Strategies of Balance: A Brief Analysis of Colombia’s War on Drugs

The 1970s saw the birth of organized drug mafias in Colombia which quickly led to a massive rise in crime, arms conflict, and domestic violence. Since then, these issues have ravaged the country and largely defined Colombia as a narco-state to the rest of the world. With many speculating that the classic war on drugs has failed, the question about which alternative strategy would succeed is far too complex to answer. However, there’s one potential strategy that some believe could be an important first step in tilting the war on drugs in Colombia’s favour — drug regulation. 

A bill to legalize cannabis for recreational and medical purposes among adults was approved in the Colombian Senate’s first debate. Senator Gustavo Bolívar, who supported the motion, said that the primary reason for passing the bill was to provide the flagging economy with an impetus to grow. Secondly, it was passed in the belief that regulation would affect the income of drug cartels, thus providing an alternative to current strategies. Bolívar emphasized that the bill was written with the support of victims and grassroots organizations, and that there was no link found between legalization and increased consumption.

Although the bill is pending approvals from the Plenary and the House of Representatives, it has already invoked resistance from Colombia’s largely conservative population. José Jaime Uscátegui, a member of the House, pointed out that since there are over 2000 acres of illegal crops in Colombia that are not cannabis but cocaine, therefore, legalizing cannabis would not resolve the current arms conflicts. He further reflected on the experiences of Canada and Uruguay, where having a legal market for cannabis has not dissolved illegal markets.

Should the consumption of cannabis increase, whether it’s legal or not, supporters of the bill would prefer that the public accesses high quality marijuana. Illegal marijuana can easily be laced with other drugs such as Bazuco that are more harmful to human health and can create a dependency. 

However, there could be more troubling consequences. Uscátegui is worried that the bill communicates a false message to young people — that consuming substances with the potential to greatly harm their health has social approval. 

A Colombian psychiatrist warns that among the many health problems caused by consuming cannabis, the most serious concern is the mental illnesses that are triggered by the action of phytocannabinoids on the central nervous system. He also points out that when a substance is legalized, it only enables traffickers to direct their propaganda and increase illicit drug intake, thus causing more harm. 

Interestingly, Senator Bolívar himself said that Canada was among the countries that helped break down some of the resistance to legalization, and was their main reference while writing the bill. He has, however, failed to recognize the two notable contrasts between Colombia and Canada.

First, the obvious cultural difference between the two countries suggests different outcomes. It is easier for Canada to make this decision, considering it has a much lower homicide rate, more resources to ensure regulations are followed and more money for healthcare when drugs are misused. 

Second is the difference in legislation between the countries. Being a unitary country, all of Colombia will be under the same rulebook and although a few states may benefit from such a bill, the majority of communities will not.

Uscátegui expects transparency from Canada and other developed countries when it comes to the legalization policy. Indeed, Canada may be able to control the flow of illicit drugs and therefore find it useful. However, the stakes are much higher in Colombia. 

Uscátegui also emphasized that there must be a relationship between law, culture, moral and ethics. If a society doesn’t want drugs in their lives, imposing a law that determines they can consume those drugs is not a favour. Moreover, as the psychiatrist highlighted, judicial and educational aspects should be addressed, including training in values that promote an understanding that substances increase suffering and are not a solution to it.

Clearly, the issues raised invoke the need for a larger societal change. One that may not be fixed or even started by a single bill. A more well-researched and targeted approach is perhaps the most ideal strategy in ably equipping Colombia’s next generation to help them overcome the overwhelming presence of drugs and to avert its disastrous consequences in their lives.  

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