Colombia’s lawmakers are debating how to regulate cocaine. Here’s what we know about decriminalization

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents unload a truck containing 3,200 pounds of cocaine in 60 packages in Newark in February 2019. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection/AP)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents unload a truck containing 3,200 pounds of cocaine in 60 packages in Newark in February 2019. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection/AP)

A wave of protests calling for President Iván Duque to implement the peace process swept Colombia last week. In the background of these protests, an ongoing conversation about drug policy — a central component of the country’s long-term civil conflict — is on the agenda for Colombia’s legislative session.

Duque, Colombia’s center-right president, has called for reducing coca cultivation by half by 2023 and wants to reinstate controversial aerial eradication tactics. Parties on the left, led by Green Party Sen. Iván Marulanda (a probable presidential candidate) and the Movement for a Social and Indigenous Alternative (MAIS) Sen. Feliciano Valencia, take a different approach — they’ve proposed legislation to decriminalize coca cultivation and create a legal market for cocaine in Colombia.

Supporters of the proposed legislation claim rural farmers and Indigenous peoples, among other marginalized groups, stand to benefit from coca and cocaine decriminalization. Here’s what we know about legal markets for coca, and Colombia’s proposed overhaul.

Anti-narcotic policies vary across Latin America

While Colombia maintains strict prohibitions on cultivating the coca plant, Bolivia allows each registered farmer to legally maintain up to a cato of cultivation — about half an acre. Peru, the world’s second-largest coca producer, ahead of Bolivia and behind Colombia, has decriminalized the coca leaf for traditional use as a tea or chewed similarly to tobacco, but it has still faced conflict with coca growers for legal rights to cultivation.

These policies delimit which parts of the cocaine supply chain are illegal, and they broaden the policy tools that governments have to interact with cocaine production. Different policies affect distinct economic constituencies within the coca-cocaine supply chain. Coca prohibition efforts can leave rural farmers who have poor market access with few alternatives, for instance. Prohibitions on cocaine refinement and trafficking instead target better-off refiners as well as international organized crime.

Cocaine supply chains are complex

Terms like the “drug trade” blur the fluid and highly disaggregated nature of cocaine supply chains. Farmers, mostly poor and land-scarce, grow coca leaves, which are sold to low-technology preliminary refiners, who sell to more technologically sophisticated lab owners who manufacture refined cocaine. Trafficking groups, or cartels, move cocaine from processing countries to consumer markets like the United States.

Prices increase substantially as coca leaves move up the supply chain, as those with more power maneuver to shift the risks of prohibition regimes onto other parts of the chain. Growers have low profit margins, yet they bear substantial risks. Policies that target the coca crop — like aerial eradication — shift risk down the supply chain to low-income growers. And farmers seeking to outrun eradication, in turn, may relocate, adding to coca-linked deforestation.

Geographically mobile cartels, which accrue most of the money of the drug trade, rarely cultivate their own crops — this means they bear almost none of the risk associated with strategies aimed at crop production. Recent evidence from Colombia suggests that coca leaf seizures have only a modest effect on coca cultivation.

What happened when Bolivia changed its coca policies?

Following over a decade of conflict in Bolivia’s Chapare, a major coca cultivating region, the government of Evo Morales legalized limited coca cultivation in 2009, though processing cocaine is still illegal. Social science research suggests this legalization effort has helped reduce violent conflict and boost farming earnings relative to jobs in cocaine refining.

In Bolivia, coca growers even collaborate with the government to enforce modest controls on cultivation through a program of “social control”, leveraging local capacity to allocate land access as an incentive to farmers to moderate cultivation within the legal limits for coca plot size. Legalization can open civic space for grower organizations to step in, which means traffickers and cartels, often run by criminals with no investment in local stability, are no longer the de facto source of local governance.

Evidence from Mexico supports a similar conclusion. While Mexico has high levels of violence associated with the drug war, Indigenous communities who locally administer justice have been successful in avoiding territorial control by narco-traffickers. These communities rely on traditional governance processes and community participation to regulate entry and access to their communities, weeding out narco-traffickers from controlling land and accumulating influence.

Although Mexico has not pursued national legalization, formally and informally deferring to local nonstate groups creates a similar civic space for regulation within illicit markets, empowering farmers and enabling more effective local governance toward efforts to reduce violence. Mexico’s legislature is expected to pass broad-reaching marijuana legalization laws this year; this legalization effort may provide further insight toward how decriminalization can help boost community governance.

Colombia also shares with Mexico and Bolivia local traditions of collective governance, even among coca-growing communities, but the jurisdiction of traditional authorities is limited to Indigenous reserves.

The Colombian proposal for coca plant legalization includes legalization of government-monitored coca cultivation by Indigenous peoples for traditional use, and for-profit coca leaf cultivation coordinated between the government and coca unions. The regulated legal market for cocaine includes leaf purchases controlled by the Colombian government, refined and sold with collaboration across the ministries of public health, defense and justice to regulate the commercialization and sale of processed cocaine in the country. This proposed legalization extends beyond the Bolivian model by reaching into the cocaine trade itself, but the emphasis on Indigenous and coca-union governance extends the logic of Bolivian social control to the situation in Colombia.

The pandemic and other regulatory changes are shifting the terrain for organized crime

Debate over coca policy in Columbia comes as organized crime groups across the Americas are consolidating control to reap higher margins from increased drug use during the coronavirus pandemic, and as individual trafficking groups are rapidly shifting strategies and supply chains to adapt to this changing context. These changes in trafficking group strategy and supply chains, combined with plummeting coca prices, makes this an interesting time to pursue coca and cocaine regulation in Colombia. As a leading cocaine producer and a linchpin of current drug trafficking networks, Colombia — and its legalization debate — will be one area to watch.

Elena Barham is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. She studies nonstate governance and illicit markets, with a focus in Latin America and the United States.

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