EL COLOMBIANO, December 20, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Petro doesn’t want the money coming through international cooperation to finance the war on drugs, but rather for “economic transformation programs”.
Long before he arrived at the Presidential Palace, Gustavo Petro has been talking—in different settings—about the failure of the war on drugs, and about the need for a “paradigm shift” in the struggle against the illegal economies. Now, as President, his statements acquire a different shade, and his every affirmation—related to the regulation and decriminalization of coca, opium poppies or cannabis—makes it evident that his purpose is to legalize certain drugs, in spite of the fact that he doesn’t say that directly.
The President’s most recent statement shows that, and it lays out a detailed and strategic road map that his administration itself has outlined, to begin not just introducing but leading the discussion of the war on drugs at local and international levels.
It’s a plan that began to take shape just two months after the United Nations revealed that the hectares planted in coca in Colombia have increased from 143,000, in 2020, to 204,000, in 2021. That means a scandalous increase of 43%. That increased the potential for producing cocaine from 1,228 tons in 2020, to 1,400 last year.
From Catatumbo—the region with the second most hectares of coca, only outdone by Pacifico—Petro set off the controversy about “allowing campesinos to keep planting coca while they are trying out their substitute crop, to see how the substitute crop works”. This was because the communities had asked for a re-focus on the treatment of the problem, stressing that they are “the weakest link, the one that earns the least and involves the greatest number of people,” as the Committee for Social Integration in Catatumbo had argued.
According to the President, it’s not “permitting cocaine”, but rather favoring “gradualness” in the changing of economies, trying to strike the owners of the narco-crops without attacking the communities, and trying to encompass other fronts like the supplies, or the marketing of chloral-hydrate of cocaine.
Every one of those points has a clear purpose: to position—in settings like the UN—Petro’s posture on regulation and on the paradigm shift “which could assemble global volition and that of Latin America toward a coordinated international agenda,” as he made clear in his administration’s plan. What are the steps he has taken in that direction?
The first step is to decriminalize certain drugs.
When barely a month had passed in the new administration, Petro authorized the now-Director of the Program for the Voluntary Substitution of Plantings for Illegal Use (PNIS), Felipe Tascón, to talk like his anti-drug czar in an interview with The Washington Post. In the interview, Tascón started offering details of the plan and revealed that “the Petro administration plans to support legislation to decriminalize cocaine and marijuana.”
As Tascón explained, the first step is to end aerial fumigation, as well as manual eradication of coca. “The drug traffickers know that their business depends on its being prohibited. If you regulate it, like other public markets, their high profits will disappear and drug trafficking will disappear,” he explained, pointing out that the Petro administration’s program “does not talk about the drug problem, but rather about the problems generated by the prohibition of drugs.”
They want cocaine to generate tax revenue.
In the middle of October, the Director of DIAN (Colombia’s National Tax and Customs Authority), Luis Carlos Reyes, made a surprise and controversial proposal in line with Petro’s idea of legalizing cocaine. Not only would he legalize it, but would also tax it, sending the message of the “benefits” of a legal market.
“We have to legalize (and tax) cocaine. And we have to penalize the VIP tax evaders, who cost the government between 40 billón pesos (roughly USD $8,370,000,000 at today’s exchange rates) and 80 billón pesos (roughly USD $16,750,000,000 at today’s exchange rates) every year. The way things are in Colombia, we would not have caught Al Capone either for being a mobster or for being a tax evader,” said Reyes.
They would allow coca plantings.
While Petro was talking about regularization, his officials were starting to do the same, and on August 21, the Minister of Justice, Néstor Osuna, told this newspaper that “you have to think of the legal uses for coca and cannabis, and regulate them in greater detail than they are regulated now.”
Osuna said that he wants to offer access to productivity and the production and marketing of food crops, “that would permit the growers to exchange those plantings for ones that are also economically viable and environmentally sustainable.”
In doing that, you have to keep in mind that a campesino, on average, can sell 25 pounds of yuca for 30,000 pesos (roughly USD $6.25 at today’s exchange rates) while 25 pounds of coca brings 50,000 pesos (roughly USD $10.50 at today’s exchange rates).
Treat consumption, don’t attack it.
The administration has also tried to tone down and guide the discussion of the problems around drugs, insisting that consumption is a public health problem more than a criminal matter. They add the idea of emphasizing the negative health effects of chemicals like glyphosate. “Glyphosate will not be used to fumigate plantings; there is a very clear order by the Constitutional Court, which this administration will comply with. In addition, there are sufficient environmental, sanitation, and economic arguments for avoiding the use of that product,” said the Justice Minister.
An international crusade in search of support.
Last August, Felipe Tascón admitted that the administration was seeking to take advantage of the fact that producer countries like Perú and Bolivia were governed by leftist leaders who promoted the discussion of decriminalization of cocaine. That means, they could make up a unified regional bloc to “renegotiate the international conventions on drugs in the United Nations.”
In fact, in September before the General Assembly, Petro described the war on drugs as “irrational”, and in October he gave another push for his idea of restating the focus when he presented his plan to Joe Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, at the Presidential Palace, and Blinken gave it a decisive wink.
In his visit, the U.S. Secretary of State said he would “actively support the holistic focus that President Petro is adopting through justice, development, environmental protection, and the reduction of supply and demand.”