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The Future of Nationalized Cocaine

To end the misery of the global drug war, legalization is just the first step

The best guess for the annual revenue from drug trafficking is somewhere between $426 billion and $652 billion. To put that in perspective, drug cartel earnings are roughly equivalent to the sum total of e-commerce spending in the U.S. in 2019, which was $601 billion. This should give you a pretty good sense of just how large the global drug trade is — in terms of both consumer reach and profit-taking. 

So what if a country known for its drug trade took a big chunk of those illegal profits out of circulation? Wouldn’t that be a win? 

Along those lines, in a radical new approach to minimizing the negative impacts of drug cartels, Bolivia has legalized its cocaine cultivation. The nation employs what’s popularly referred to as the “Coca Yes, Cocaine No” system of cultivation. It was championed by former President Evo Morales, who came to power as a leader of Indigenous coca growers. 

As such, per Vice, Bolivia “allows each family to cultivate up to 1,600 square meters, known as a ‘cato,’ of coca plants. Farmers are obliged to sell their leaves at authorized markets, and if they cannot produce a receipt, they must justify why their harvest was lost (for example, because of blight) with a certificate from their local growers’ association.” Similarly, the coca farmers must “join a biometric register via their unions.” 

By legalizing cocaine production but not distribution, Bolivia has made life far safer for its people. For starters, the nation now has one of the lowest murder rates in Latin America. As one coca farmer recalled, “There used to be all kinds of conflict before. Now it couldn’t be more different. The soldiers would abuse us, especially the women, sexually. Now, there is respect on both sides. No one exceeds their cato. Some people don’t even have front doors.”

In fairness, Bolivia is a relatively small player in the cocaine trade, producing only about 10 percent of the coke sold worldwide. At around 70 percent, the big global player, of course, is Colombia. 

Technically, it’s legal to consume cocaine in Colombia. In fact, it’s considered a legally protected human right. This isn’t due to some popular mandate or progressive push, but rather, an acknowledgement of cocaine’s value to the country’s Indigenous communities. That said, it’s still totally illegal to grow or produce cocaine in Colombia. 

Until, maybe, now. Because, like Bolivia, Colombia has started to consider the unthinkable: What if it nationalized cocaine, too? 

In particular, two Colombian senators have put forward the bold new idea for the country’s cocaine market: Legalize it… and nationalize it! 

Senators Feliciano Valencia, an Indigenous politician, and the more centrist Ivan Marulanda sponsored the bill. For his part, Marulanda has advocated for the legislation as a way to combat drug cartels while not criminalizing or further victimizing the Colombian people: “This bill is part of the fight against drug trafficking because it is about getting rid of those mafias that profit from it, destroying the Colombian people along the way.”

The bill wouldn’t only legalize cocaine but also create new structures so that the government could buy up the cocaine produced from coca farmers and then process and distribute it legally (and globally). Essentially, the government would take over the cartel’s operation.

Again, as with Bolivia, the legislation calls for “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 newly regulated “legal market for cocaine” would also include “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.” 

But beyond the specifics of what the legal, nationalized cocaine market would look like, there are the far more important aspects of what ending the War on Drugs would mean for Colombia and its people. Every year, Colombia spends roughly a billion dollars on cocaine eradication programs. However, if the government just purchased the entire crop of coca produced as opposed to destroying it, it would cost only $680 million. This would be much better for the environment, too, as coca farmers destroy an estimated 75,000 hectares of forest land annually. That’s because every time the authorities find a new grow site, the farmers merely push deeper and deeper into the jungle, leading to more deforestation (and a seemingly endless vicious cycle).

There’s also obviously the human cost. An estimated 200,000 Colombian families participate in the coca farming industry. All of them are at risk. They can be victims of government raids, but they’re also easily exploited by cartels. You can’t holler for a cop if you’re growing coca. The cartels know this and use it against the farmers. Not to mention, they don’t grow cocaine to become kingpins. They’re typically struggling, only growing coca to survive as the market pays more for coca than coffee or bananas. 

All of which is to say, I’m pretty sure any fourth grader with a basic grasp of economics and crime and punishment can understand why nationalizing cocaine production would be the smarter path forward for Colombia. And in line with the times. Right now, we’re witnessing an emergent global trend: a move toward smarter policing that emphasizes harm reduction rather than demanding compliance by finding new ways to be more brutal. To that point, the War on Drugs constituted nothing more than a war on a wide array of vulnerable populations such as drug addicts, Indigenous farmers, and young Black and brown people who get popped for possession.

Colombia, spurred on by the U.S. and its seductive militarism, tried things that way for 40 years, with only really pain and generational suffering to show for it. So now, thankfully, it’s finally looking for new approaches (and to its neighbors like Bolivia), which in this case ostensibly means protecting its people from the harm of the illegal drug trade. 

Perhaps doing so is as simple as dropping the il from illegal.

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