Co-written with Erica Avey
Two years before Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s death and 20 since Nixon started the so-called “War on Drugs,” I was born in August of 1991 in Medellín, Colombia — known then as one of the most violent cities in the world. It has taken 27 years for me to realize my very first memories are tinted by the life and death of one of the world’s most notorious criminals in the illegal drug trade. And even now, decades since Escobar was shot dead, hope for peace remains a utopian dream for the inhabitants of the paisa capital.
The cocaine market didn’t die when Escobar was killed nor did the drug itself cease to exist. The protagonist changed, demand rose, delivery routes multiplied, victims increased, and the business model adapted to the guerrillas’ open war. Colombian history since the late 1970s follows a series of cartels that fluctuate between control of drug production, circulation, and the next “patron” to dictate the law of the jungle.
By looking back broadly at history and human nature and realizing the ineffectiveness of the “War on Drugs,” it’s clear that it’s time to consider a different approach.
No Justice in History
Both during my childhood and now, safety has been the highest priority for those living in the paisa kingdom. I was raised to be extremely cautious of strangers, and I was constantly aware of an unspoken early curfew. Men weren’t allowed to ride as passengers on the backs of motorcycles because it had become a hitman strategy in the 1980s (watch Matar a Jesús for an accurate depiction), and we still roll up the windows at stoplights. A rain of glass once showered my parents at a restaurant from a nearby bomb. Most people in Medellín can recollect a time when they too heard a deafening “boom.”
Politicians up for election routinely tout safety as a key campaign issue, and the collective effort to prevent violence affects everything: urban planning, class and economic dynamics, social aspirations. Every building has security guards and cameras. Shopping malls are seen as social bunkers. Concerts and sporting events have heavy security and “safety rings.” The people still feel an air of uneasiness and constant expectation for something bad to happen.
Despite the positive press helping to increase tourism and foreign investment, traces of the cartel époque still remain.
Over the years, things have improved somewhat. The country signed a peace treaty after a 50-year civil war that in its later years had been subsidized mostly by cocaine. Murder rates are substantially lower than they were in the 1990s. Driving through the countryside was previously off limits because of guerrilla groups, but domestic travel is now on the rise. And after long-term isolation from the outside world, even from its closest neighbors, the country is seeing an influx of international travelers. There’s an air of optimism surrounding Colombia and its city of eternal spring. But how far will this progress actually take the country?
The media has relentlessly pushed this new face of Colombia. But despite the positive press helping to increase tourism and foreign investment, traces of the cartel époque still remain — the glamour, aesthetics, violence, corruption, and business as usual. After all, many tourists traveling to Colombia arrive expecting to try some of the “local product.” And the cocaine business remains a crude scenario of hitmen, drug lords, innocent victims, and occasional club sniffers who are all subject to a complex international chessboard dominated by the world’s “War on Drugs,” its policies, and its budget.
A Brief History of Coca
The culture persists because the history of cocaine (from the Spanish “cocaína” with “coca” from the Quechua “kuka”) goes back much farther than most people realize. In South America, the consumption of the coca plant — which provides the main ingredient in cocaine — dates to 6000 B.C. When the Incas established their empire on the continent thousands of years later, from around 1200 to the 1500s A.D., coca had a fundamental role in their mythology and political system. Incan legend tells the story of Kuka, a woman whose beauty so intimidated weak men that they assassinated her. From her grave, people said, coca sprouted and gave magical powers to those who consumed it, including strength, resistance to hunger and thirst, and high energy. The Inca valued the plant above silver and gold, and it was reserved for the higher class.
Humans have historically sought altered states of consciousness and plant medicine. Archaeological records show that alcohol was being consumed at least as early as 7000–6600 B.C., and evidence of hallucinogen-inspired myths and religions go back even farther to 8600 B.C. Today, you can still buy dry coca leaves in local markets from Colombia to Bolivia to fight altitude sickness and fatigue.
The way people today cast drug users as automatic criminals is a failed ideology. We need to decondition that kind of thinking.
But the modern public perception of substance use, abuse, and addiction has been conditioned by the increasing criminalization of drugs since the early 1900s — which has even banished alternative solutions to addiction that could have proven vastly more effective than outlawing them. This approach of demonizing drugs rather than exploring the humanity at play disregards a deeper history of human nature. In filtering ancient realities with a single-century lens, thousands of years of drug experiences and teachings have been annihilated. By seeking to understand the history of human interaction with substances, we might reverse the societal detriment that stigmatizing it has caused.
Drug Criminalization Doesn’t Work
Held up against millennia of history, the way people today cast drug users as automatic criminals is a failed ideology. We need to decondition that kind of thinking and rewrite drug policies.
In the 1970s, the U.S. Controlled Substances Act established a system for evaluating and categorizing substances by abuse potential, accepted medical applications, safety, and potential for addiction. At a 1971 press conference, President Richard Nixon announced the “War on Drugs” and declared addiction and drugs were “public enemy number one.” By 1973, his administration created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to combat drug smuggling and use. The original plan included a budget of $75 million and 1,470 special agents.
Colombia and Pablo Escobar gained control of 80 percent of the cocaine market by the mid-1980s, rippling the national economy and global politics. In the meantime, the DEA’s budget doubled.
Through the 1980s and ’90s, the cocaine trade was refined by exploring different transportation methods (like private jets or Colombian-engineered narco-submarines). It evolved by compromising higher positions in the political system through bribery and death threats and engaging in nefarious crossfires and forced migration of growers and producers. A narcocracy was established — a government that thrives because of widespread narcotic use and sales — and led to a staggering increase in cultivation, profits, prison populations, violence, and territorial warfare. All of it is proof of a failed international agenda to halt drug production and the urgency to revise it, and it is a failure that has persisted. In fact, the DEA’s efficiency rate at intercepting the flow of drugs into and within the U.S. remains at less than 1 percent.
Colombians are not only producing and consuming more cocaine today than in 1971, but they are also more economically dependent on it.
Politicians, movie stars, artists, and regular citizens have had ample access to the ego-bolstering powder. In places like Sydney, Australia, where a gram of cocaine reaches about $350 locally, consumption comes with a status symbol — but normalizing its use turns it into just another party asset. In Berlin, where raves last as long as a body can, toilets in clubs are designed so groups of three or four people can comfortably prepare and snort the energizing lines. In Medellín, pimps make sure most corners of the city have an accessible and affordable dispensary. Cocaine has been and is more immersed in everyday life than anyone wants to admit.
Colombians are not only producing and consuming more cocaine today than in 1971, but they are also more economically dependent on it. There are 200,000 hectares of illegal coca plantations currently growing in Colombia, and the price for it ranks at the lowest per gram in the world. The cocaine industry represents about 4.5 percent of the Colombian GDP, 17 times more than foreign investment. Across the country, 51 percent of the workforce is “informal,” meaning they don’t get insurance or retirement funds, and the minimum wage is barely $3,500 (U.S. dollars) per year; 11 million people still make less than that. Given the circumstances, drug-dealing profits are ridiculously appealing to local smugglers. And, of course, it has affected safety and crime rates. From 2017 to 2018, Colombia saw a 7.2 percent increase in murders related to drug crimes.
Altering Perspectives Going Forward
This local and global panorama has impaired the possibility of alternative drug policies and impaired the Colombian national identity to the point that citizens face international discrimination and hold a stigmatized passport in most customs interactions.
But the conversation of legalization and regulation is far from even reaching the minds of most liberal Colombians. Former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, whose administration went after Escobar, declared the “War on Drugs” a failure and signed on to abolish criminalization of drugs. Gaviria also stated that “the laws that combat drugs have done more harm than the drugs themselves.” However, the conversation is unlikely to reach a political consensus anytime soon. As Terence McKenna, author of Food of the Gods, put it:
Our global culture finds itself in danger of succumbing to an Orwellian effort to bludgeon the problem of existence through military and police terrorism directed toward drug consumers in our population and drug producers of the third world. This repressive response is largely fueled by an unexamined fear that is the product of misinformation and historical ignorance.
The deadline for the U.N. drug plan “towards an integrated and balanced strategy to counter the world drug problem” is approaching in 2019. Considering the irrefutable failure of the international anti-drug policies thus far, perhaps it’s time to consider a different approach. More than four decades of violence, traumatic impact on Colombian culture, and an unfair labeling of cocaine suppliers serving a cosmopolitan clientele fail to acknowledge the true problem: the demand. Drug use, and specifically cocaine use, is an integral part of mainstream culture, and even though the implications of such realities vary depending on the country and its position on the supply-demand chain, accepting those realities can be a first step in rationally dealing with the global issue.
It’s an issue with consequences far more reaching than most people seem to realize. Buying cocaine contributes to aerial and earth pesticide fumigation, which is detrimental to the earth, soil, and its natural resources. It also supports warfare in the countrysides where it is produced, forcing the population to migrate to the cities — if they are not murdered first. And it amplifies the mafia economy and narcocracy. As long as this institutional system and culture of ignorance persists, there will be no “fair trade” cocaine on the market.