Talking About Legalization, Part I: The Legalization Debate and Drug Consumption in Colombia

This first part will ask what the implications of legalization of drug use would be for Colombia, with a particular focus on domestic consumption. It starts off by reaffirming the need to legalize marijuana and cocaine in order to significantly reduce drug-related violence in Colombia and throughout the entire region. It investigates what Daniel Lende refers to as the “Paradox of Colombia,” low drug consumption despite high availability of illicit substances. It demonstrates that Colombia´s relatively low consumption of such drugs is related to cultural factors, rather than legal status, and affirms that the 1994 Constitutional Court decision to decriminalize the personal consumption of drugs has not brought about a perceptible increase in national consumption.

Introduction: From Critiques to Proposals
The massive gap in the discussions relating to the legalization of narcotics between expert opinion and political expediency means that the debate over the best way to legalize some drugs remains almost entirely hypothetical. In a sharply polarized and rhetorical context, proponents of legalization are often tempted to simplify the issue, and advocate the principle of choice without fully considering the implications of it, or the most expeditious way in which it should be done. This simplification of the narco-policy debate is arguably in itself a consequence of prohibition: essentially, the very idea of legalization has been taboo for such a long time that very few people or institutions actually have been motivated to significantly think about how it should be done in practical terms. It may well be that drug legalization remains unfeasible as a medium-term political possibility. But this does not necessarily mean avoiding the crucial and necessary discussion regarding the potential effects of legalization. If such a process is triggered and if the best means to implement this policy is agreed upon, then step one in the lengthy legalization strategy will have been achieved.

The key question for all societies, particularly Latin American ones, is whether or not drugs could be sufficiently legalized to substantially reduce the violence and impunity associated with their illegality, without encouraging a significant increase in consumption of what remain, lest we forget, potentially harmful substances. Beyond that, there is the crucial question of the large number of political realities that are at work: What are the actual prospects for legalization, and how can producing countries like Colombia respond constructively to the issue without becoming international pariahs?

The Limits of the Cardoso, Gaviria and Zedillo´s “Change of Paradigm”
The recent report by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy may be the basis of a more mainstream recognition of the failures of prohibition. If nothing else, it indicates the disillusion with the war on drugs in many Latin American policy-making circles; one that few political leaders have been able to articulate during their terms in power. The trio of ex-Presidents—Cardoso, Gaviria and Zedillo—are at least minimally respected, centrist political figures who have governed over countries severely affected by drug-related problems. Regardless of what one may think of their political legacies, their standing amongst international governments and institutions is crucial if a serious drug policy rethink is ever to occur. Their report is to be applauded in its effort to go beyond existing taboos about recreational drugs, and carries the issue closer to mainstream political circles where it needs to relocate if a solution is eventually to be found. At the same time, the report does not go far enough, and remains ambiguous. It stops a long way short of legalization, and advocates a soft approach to both peasant producers as well as consumers, while calling for intensified efforts against drug trafficking mafias. As Colombian economist Eduardo Sarmiento points out, it would be patently contradictory to allow both the cultivation of the drug and its consumption, while continuing to illegalize its commercialization and exportation. The softer approach towards cultivation would only allow for greater supply of the drug, possibly allowing new intermediaries to get in on the action. This is something which would be contrary to the objective of efficiently reducing drug-related violence. Ultimately, the only way to deal comprehensively with the last factor would be to legalize all aspects of the production chain, a move which predictably would most systematically sideline illegal actors.

The Legalization Debate and Drug Consumption in Colombia
Total legalization is a touchy subject in all societies, primarily because the wider effect on consumption patterns cannot always be fully known. If there is one overriding argument used by advocates of prohibition, it is this: that legalization of drugs would lead to a massive increase in their consumption, akin to the current rate with respect to alcohol or tobacco. This inevitably would cause significant direct as well as indirect damage to societies. This view is shared by many within Latin America, notably the Colombian government, its supporters and ideological allies.

Stalwarts of prohibition like Colombian analyst Juan Carlos Botero argue that the damage done to Colombia´s society by the consumption of alcohol only indicates the magnitude of the harm that could be done if other drugs were afforded the legitimacy conferred by legalization. Alcoholism, like in many parts of the world, is a grave problem in Colombia, and often leads to ancillary problems, like the outbreak of domestic violence. If cocaine consumption were to increase to the level of current alcohol consumption, either in Colombia or in other countries, few could deny that that would have serious social ramifications.

Pro-legalization debates often assume that illegality attracts people to drugs, but while that may be true for some, it is almost certainly the opposite for many others. Moreover, pro-legalizers often justify legalization from a middle-class perspective, without recognizing the fact that poorer and more vulnerable people can fall into addiction far more readily. Defenders of prohibition in developed countries frequently justify the policy on the basis of the need to protect “vulnerable” populations. For example, Lee P. Brown, anti-drug czar during the Clinton administration, claimed that legalization would lead to “genocide” in disadvantaged African-American communities. Brown’s claim goes to the heart of a highly complex and still an entirely unfathomed issue: What motivates some people to take drugs, and others to refuse them? And, arguably more importantly, what are the factors that allow some individuals to take drugs without any serious consequences to their lives, while pushing others into spiraling downward addictions?

The following positions are, it must be stated clearly, sometimes speculative. The fact is that no one really knows what would happen to consumption patterns in any society if substances such as marijuana and cocaine were legalized, let alone one as complex and contradictory as Colombia´s. What we do know is that the overwhelming majority of drug-related problems in the region are caused by the prohibition of drugs, rather than consumption of them. However, in order to make a genuinely strong case for legalization from a Latin American perspective (as opposed from the US-Eurocentric perspective which usually dominates debate over international drug policy), it is essential to recognize the potential harm that could be done by increased drug consumption, and evaluate the implications of any hypothetical legalization strategy with this in mind.

Why Don´t More Colombians Take Drugs?
It is almost impossible to address the issue of drug consumption in Colombia without encountering a remarkable paradox. Any logical hypothesis would assume that the country would be a high consumer of drugs. Firstly, the country has a virtually unmatched supply of cheap and high quality drugs. A gram of cocaine can cost just 5 dollars, with 10 dollars for a gram of heroine. At a dollar a joint, marijuana is even cheaper than cigarettes, and cigarettes aren’t even taxed. These drugs are accessible to a majority of Colombians; narcotics consumption expert Augusto Perez estimates that in most Bogotá neighborhoods, they can be bought within a 200 meter radius of one’s given location. Needless to say, all these drugs are generally unadulterated and of the highest quality, as can no doubt be testified by the hordes of narcoturistas who regularly make their way to the country with the sole intention of consuming marijuana, cocaine, and other substances.

On top of this remarkable availability of drugs is the very outlaw culture which makes Colombia the biggest cocaine exporter in the world. While few people doubt the role of drug-related economies in spurring violence in Colombia, it is still a reality that it is Colombia, rather than any of its equally underdeveloped, grossly unequal and state-weak neighbors, that is renowned for drugs cultivation and trafficking. Academics like Francisco Thoumi and Gustavo Duncan agree that Colombians distinguish themselves from neighboring countries by their greater tendency to break laws, and point out that an all but ubiquitous chasm exists between socially accepted norms and legal ones. Logically, one might expect Colombians to be equally prone to breaking the law in terms of drug consumption as well.

So how could it be that Colombia, a country which, by all logical assumptions, should contain the most drug dependent population in the world, is barely an “intermediate” drug consumer, and even lags behind other Latin American countries? The UN´s Annual World Drugs Report for 2008 shows that in 2003, just 0.8% of Colombians aged 15-64 had consumed cocaine within the previous year, far lower than the USA (3% in 2006), England and Wales (2.6% in 2006/7) and Spain (3% in 2005). The difference in marijuana consumption is even more graphic, with 1.9% for Colombia (2003), compared to 12.2% in USA (2006), 11.2% in Spain (2005), and 8.2% in England and Wales (2006/7). The explanation for this duality is complex, although it seems likely that the discrepancy lies precisely in the very “stigmatization” of drug use which is so often criticized by legalization advocates. That was certainly the conclusion of a study in 2004 by anthropologist Daniel Lende. In the Colombian mindset, a drug addict is “the lowest of the low,” someone to be treated with disdain, or at best, pity. Thoumi and Perez agree that this stigmatization is closely linked to the resilience of the Colombian family as a social institution. As in most Latin American countries, Colombian families are large, and the bonds within them are far stronger than in Western Europe and the United States. Unlike young people in the developed world, Colombian youth actually care what their parents think of them, and know that drug abuse can easily lead to being ejected from the house and family, a serious proposition.

Importantly, Thoumi and Perez do not feel that Colombian people´s taboo over drug consumption is related to its legal status. They can easily point to the fact that illegality does not serve as an obstacle against producing and trafficking the drug, so there is little reason to imagine it would reduce consumption of it. At the same time, Perez points out that while Colombia consumes comparatively less drugs (including alcohol) than Europe, it suffers from more “problematic” consumption. This “problematic consumption”, he claims, is concentrated in the two sectors of society where the family is weakest: the extreme rich and the extreme poor.

At the bottom end of the spectrum, the most run-down areas of Colombia´s cities are blighted by crack, commonly known as basuca, a highly addictive substance and one which even the most diehard libertarians are afraid to legalize. Basuca consumption is, almost by definition, problematic, and responsible for pain and suffering in poor communities across Latin America. It is often managed by highly immoral dealers who deliberately get young children addicted, knowing they likely will be made into loyal clients for years to come. More disturbingly, it is often also sold by poor, middle-aged women, trying to make ends meet. It is debatable whether the legalization debate, for good or for bad, actually has any significant implications for such communities. For starters, it is questionable whether the legal status of drugs actually effects consumption in such areas, given that it does little to dissuade the distribution of basuca. Secondly, the drugs most frequently earmarked for legalization, marijuana and cocaine, are not consumed significantly by Colombia´s poor. This situation could hardly be expected to change if, as Perez expects, legalization will likely drive prices higher. Basuca would, under any circumstances, remain illegal, and its highly damaging consumption by poor, young Colombian males would probably continue unabated. Ultimately, the legalization of drugs like marijuana and cocaine would exhibit little change for such communities, but neither would it contribute to their plight in any significant way.

The Personal Dose and its Effect on Drug Consumption
In fact, there is already a fairly reliable precedent for drug legalization in Colombia. It may surprise not a few to know that Colombian law is in many ways more liberal than that of many European countries. In 1994, the country’s Constitutional Court decriminalized the personal consumption of marijuana, cocaine and hashish, and the effects of this ruling continue to dominate the national debate regarding drugs policy in the country. President Alvaro Uribe has tried to overturn the ruling four times, clashing repeatedly with its architect, current Polo Democrático leader Carlos Gaviria. Uribe’s main argument is that the legal freedom afforded by the ruling has made it easier for domestic drug dealers and traffickers to convey drugs to the market, and this has led to a rise in domestic consumption, leading the country to become an increasingly important intermediate consumer. The claim is rejected by Perez, who points out that drug consumption has increased everywhere in the continent, and faster in many counties (Argentina, Bolivia, and Uruguay).

It is hard to sustain any clear link between the 1994 ruling and Colombia´s rise in consumption, particularly when other relevant factors are taken into account. As Thoumi points out, consumption of marijuana and cocaine are far more common among the “globalized” classes, i.e. middle and upper. Cultural globalization, that is to say the increased contact between the national society and western culture, may provide a compelling explanation for rising consumption in the country, the same as in the rest of the continent. Ironically, the government´s policies of economic insertion into the world economy have probably had a far greater impact on consumption of illicit substances than any prospects of their legal status being significantly altered, which appears largely irrelevant to consumption. If anything, the fact that consumption in the country has risen at a relatively stable rate following drug decriminalization indicates that the country actually has little to fear from legalization. Regardless of whether drugs are ever legalized, Colombia, along with the rest of the continent, has to be wary of rising drug consumption. Cultural globalization will undoubtedly occur regardless, and that may lead to a weakening of the family ties that keep it in check. Such factors will probably prove far more significant than whether or not drugs are legal.

The Potential Effect of Legalization on Domestic Prices
As a final comfort to Colombians worried about their society becoming overridden with drug addicts if legalization were to occur, Perez believes that whereas legalization would lead to a fall in prices in Europe and the United States due to the elimination of the cost of illegality, the effect would be the opposite in countries like Colombia. As indicated by the low prices mentioned previously, illegality does not entail higher costs on a national level, as getting the drugs from the countryside to the cities is a relatively simply business. Legalization in Colombia would, according to Perez, undoubtedly drive prices higher due to taxes and desire of legal companies to make profits. Any newly legalized drugs would most likely be mainly sold in selected café´s, bars and clubs at relatively higher prices. The only likely negative effect would be the creation of a parallel black market selling “cut-price” drugs, or rather generic-type drugs priced at current low levels. Such black markets are common in Colombia, where everything from whisky to Venezuelan petrol has its own black market. The difference between the legal and black market prices of drugs—something impossible to accurately anticipate—would determine the extent to which people opt to consume in legalized venues or not. Obviously, the creation of two parallel economies for drug consumption would hardly be curative, but it would not precipitate the social degradation wrongly envisaged by investigators like Botero either.

2 thoughts on “Talking About Legalization, Part I: The Legalization Debate and Drug Consumption in Colombia

  • May 14, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    In considering the implications of legalization of drugs, I just hope one keeps focus on costs versus benefits:

    Joseph Califano, Jr., author of the book titled High Society have just said that, for the 35 Million Dollar tax levied in the U.S.A. on “Alcohol and Tobacco”, it resulted that both substances caused a health cost of 300 Million U.S. Dollars just to the U.S.A. [Fox News Interview aired this May 15, 2009 circa 2 A.M. UTC].

  • June 14, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    A remarkably important piece, Rachel. Thank you for taking the time to introduce this topic. This comes on the heels of the report by Glenn Greenwald and the Cato Institute about the “successful” decriminalization of marijuana in Portugal and how it has not led to increased consumption (“Drug Decriminalization in Portugal”).

    The War On Drugs has been one of the most glaring policy failures in the history of the United States. But our country is obsessed with national security, weapons, and prisons, that it’s difficult to say if thie topic will ever get serious consideration.


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