For thirty years, the global cocaine empire was controlled from the heart of Colombia’s streets. Led by the so-called “Kings of Cocaine”, the most notorious drug cartels in history dominated every level of the country’s infrastructure; from the peasants producing coca leaf at the bottom of the chain, to the network of traffickers stationed worldwide all whilst the cartels reeled in an estimated $2 billion profit a year.[i] After decades of remaining untouchable, the drug lords were captured during a government crackdown in 1993, and today the cartels are no longer in existence. However, a whole host of new drug trafficking networks and leaders were ready to step into their shoes. The drugs continue to flow, and Colombia remains one of the leading producers of cocaine in the world. It has been a long time since the country’s fate was in its own hands. And Colombia’s destiny so long as the War on Drugs rages on will remain dictated by the fierce global demand for illegal drugs.

Image courtesy of Coast Guard News, © 2009, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Coast Guard News, © 2009, some rights reserved.

A utopian vision of a “drug-free world” set in motion the global War on Drugs over fifty years ago. Populist rhetoric asserted the need for a zero-tolerance approach to drugs, and the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was the result: a prohibition of the production, use and supply of drugs worldwide. Fifty years later, and it is the drugs that are winning this war. The number of drug users is unprecedented and climbing, health problems are critical, prison populations are bursting – and all the while violent drug gangs are lavishing in the profit generated by the third largest market in the world.[ii]

A drug-free world will never be a world we will live in. Yet, there is widespread refusal to acknowledge that the War on Drugs has failed. In desperate efforts to reignite the losing battle, the US has invested over $7 billion in Plan Colombia, an initiative working to eradicate coca leaf production. Despite such programmes destroying the livelihoods of millions of peasant farmers – whose nearby crops have been destroyed in the fumigation process – coca production in Colombia is down 25% since 2001, and the country is no longer the world’s leading cocaine producer.[iii] Plan Colombia was immediately announced as “historic” by US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske[iv], and these figures were cited as clear evidence that we are winning the War on Drugs.

However, under the surface, the problem is far from resolved. Global cocaine production levels have not fallen: when authorities clamp down on drub production in one region, the “balloon effect” simply causes production to move somewhere different. This time, it has moved back to where it started: in Peru, coca production is up 40% since 2000. As long as cocaine remains illegal, farmers will respond to eradication by replanting the lucrative crop elsewhere.

The drugs trade is not just a Latin American problem. And neither will these countries alone resolve the situation. Speaking to world leaders at the UN, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said that “Today, we must acknowledge, that war has not been won. And I say this as the president of the country that has suffered more deaths, more bloodshed and more sacrifices in this war, and the country that has also achieved more results in the fight against this scourge and the mafias that underpin it”[v]. Latin American leaders have united in a series of summits to discuss the pressing need for alternative policies. Their findings have been echoed in a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which urges the international community to “break the taboo” by considering decriminalization and legalization strategies.[vi] A number of countries have followed these recommendations; however, the political will of a handful of countries will not suffice. Solving the drug problem needs the entire international community to embrace change with open arms.

The challenge is that drug reform is politically risky. Wary of being dubbed as “soft on crime”, many politicians excuse their hardline approach by asserting that decriminalization will see drug use spiral out of control. However, such claims are unsubstantiated. Portugal has paved the way by becoming the first country to decriminalise all illicit drugs. Although studies suggest a marginal increase in drug users, there has been a fifty per cent decrease in the number of problematic users, and a significant drop in the number of drug-related deaths.[vii] Across the pacific in Uruguay, the possession of drugs for personal use has never been criminalised. Yet, the country still has a lower prevalence of drug use comparable to countries with strict prohibition, such as the UK.[viii]

Uruguay has gone one step further and is currently attempting to push through a bill for a fully legalised and regulated cannabis market – a landmark policy that directly contravenes the UN convention. It is a rhetorically easy to advance a prohibitionist line. However, more countries must mirror Uruguay’s courage and challenge the destructive face of drug prohibition if we are to have any hope of solving this problem.

The Uruguayan model suggests that more radical steps merit consideration. Beyond decriminalisation, legally regulated markets may be the final stage required to break the chain in the powerful underworld of illegal trafficking. However, current UN conventions need to be reformed in order to make such considerations possible. The Global Initiative has commissioned an investigation into how the UN conventions could be amended to allow countries to decriminalize drug use and implement legally regulated markets. A universal blanket ban is the cause – not the cure – of our contemporary problem. Amending the UN conventions will provide the foundation for the exploration of alternative paths, instead of the current dead end we are heading towards.

We will never live in a drug-free paradise. As long as there is international demand for illegal drugs, transnational criminal networks will supply them. If the legacy of the infamous Colombian cartels is to tell us anything it is that, as long as we continue prohibition, the drugs will just keep winning. Colombia’s criminal bandas, armed cartels in Mexico, Brazil’s Commandos and scores of maras gangs throughout Central America will continue to terrorize the streets of Latin America as long as there is profit to be made from global prohibition. The drug problem is not Colombia’s responsibility, nor does it fall on the shoulders of Latin America. This is a global issue that needs a global response. Continuity is easy, but change is necessary. Every country needs to push towards decriminalisation and the further step of legalized markets. Starting with UN legislation reform, we will be one step closer to achieving this goal. In this addiction, there is only one cure – and the first step towards recovery is ending the war.



[i] Gugliotta and Leen, Kings of Cocaine, Inside the Medellin Cartel. (2011)

[ii] http://www.unodc.org/pdf/WDR_2005/volume_1_web.pdf

[iii] http://www.unodc.org/unodc/secured/wdr/wdr2013/World_Drug_Report_2013.pdf

[iv] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-19059953

[v] http://gadebate.un.org/sites/default/files/gastatements/68/CO_en_0.pdf

[vi] http://issuu.com/gcdp/docs/gcdp_hepatitis_english/1?e=4620863/2919558

[vii] http://www.release.org.uk/publications/quiet-revolution-drug-decriminalisation-policies-practice-across-globe