Colombia Is Considering Legalizing Its Massive Cocaine Industry

A senator is trying to get a bill through congress that makes the government buy up and sell the country’s cocaine production.
Police guard cocaine
Members of the National Drug Control Directorate (DNCD) guard over 1,747 kg of cocaine from Colombia in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic on November 1, 2020. Photo by ERIKA SANTELICES, AFP via Getty Images

MEDELLÍN, Colombia - VICE World News sat down with Senator Iván Marulanda to talk about his cocaine legalization bill, which is currently moving through Colombia’s congress.

After 40 years of U.S. - backed anti-drug policy that criminalizes the coca leaf, Marulanda and a group of members of congress want to change tack. 

The bill attempts to create a legal industry that distributes cocaine to users for pain relief, not recreational use. Like that in Bolivia, it also hopes to bring hundreds of thousands of illegal coca farmers out of the shadows into a legal, homegrown industry.


VICE World News: So what does your bill propose exactly?

Senator Iván Marulanda: It proposes that the state buy the entirety of Colombia’s coca harvest. 

There are 200,000 farmer families linked to coca growing. The state would buy coca at market prices. The programs for coca eradication each year cost four trillion pesos ($1 billion). Buying the entire coca harvest each year would cost 2.6 trillion pesos ($680 million). It costs less to buy the harvest than to destroy it. 

With that intervention from the government, two fundamental things would happen. First, you would bring 200,000 families into a legal sphere where they would no longer be persecuted by the state. Usually, these farm families end up displacing themselves, deforesting new areas, and re-planting coca while they’re running from the authorities. Second, Colombia is destroying around 300,000 hectares of forest per year. It’s estimated that coca-growing families are responsible for 25 percent of that annual deforestation. Colombia’s ecosystems are the collateral damage.

What would the government do with all the coca leaves? 

The state would supply raw materials to artisanal industries - primarily of indigenous origin - that would produce foods, baking flour, medicinal products and drinks like tea. Those ancestral industries in Colombia haven’t had the chance to develop because the raw material is stigmatized and persecuted by the justice authorities. So, on one hand, it’s about developing these industries. Indigenous groups have a strong relationship with the leaf because they’ve taken care of it for hundreds of years.


Now, the coca leaf has other properties too. Studies show it has a significant amount of calcium. There are nutritional properties. And so there are opportunities to open up to industrial production. There are also ways to make fertilizers.

The other thing the state would do is produce cocaine. It would supply that cocaine to users. And then it would supply coca and cocaine to research groups around the world who could study it for analgesic (pain-killing) uses. It hasn’t been easy to do that because it hasn’t been easy for these research groups to obtain cocaine. So, this would mean companies would enter into contracts with pharmaceutical companies with state-of-the-art research and top security protocols to buy it in pure form from the state. 

In Colombia, the personal consumption of cocaine is legal. It’s legal because of a court ruling that recognizes personal consumption as a human right. In Colombia we have those freedoms and the state can’t intervene. However, what we don’t have is the legal cocaine to meet that demand. Instead, we have consumers who are in contact with organized crime groups who supply them cocaine in local drug markets. It’s poor quality cocaine and it’s often mixed with unregulated substances. It’s everywhere: in our schools, in universities, in parks and bars. It’s in all these public spaces. 

So this policy would mean cutting organized crime off from the coca leaf, and it would cut consumers off from organized crime. The Colombian state would give pharmacies the licence to sell cocaine for recreational purposes to users that are considered physically and mentally apt. In the case of crack consumers and problematic cocaine consumers, a harm reduction strategy would be envisaged. And then it would be high-quality cocaine. Another important thing here is that not all consumers are addicts. Less than 10 percent of cocaine consumers are addicts.


How successful has Colombia’s war on drugs been?

Colombia has a military and police-driven drug policy that dates back to the 1980s, when drug-trafficking was the powerful weapon of the cartels. Colombia’s first reaction - and also the response of the international community - was to start a war on drugs. The war on drugs is a law-and-order policy against drugs that thinks of drugs as a criminal offence. It’s also a persecution against the coca plant, the leaves of which are used to produce cocaine.

That policy has not changed since the 1980s. Actually, Colombia’s drug policy has only become more entrenched, more stubborn and more severe in its application. We’re now in the year 2020. Yet Colombia exports 90 percent of the cocaine in the world today. There are about 1,500 tonnes that leave the country each year. And there are about 200,000 hectares of land under cultivation of coca. We’re inundated with cocaine and inundated with deaths and violence. We’ve lost sovereignty over Colombian territory to the dominion of organized criminal mafias.

Over this period of 40 years, Colombia’s anti-drug policy has become almost like a religion for two generations. Two generations that were born and raised with this way of thinking about drugs. But this policy is now part of our culture and dogma. Yet in 40 years, we haven’t had a real, honest conversation about this policy and its results. It’s a policy that’s been reinforced by the international community and above all the United States.


How would you decouple the cocaine trade from criminal organizations? 

You have to remember the state has a large margin here. The state is spending $1 billion on eradication. Buying coca leaves would cost the state $680 million. There’s a strong fiscal margin and they could push up the price if they need to. And if you need more, you’d have to feed the program with more public spending. But the important thing here is to save lives.

The thing is, we have to recover control over the state. We’re losing control of the state to corruption, narcos in politics. They’re in municipalities, in departments and in congress. All the way to the highest echelons of government.


Colombian Senator Ivan Marulanda at his home in Rionegro, Antioquia department, Colombia, on September 15, 2020. Photo by JOAQUIN SARMIENTO/AFP via Getty Images

What do you think the U.S. would think about a legal cocaine trade in Colombia?

The U.S. has been an important partner for Colombia. 

We’ve been going 40 years with a policy that costs billions of U.S. dollars with zero success and so much cost and destruction. Let’s try out this other policy. Because something that hasn’t worked in the last 40 years is something that’s just not going to work.

The United States is just like Colombia. We’re throwing away enormous quantities of money on the war on drugs in the garbage, instead of dedicating it to social and human development in order to improve peoples’ well being.

The scenario for relations between Colombia and the United States will be very different [under President-elect] Biden. 


Does Colombia have the right to do what it wants with cocaine?

This is the thing. Anti-drug policy doesn’t have the same effect for a country like the United States or a European country as it does for Colombia. We’re the producers. That means this is destroying the lives of our youth, of our soldiers and police. The economy is totally disfigured because of this business. And look at the problems of corruption. It’s brutal. Our current anti-policy is destroying Colombia.

There are countries in solidarity with Colombia on this issue. Colombia has all the right in the world to look for an exit from this problem. But I don’t rule out the possibility that other countries want to implement a public health policy that would supply cocaine from the state to their consumers. They would buy from the Colombian state and distribute. And it would be distributed outside of the blackmarket.

What are the biggest obstacles and threats to this bill?

The first big obstacle is to open up the conversation among public opinion. This has been a giant taboo. Colombians are born and raised under this assumption that drug-trafficking is a war. There’s no information about coca and cocaine. So, with this bill we hope to open the conversation.

Right now, there are a lot of parties that hold power right now, and they’ve gained that power by selling the war on drugs. It’s their political flag and it’s won them lots of votes. Those parties - the ruling party Centro Democratico, the Conservative party, Cambio Radical - this has always been their traditional policy stance: to fight cocaine as a crime.

In our upcoming presidential elections in 2022, I hope that candidates get asked by the public: ‘What do you think about the legalization of cocaine?” Because that’s never happened before in Colombia.