By Rodrigo Uprimny, AGENCIA PRENSA RURAL, March 15, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
These “alternatives in prohibition” are therefore an effort to bring the perspective of “reducing the harm”, which is used to deal with consumption, to the fields where coca is produced and to the trafficking of coca. These strategies are not seeking to reduce consumption at all costs, but rather to reduce its damage, like, for example, distributing clean syringes to avoid HIV infection. A similar vision for trafficking would not seek to reduce the size of trafficking at all costs, but rather to reduce the harm it does.
In my last column, I maintained that in order to make progress in the peace, we have to undertake a double strategy. On the one hand, we have to fight along with other countries to put an end to prohibition, because that global framework for confronting drug abuse is both wrong and unfair. Colombia must find “alternatives to prohibition”. But in the short run, the international prohibition of cocaine is going to remain, and Colombia can’t change that unilaterally. Neither can we expect that prohibition will be abandoned some day. Therefore, on the other hand, we also need to look for “alternatives to prohibition.”
The essential idea of this second strategy consists in trying to reduce the worst impacts of the drug traffic in terms of violence and corruption, but keeping two things clearly in mind: 1) that prohibition doesn’t solve, but rather aggravates the problems of drug abuse, so that in fighting the drug traffic we are not on a crusade against drugs, but rather confronting our security problems, and 2) that it’s unrealistic to think of a reduction in the size of the drug traffic, because the experience of more than 40 years has demonstrated that prohibition does not limit the supply or the traffic of prohibited substances.
This strategy may seem cynical, as it adheres to a policy that it criticizes as harmful and unjust, as prohibition is; but in reality, it’s a tragic pragmatism. We accept, at least temporarily, these prohibitionist regulations because we can’t change them unilaterally, but we avoid making a virtue of that necessity. These “alternatives to prohibition” are in themselves an effort to take it to the countryside where the drugs are produced, and to bring to the traffic the perspective of “harm reduction” in the way we use for consumption. These strategies don’t seek to reduce consumption at all costs, but rather the damage it does, for example, distributing clean syringes to avoid HIV infections. A similar vision in the face of the traffic doesn’t seek at all costs to reduce the size of the drug traffic, but to minimize the damage it does.
The traffic in drugs, because it is an enormously profitable criminal economy, always implies the risk of violence. However, the levels of violence associated with drug trafficking vary a great deal, and this doesn’t only depend on the size of the illegal market, as was highlighted very well in a recent column by Gustavo Duncan. The same levels of drug trafficking and illegal plantings could generate violence of very different degrees of seriousness. For example, Bolivia has never suffered violence as intense as ours, even at the times when they had illegal plantings and extents of trafficking the same as Colombia in relation to their economy. Some people associate that difference to the pre-existing armed conflict in Colombia and to the fact that Bolivia in the ‘70’s had an extensive agrarian reform that Colombia has not had.
At least two variables could explain these differences in the intensity of the violence tied to drug trafficking: 1) the sociopolitical contexts, as is suggested by the comparison between Colombia and Bolivia, and 2) the kind of government response to drug trafficking. In effect, there is clear evidence that, at least at the local level, the legal and Police strategies of “focused dissuasion” and “selective action” explicitly try to reduce the violence in the drug business, instead of trying at all costs to eliminate or reduce the size of the business This was demonstrated in the so-called “Boston miracle”, which managed, in the mid ’90’s, to drastically reduce the murders associated with drug trafficking in the city. Because of its importance, I will deal with these strategies of “selective action” in the next columns.