production which is hundreds of times greater in terms of cultivation area, but worth about the same as the coca leaf and cocaine market.
The only reason the market is worth so much money is because of prohibition. Cocaine costs pennies to manufacture and sells for [colossal amounts] by the time it reaches global markets. That markup in cost is in part a result of prohibition, which is driving the market, creating these enormous profits for organized crime groups, which in turn creates incentives for corruption and violence.