Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

President Santos on the Drug War: “The Cure Has Been Worse Than the Disease”

Reading Time: 5 minutesThe outgoing president of Colombia takes a frank look at the failed “War on Drugs” and maps a way forward.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Paul Arboleda/Getty

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This article is adapted from AQ’s latest issue on reducing homicide in Latin America. 

More than a century ago, in 1912, representatives from countries around the world signed the International Opium Convention, aiming to curb the abuse of opium, cocaine and other illicit substances. Fifty years later, in 1961, the United Nations adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, establishing a global framework for the control and prohibition of psychoactive substances. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs.

After more than 106 years of head-on battle, we must now assess, with brutal honesty, where we stand. The conclusion will not be positive. Drugs continue to be one of the main challenges facing societies throughout the world. An effective policy tonight illicit drugs should have led to a reduction in trafficking and use. Yet data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report show that between 2006 and 2015, worldwide consumption by adults remained stable.

High levels of consumption, of course, have an effect on public health. In 2015, we lost 28 million years of healthy life to disabilities and premature deaths caused by the abuse of illicit substances, according to UNODC estimates.

But we are not only losing the war on the public health front. U.S. law enforcement agencies have arrested at least 1.4 million people for drug violations annually since 1997. But despite these high numbers, the availability of drugs on the streets has not diminished. Criminal organizations wreak violence and terror and represent a threat to individual security, national security and even global security. Also, drug-trafficking mafias consistently seek to corrupt state institutions and democracy.

In the world, and particularly in Colombia, we invest billions of dollars a year chasing the dream of a drug-free world. In the last 10 years, for example, we have eradicated about 2.5 million acres of coca through aerial and manual spraying. Still, according to UNODC statistics for 2016, 361,000 acres remain under cultivation. Colombian authorities have made more than 1 million drug seizures since 1993. While such figures demonstrate Colombia’s efforts to fight drug trafficking, they also show we’re on a stationary bicycle, spinning our wheels instead of moving forward.

The policy prescription we have used for years, based mainly on punitive repression, has not solved the problem. We must look for an alternative course of treatment. We cannot insist on a strategy that focuses on repression of small peasant producers and consumers — the weakest links in the drug trafficking chain.

We need a global drug policy free of prejudice, based instead on empirical evidence and, above all, recognition that there will always be drug users. Drug use should be a matter of public health, not law enforcement. Society wins when it sends addicts to rehabilitation and loses when it locks them in prison.

At the 2016 Special Session of the U.N. General Assembly on drugs (the result of a proposal by Colombia), some steps were taken in the right direction. The outcome document included a section on respect for human rights as a component of drug policies. We also managed to broaden the focus on public health through prevention, treatment and rehabilitation of drug users, and strengthened the members’ autonomy to apply the agreement according to their country’s particular circumstances.

Despite these advances, we are still far from reaching a new global consensus to frame the problem and devise global solutions and goals.

The drug problem must be approached from a comprehensive perspective that addresses individual links of the supply chain separately. Enforcement must focus on the criminal organizations that profit from drug trafficking and are the leading engines of violence. We must also act decisively against the trafficking of supplies and precursor chemicals for drug production, and against money laundering as well.

As for the weakest links in the chain – small producers and drug users – we must offer solutions based on respect for human rights. We must provide the former with substitution options and invest in public services that change the conditions incentivizing them to produce illicit crops. For the latter we must implement drug use prevention campaigns and provide rehabilitation programs.

In Colombia, peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) offers us a unique opportunity to overcome the illicit crops problem structurally. In the past, fumigated areas were immediately replanted, since they were under FARC protection and lacked a government presence. Now that the conflict is over, the state is establishing a permanent presence, offering legal opportunities for alternative forms of development as well as public goods and services.

In collaboration with the United States, we are advancing a plan to combine eradication and substitution, aiming to halve coca crops in five years. In the last year we have managed to add more than 62,000 families to the Voluntary Crop Substitution Program. Crop substitution is much more difficult than crop destruction, but it is the only route to a lasting solution that is in line with alternative development and environmental protection imperatives. We also maintain an aggressive program of forced eradication. In the last year and a half, we have manually eradicated close to 173,000 acres of coca.

We have not let down our guard in our fight against the criminal organizations that control the drug business. In 2017 alone, we seized record figures of cocaine (about 480 tons) and heroin (957 pounds).

Colombia will continue to fight this scourge with determination. For us, it has been – and continues to be – a matter of national security.

The War on Drugs has taken too many lives: The cure has been worse than the disease. In Colombia, we have paid a very high price for it, perhaps the highest of any nation.

The time has come for the world to take a moment of sober reflection. We must study, seriously and rigorously, the efforts that have been made around the world to regulate the drug trade, in order to learn from our successes, as well as our difficulties and failures.

It is time to accept the reality that as long as there are drug users there will be drug suppliers – and that there will always be drug users.

The solution is not so simple as advocating for the legalization of drugs. Nor will it come from a debate about who is solely responsible. Under the principles of common and shared responsibility that we adopted decades ago, we all are. Those who say this is solely a problem of drug-producing countries are mistaken.

It is time we talk about responsible government regulation, look for ways to cut off the drug mafias’ air supply, and tackle the problems of drug use with greater resources for prevention, care and harm reduction with regard to public health and the social fabric.

This reflection must be global in scope in order to be effective. It must also be broad, including participation not only of governments but also of academia and civil society. It must reach beyond law enforcement and judicial authorities and involve experts in public health, economists and educators, among other disciplines.

But above all, it must be an innovative, intelligent reflection based on facts. Reaching a consensus – a new, global consensus – that is more balanced, more effective and more humane is essential if we are to face this challenge of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Santos is the outgoing president of Colombia.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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