Colombia’s New President Wants to End the Drug War. Can He Succeed?

    President Gustavo Petro of Colombia was sworn in on August 7. And he devoted much of his inauguration speech to the harms of the drug war in Colombia and worldwide.

    “It is time for a new international convention that accepts that the drug war has failed, which has left a million murdered Latin Americans during these 40 years,” he said. “The War on Drugs strengthened the mafias and weakened the states.”

    “The War on Drugs has led states to commit crimes and has evaporated the horizon of democracy,” he continued. “Are we going to expect that another million Latin Americans will be murdered and that the number of deaths from overdoses in the United States will rise to 200,000 every year? Or rather, will we exchange failure for a success that allows Colombia and Latin America to live in peace?”

    Petro’s election as Colombia’s first leftist president is highly significant. Even before taking office, he has shown his willingness to try a new, progressive approach to drug policy. He’s questioned the policy of extraditing suspected drug traffickers and bringing them to trial on US soil. He’s shown support for legalizing cannabis and cocaine, and opposed the policy of destroying coca crops in rural regions for fueling conflict between farmers and the military. He also wants to negotiate peace with armed insurgent groups like ELN, in a conflict that’s tied to the drug trade.

    “He’s the principal president in Latin America speaking out so boldly. We don’t have that kind of leadership coming out of Mexico, Peru, Brazil or Chile. Hopefully he can spark a broader debate.”

    To better understand President Petro’s potential impact, Filter spoke with Ethan Nadelmann, the founder and former director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Nadelmann authored the 1993 book Cops Across Borders: The Internationalization of US Criminal Law Enforcement. While leading DPA, he engaged in drug policy talks with a number of Latin American presidents. More recently, he has continued those conversations on his Psychoactive podcast, interviewing former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.


    Alexander Lekhtman: How much does Petro’s inauguration speech matter?

    Ethan Nadelmann: It’s not surprising, but it is significant. Petro has been a supporter of harm reduction and drug policy reform for many years. He’s been quite outspoken about the failures of the drug war and the need to push for alternatives. He’s talked about the need to regulate marijuana more broadly. He’s talked about different policies with respect to coca eradication, so not spraying the fields with chemicals that can be dangerous to human beings. He’s talked about broader decriminalization, and he’s floated the idea about more creative ways to legally regulate drugs like cocaine.

    It is significant because he’s currently the principal president in Latin America speaking out so boldly for reform. We don’t have that kind of leadership coming out of Mexico, Peru, Brazil or Chile. Hopefully he can spark a broader debate in Latin America.


    What real steps can Petro take to change the course of drug policy in Colombia?

    I think he has executive authority with respect to coca eradication efforts. He can say we’re not going to be spraying these crops. Unlike in Bolivia and Peru, where you have legally sanctioned coca growing to fulfill the indigenous need, Colombia has never had that. There’s a number of steps he can take on the coca front to manage the legal protection of coca.

    With respect to cannabis, he is well positioned to lead the way in Congress for Colombia to fully legalize cannabis. I don’t know how the votes line up, but he can make Colombia the big first country in Latin America to legally regulate the cannabis industry—with due acknowledgement of Uruguay’s pioneering role a decade ago.

    “I think we’ve now reached a point, even before Petro got elected, where nobody seriously believes you can curtail the flow of drugs from Latin America.”

    When it comes to a broader decriminalization of drug possession, he could push forward on legislation on that front.

    But then there’s the role he could play internationally. He could become an advocate for this at the Organization of American States. He could play a role in the United Nations in pushing for this. He could make this an issue he discusses with other Latin American leaders.


    What options does Petro have for more humanely addressing organized crime?

    The truth is that’s always the bugaboo for any president. The only way to deprive the “narcos” of their major drug trafficking business is to essentially have a legally regulated system. The same thing that put Al Capone and others of his ilk out of business—it was moving from a system of prohibition to legal regulation. Even there, as we’ve seen, it takes many years before the market moves fully from the illicit side to the legally regulated side.

    [But] I think we’ve now reached a point, even before Petro got elected, where nobody seriously believes you can curtail the flow of drugs from Latin America. Everybody understands it’s a fool’s errand.

    Simply keeping it illegal and having a minimal level of enforcement ensures the price is higher for consumers in the US. Beyond that, any extra money that’s spent on interdiction and enforcement has virtually no impact on the availability or nature of drugs in the US.

    The choice Petro must make is how does he want to deal with the organizations that are profiting from drug trafficking, which span the spectrum from the leftist guerrilla organization ELN to right-wing paramilitary groups.

    My recommendation to a lot of Latin American leaders is, don’t focus on trying to suppress the production or traffic of drugs. The real priority needs to be on minimizing the violence and corruption associated with an illicit market that cannot be effectively suppressed.


    Petro did talk in his speech about “strong prevention of consumption.” How does that strike you, and how can his government improve public health and treatment approaches to drug use?

    With respect to those people who are using drugs and not creating any problems for themselves or others, they should just be left alone.

    Europe has provided a good model with their harm reduction, innovative drug treatment, social welfare and safety net. Colombia doesn’t have the wealth of those countries. But simply ensuring that they’re not replicating the abstinence-only ideologies we see in the US, and putting whatever funds they have towards science-based interventions, will make the biggest difference.

    “I think he needs to be smart about the rhetoric he employs, and address people’s concerns about public safety.”

    One thing to watch out for in Colombia is that a lot of what passes for drug treatment are actually programs provided by evangelical churches. And some of these churches are doing some good work and helping people put a drug problem behind them. But some of them are being utterly reckless. They can be highly punitive. Sometimes it’s basically having people live somewhere where they’re practically slave labor, and all of drug treatment involves getting some religious sermons a few days a week.


    How can Petro pursue these more progressive policies while making sure the country’s voters continue to support him?

    There’s no magic solution. One has to make sure that you don’t see Petro making the right moves on drug policy, but because some problems are just insoluble you see the public swing in the other direction and support a “War on Drugs” approach again.

    I think he needs to be smart about the rhetoric he employs, and address people’s concerns about public safety. The important thing for him to do now is build up as much support as possible in the political center of Colombia, so he can be reelected and his progressive policies persist beyond him.



    Photograph of President Petro at his inauguration by USAID US Agency for International Development via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

    Correction, August 9: This article has been edited to clarify some of Nadelmann’s comments.

    DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to suppport a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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