Saturday, November 26, 2011

What if Colombia did 'Legalize'?

Could Colombia do it?
In recent days, Colombian leaders led by Pres. Santos have said that prohibitionism and the War on Drugs should be reassessed in the face of the great suffering in Colombia and other drug producing and transit nations.

Pres. Santos has questioned drug prohibition.
So, what would happen if Colombia actually did decriminalize the use and trafficking of marijuana, and, more importantly, cocaine? Of course, this isn't about to happen (altho the personal dose might come back). Pres. Santos, in telling The Guardian newspaper last week that the War on Drugs should be reconsidered, also said that he wouldn't take the lead, because 'I'd get crucified.'

Less of this? Drug-fueled death in Mexico. 
He's right. But his comments nevertheless marked a milestone in drug policy: It's apparently the first time that the sitting president of an important nation in the Drug War has openly questioned prohibitionist policy.

So, what if what won't happen soon, actually did happen - tomorrow?

Tax revenue:
there'd be more of it.
Suddenly, about three percent of Colombia's economy would shift from contraband to legality. But the nation wouldn't likely simply legalize those activities, since the folks in the business are leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug cartels who have committed countless crimes and human rights violations - not to mention trying to overthrow the government.

Instead, Colombia would drop its prohibitions on marijuana and cocaine, while not totally legalizing them, and wait for legitimate, tax-paying businesses to start producing them.

What to do about all those convicts?
First, Colombia would have to make lots of domestic policy decisions, such as what to do about all the people already in prison for doing something which  was no longer a crime. I'd suggest releasing the small-time drug mules and coca-growing peasants, and evaluating big-time traffickers based on what other crimes they'd committed.

The big winners here: non-violent criminals and the Colombian state, which would save billions and billions of pesos it had been spending on arresting and locking up drug traffickers.

Meanwhile, however, conservative politicians world-wide would be railing against Colombia, calling it a 'narco-state'  - ignoring the fact that many countries have long had huge and legal tobacco and alcohol industries - and accusing it of 'surrendering to terrorists and criminals' - even tho this policy would actually take the business away from those terrorists and criminals.

Still, Colombia would face big-time troubles as wealthy nations, led by the United States, stopped trading with it. That would devastate the other 95% of Colombia's economy which isn't drugs. And it would likely scare the other two cocaine-exporting nations, Peru and Bolivia, from following Colombia's lead.

Suddenly legal? Photo: Reuters.
And Colombia would still face the problem of exporting its drugs, which would still be illegal outside its borders. But I suspect that some other nations with rational governments and terrible problems with drug-fueled violence, would see the light. Quietly, they'd invent a new commercial category called something like 'non-traditional medicines.' (Cocaine's first uses were medical, and it is an excellent local anasthetic - except for its addictiveness.)

Suddenly, lots of weak, poor and corrupt states in Central America and West Africa, would have new tax revenue which previously had disappeared into the pockets of corrupt officials.

Meanwhile, with most obstacles to the drug trade gone, cocaine and marijuana would inundate rich nations. Perhaps a few consuming nations would get sensible and decriminalize at home. But in most countries, reactionary politicians would vow no retreat and carry on the drug war at all costs - at least for a while.

Losers from legalization: Family coca-leaf farmers.... (photo: Awesom Feature)

...and outlaw guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug cartels, who'd lose their monopoly on illegal drugs. (Photo: The Independent)
Back in Colombia, outlaw groups have had monopolies on selling outlawed drugs. They'd be big losers from legalization - and nobody should feel sorry for them - as would be the coca leaf-growing peasants, who never earned much from the business. No longer clandestine, coca leaf would now be grown on plantations run by agrobusinesses, like corn and coffee.

A deforested patch in the Amazon. 
A big winner - along with the tax man and law enforcement - would be the environment, as authorities could regulate where coca leaf was planted and how the chemicals used to make cocaine were disposed of. A major destroyer of the Amazon jungle would end.

Yes, some drug consumers could lose too, if lower prices caused more access and addiction. But those governments which decriminalized and taxed drugs could use their new tax revenues and law enforcement savings to combat drug abuse problems.

All in all, I suspect that drug decriminalization would bring more good than bad.

But don't expect it anytime soon.

Coca of Colombia. (From Graffiti T-shirt shop in La Candelaria.)

Enjoy Cocaine (From Graffiti T-shirt shop in La Candelaria.) 

Legalize Now!!!! Graffiti on a La Candelaria wall. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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