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Lessons from Colombia's War on Drugs

By Sharon McCoy
December 5, 2012

Click here for more on the Dialogue's work on drug policy.

In the hemisphere’s war on drugs, “Colombia is the one true success story,” noted Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue. Hakim spoke at a roundtable discussion co-hosted by the Dialogue and the CATO Institute on December 5, 2012, with Daniel Mejía, economics professor at the Universidad de los Andes, and ambassador of Colombia to the United States, Carlos Urrutia,. The event explored the far-reaching implications of Colombia’s drug policies and the region’s current debate on alternative drug policy solutions.

Specifically, the discussion focused on the release of Mejía’s new book, Anti-drug Policies in Colombia: Successes, Failures and Lost Opportunities, which he edited with Alejandro Gaviria, Colombia’s current minister of health. The publication compiles analyses from Colombia’s foremost experts, examining all aspects of the illicit drug trade in Colombia—from production to trafficking to consumption—and evaluates which policies would be most successful at improving public management of drug use and trafficking. The book highlights the high cost of prohibitionist policies in drug consuming nations such as the United States, which transfer the burden of constraining the global drug trade to countries such as Colombia that produce and act as transit points. Mejía characterized drug trafficking organizations as the only “winners” under prohibitionist policies. These groups are expanding into other illicit activities and leaving countries in Latin America with few alternatives to military intervention to combat them.

Mejía encouraged the consideration of alternative drug policies and emphasized that the governments of Colombia and Mexico should initiate this effort. In his words, the two countries cannot “be guests at this debate,” but rather must lead it because they have the unique “moral authority, experience, and knowledge” to do so. Hakim agreed, noting that the debate on drug policy in the region is transforming. Historically, the United States has been the decision maker, but over the past four to five years, Latin American leaders such as former president Cardoso of Brazil and current presidents Santos of Colombia and Pérez Molina of Guatemala have taken charge, calling for the consideration of alternative policies such as legalization. This shift has “lifted the US out of its complacence,” in Hakim’s opinion, and opened the door to the initiation of a significant debate on drug policy in the hemisphere.

Moving forward, the question of whether or not the legalization of certain drugs such as marijuana is the answer must be addressed. Mejía and Hakim both admitted that they do not know whether or not legalization should be adopted as a solution. Such a policy, if pursued, would result in additional debates concerning how to differentiate between “less harmful” drugs such as marijuana that could be legalized and “more dangerous” ones such as cocaine, meth, or heroin that should not. And if cocaine could not be legalized, the region’s drug problems would not be completely solved, given that it is the drug primarily trafficked throughout the region.

Beyond these concerns, Mejía and Hakim hesitate due to a lack of credible research and data on the effects of a legalization policy. Ambassador Urrutia noted that, in Colombia, efforts are being made to further the academic and scientific study of drugs and drug-related policies in the region. The Research Center on Drugs and Security at the Universidad de los Andes is an important contributor to that effort, and will partner with the Dialogue in January to host the next meeting of the Dialogue’s drug policy working group. The project aims to gather innovative research on hemispheric drug policies and promote an open-minded search for pragmatic policy alternatives, especially among Latin American countries.

Though only a possible solution to the region’s drug conflicts, legalization proposals in Uruguay and the recent referendums in Washington and Colorado are having the positive effect of initiating political debates on alternative drug policies and the complexities of implementing and managing a legal drug market. Overall, the stage is set with the United States listening and, to an extent, deferring leadership on this issue to its Latin American counterparts. Armed with further data from scientific and academic sources, Latin America is poised to lead the global community in developing innovative drug policies that will result in more successful outcomes both in Colombia and throughout the region.