By Lauren Smith
Updated: 22 May 2023 & medically reviewed by Dr. Kimberly Langdon
Colombia’s new president Gustavo Petro has condemned the U.S.-funded War on Drugs as “irrational” and destructive and suggested his country may decriminalize and regulate cocaine, a major export.
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In his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, Petro illustrated the toll of the global crusade against drugs: “a million dead Latin Americans during 40 years… 70,000 North Americans dead by overdose each year… strengthened mafias and weakened states.”
The War on Drugs has also come at the expense of the rainforests that are, paradoxically, central to the environmental movement, he said. The U.S. has promoted and funded the eradication of coca plants, including the spraying of the herbicide glyphosate on crops.
Glyphosate, described by the World Health Organisation as “probably carcinogenic,” then leeches into waterways. Any “save the jungle speech” is therefore hypocritical, Petro said.
Despite the trillion dollars the U.S. has spent on the war on drugs since the Nixon administration, much of it in Colombia, the international drug trade is more powerful today even than in the heyday of cartel leader Pablo Escobar, he said.
“We need to construct a more effective path,” he added in an interview on the sidelines of the General Assembly.
Legalize small-scale coca crops
Petro has outlined a “phased decriminalization” in Colombia, which would begin by permitting campesinos—small-scale farmers—to legally grow coca. For many of these farmers, pushed off more fertile farmland and sent to jungle areas with poor soil, coca is the only economically viable crop.
Investment in rural communities would give families other means of survival.
The U.S. could also pay campesinos to act as stewards of the rainforest and not to cultivate coca, or anything else, there. This would bring “synergy” to the fight against drugs and deforestation and the climate crisis, Petro said.
Over the summer, the president unveiled an even more dramatic proposal: ending the prohibition of cocaine and starting a government-regulated, legal market for it. It’s unknown if he’s rowed back from that plan, which received a lukewarm reception from neighboring countries and contradicts U.S. policy in the region.
The U.S. must "curb demand at home"
Petro, a leftist and former guerrilla, represents a sharp break from decades of conservative government in Colombia and collaboration with the U.S.’s War on Drugs. Toeing in the U.S line in the region is a condition of billions of dollars of aid.
Even limited decriminalization of cocaine production would put Petro’s government on a collision course with the U.S.
However, Petro has laid much of the responsibility for the drug trade on consumer countries, saying nations like the U.S. must work to curb demand at home rather than violently suppressing production overseas.
Colombia is the source of 90% of the cocaine that ends up in the U.S.
Decriminalising limited cocaine production “doesn’t mean ending the American cocaine market, but it does mean taking Colombia out of this cycle of violence,” he said.