After Colombia’s Election, What Are the Prospects for Better Drug Policy?

June 29, 2022

Colombia’s federal election this month brought victory for Gustavo Petro, who is seen as the first left-winger to win the office. During the campaign, Petro and his right-wing rival, Rodolfo Hernández, offered the nation two notably different takes on drug policy.

Petro promised to shift traditional plantations of coca leaf—the raw plant material from which cocaine is derived—towards growing legalized cannabis, and claimed that he would begin working to export Colombian-grown cannabis to other countries, such as the United States and various European nations.

Meanwhile, Hernández proposed giving free drugs to “addicts,” as a means to end endemic violence associated with drug trafficking in the country.

A move to provide free, regulated substances to people with addiction—such as prescribed heroin programs in Switzerland or safe supply programs in Canada—would often be seen as a key harm reduction strategy. However, experts in Latin America say that Hernández’s platform item lacked understanding of Colombia’s situation. And while they have mixed views on President-elect Petro’s platform, they see real potential in his victory.

Almost all of Colombia’s cocaine is exported. As such, giving drugs away wouldn’t be likely to address the violence.

Safe supply programs are often considered a step towards destigmatizing people who use drugs. However, Julian Quintero, executive director of Colombian harm reduction organization Acción Técnica Social, wrote in an email to Filter that Hernández’s proposal failed to do that. Hernández labeled the proposed recipients of his program “drug addicts”—a stigmatizing term. And his policy, Quintero pointed out, ignored the fact that the large majority of people who use drugs in Colombia, like anywhere in the world, don’t experience addiction.

According to Quintero, less than 2 percent of the drugs produced in Colombia, which remains the world’s biggest producer of coca leaf and cocaine, end up being consumed there. Almost all of Colombia’s cocaine is exported. As such, giving drugs away wouldn’t be likely to address the violence produced by the prohibition of the country’s drug trade. Additionally, Quintero wrote, Hernández never explicitly said where the drugs to be given away would come from—the strategy was poorly thought-out.

Diego García-Devis is the team manager for the drug policy portfolio at the Open Society Foundations’ Latin America Program. He said that a right-wing politician labeling prohibition as the main driver of many of the issues Colombia faces should be seen as a step in the right direction—as should Petro’s policies. However, Hernández’s idea of giving away free drugs was ultimately “very shallow—only the formulation of an idea that obviously is missing many, many layers within the complex drug phenomenon,” he told Filter. “It’s no more than a headline. He is still reducing and simplifying drug users only as ‘addicts.’”

Like Quintero, García-Devis noted that Colombia is “not a consumer country,” and that drug use within it remains low compared to North American and some European countries, or compared to Colombia’s consumption of legal substances like tobacco and alcohol.

Quintero finds Petro’s proposals more realistic. He wrote that Petro acknowledges that the drug war has failed; that marijuana use should be legalized (instead of decriminalized, as it is now); and that there needs to be a focus on harm reduction and public health. He also noted that Petro seems to recognize the need to work with other American countries, especially the US, to change drug policies across the two continents.

Petro also previously tried different drug policy approaches as mayor of Colombia’s capital, Bogota, in the early-to-mid 2010s. For instance, he set up mobile units to provide medical assistance and medications to people who use drugs.

“If we’re not ready to move forward … we’re going to repeat the same formula.”

According to Garcia-Devis, ideal drug policy for Colombia would include both legalized and regulated cannabis, and finding new ways to use coca leaf—such as in medicinal applications—rather than telling farmers to change their crops. Although the latter policy wasn’t part of Petro’s platform, there has been some speculation that he could end up supporting an existing bill in Colombia’s legislature to legalize and regulate coca and cocaine.

The government should also support harm reduction approaches such as syringe programs and safe consumption sites, García-Devis said. He continued that detentions, killings and extraditions of alleged members of drug trafficking organizations—at present, Colombia’s primary responses to organized cocaine production and trade—should end. Rather, the emphasis should be on demobilization, disarmament and reintegration programs.

García-Devis added that the country should also focus on rural development, rather than going in and destroying cocaine crops, which harms farming communities and can lead to violent clashes with security forces. This would necessitate a change in Colombia’s relations with the US, which has been heavily involved in eradication efforts on Colombian soil.

“If we’re not ready to move forward … we’re going to repeat the same formula,” he said.



Photograph via PxHere/Public Domain

The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has previously received a restricted grant from the Open Society Foundations to support the promotion of the film Liquid Handcuffs.

Doug Johnson

Doug is a writer, editor and journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark Magazine, New Scientist and Hakai, among others. He lives in Alberta, Canada.

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