Return to Recent Articles menu

Coca, Fentanyl and Drug Policy in Colombia

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

28 September 2023

Latin American and Caribbean Conference on Drugs.

The coca zones of Colombia are in crisis.  The cash crop par excellence, i.e. coca is going through an unprecedented crisis, or so we are told. The main promotors of the idea that the coca is in crisis because fentanyl has displaced it and sooner or later it will finish off the coca were from the government.   Amongst those promoting this stupidity are Colombian state functionaries from the NGOs, social organisations and of course high-ranking members of the Historic Pact.  The very president of the country, Gustavo Petro stated in August that

The cocaine market in the USA has collapsed and has been replaced by an even worse one: fentanyl that kills 100,000 per year.  Cocaine used to kill 4,000 due to the poisonous mixtures from the market clandestine.(1)
It is simply the case that nothing that Petro said at the time was true.  Whereas Clinton exaggerated the deaths due to cocaine consumption in order to justify Plan Colombia, Petro sought to minimise them.  First of all, we should be clear that fentanyl did not displace cocaine, but rather another opioid, heroin.  And the most notorious aspect of fentanyl is not the increase in consumption, but rather that due to its toxicity, a dramatic increase in overdoses.  Petro’s government makes statements on the drugs issue without even understanding basic concepts.

The overdue publication of its drug policy allows us to analyse properly what it aims to do, as up till now we have had to put up with a year of contradictory speeches, tweets that don’t say much and complete incoherence in the matter, without even mentioning his stated aim of handing over the Colombian Amazon region to the US military, something that not even Pastrana openly proposed when he announced Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia.

In a US study published in May of this year, the researchers found that the deaths from fentanyl tripled between 2016 and 2021, increasing from 5.7 per 100,000 inhabitants to 21.6 in 2021.  The deaths from cocaine overdoses increased in the same period from 3.5 to 7.9.  At the same time there was a 40% decrease in heroin related overdoses, falling from 4.9 in 2016 to 2.9 in 2021.(2)  The study just confirmed the analysis of previous research published in December 2022 that looked at increases in mortality since 2001.(3)

Fentanyl is a new problem for the USA, but neither the increase in its consumption nor deaths tell us anything about the future of coca as Petro and Roy Barreras claimed.  Quite the opposite.  According to the UN, coca crops reached the figure of 230,000 hectares in 2022.(4)  Of course, Petro is not to blame for that, he only took over the presidency in August 2022, but it belies his statements that coca is a thing of the past due to the economic crisis in the coca regions of the country.

So, what can be said of Petro’s new drug policy? Well, the first thing is that there is at last a policy outlined in a public document.  They took their time in doing it but better later than never.  The document proposes with a certain amount of hyperbole Oxygen for the communities affected, through support from licit economies, environmental measures and treating the matter of consumption as a public health issue.  It also proposes Asphyxiation for drug trafficking organisations.  Furthermore, it proposes being the voice and leadership of “an international diplomatic strategy to change the paradigm in how the drugs phenomenon is dealt with.”(5)

The document kicks off with a correct analysis that contradicts the public declarations made by Petro and other high ranking government functionaries, a few weeks prior to its publication.  It is inexplicable how the president can boast about the collapse of coca at a point when it is almost certain his drugs policy was at the printers.  It must be due to mediocre functionaries, as this government has continued with the policy of Duque and the previous governments of hiring mediocre friends.  But in any case, the document gets somethings right, at last.

For decades, Colombia has made an enormous investment in human and economic terms in fighting drug trafficking.  Although there are no official figures on the outlay in fighting drugs, but the Drugs Observatory of Colombia calculates an annual average expenditure of 3.8 trillion pesos [885.2 million euros] ascending to an approximate investment in the last twenty years of 76 trillion pesos [17.7 billion euros]. Whilst some results have been achieved along the way, it is true that the two main goals have not been reached: reduction in the supply and demand for illicit drugs.

Even though 843,905 hectares of coca were forcibly eradicated between 2012 and 2022, the planted area in this period increased by 327%.  In 2022, Colombia had 230,000 hectares of coca with a productive potential of 1,738 tonnes of cocaine.  As for demand for psychoactive substances, between 1996 and 2019 an increase of 5.1% to 8.7% in the consumption of all illicit substances (marijuana, cocaine, base, extasy or heroin) was observed.(6)

The document then goes on to acknowledge that the collapse in cocaine consumption is not real but rather on the contrary there has been an increase.  It states that one of the first hypotheses was a global fall in demand for cocaine.(7)  They are trying to save their own skin.  There was no data to sustain the supposed hypotheses: none.  It was dreamed up by mediocres and no one else made the claim.  The document goes on to say “However, according to the lastest Global Cocaine Report from the UNODC (2023), demand has risen.(8)  At least we are having a debate about the reality of poorly written studies from the children of the lovers of their friends who they hired.

So, what do they propose? It would seem that they propose a shift in the punitive model without abandoning it completely.  They accept that the fumigations have not worked and that the periods of greatest fumigation do not match those of a lesser supply of the drug.(9)  But the punitive element continues to be an integral part of the policy, the supposed shift is a mirage.

The evidence has shown that a security strategy on its own is not enough [the emphasis is mine] but rather it must go hand in hand with actions to prevent crime and deal with the underlying causes.(10)
The document takes a look over the international treaties in the area, softening the real demands of the Single Convention of 1961 stating that it doesn’t prohibit anything but rather submits the plants and the drugs produced to a strict control.  There is not enough space here to go into detail on that debate.  But once again what the government is saying is not really the case.  The Single Convention does actually allow for some coca crops for medical and industrial purposes, mainly in Peru and also opium in India.  But it is not the case that Colombia has misinterpreted those treaties.  And this is a major issue, as any change in the paradigm is dependent on changes in those treaties or better still their complete derogation and the drawing up of new treaties under a new paradigm.

Whilst it is true that a country can allow coca crops for licit purposes, that is done with the permission of the UN control bodies, i.e. the USA.  Even traditional consumption of the coca leaf is frowned upon in the Convention.  Article 26.2 states that.

The Parties shall so far as possible enforce the uprooting of all coca bushes which grow wild. [emphasis is mine] They shall destroy the coca bushes if illegally cultivated.
Although Article 49 permits chewing of coca leaf in countries where it was already legal on the 1st of January 1961 (subparagraph 2a), it does so on the condition of banning it and eradicating it once and for all by 1986 (subparagraph 2e), something which was not achieved.  Whether they like it or not, this treaty has not been misinterpreted and the whole UN framework i.e. US policy in the area is the problem and not a misinterpretation of previous governments.  The supposed freedom to grow and licit use of coca that Petro imagines is not real.

Some states in the US legalised the production and recreational consumption of marijuana and clashed with the federal banking system that was not willing to receive funds from the industry, forcing many producers to resort to mechanisms more suited to money laundering in illicit industries.  Something similar happened in Uruguay.  The country regularised the recreational production and authorised and regulated the state control of it.  However, not even the Bank of the Republic of Uruguay was willing to receive money from a lawful activity in the country due to a fear of reprisals from the USA.

It would seem that the architects of the law did not foresee the problem that would arise in the banking industry, owner and lord of the commercial and financial transactions in Uruguay.  Were the Uruguayan legislators aware that it was not just a matter of convincing the international system of prohibition to reclassify cannabis as a substance in the drugs conventions but that they also had to convince the banking system to accept money from cannabis transactions?  Everything seems to indicate that the directives the banks implement are those that are simply related to the formality of Cannabis being a prohibited substance and the fact that the money from the cannabis market is legal, illegal, black or white has no bearing on decisions.(11)
Uruguay found itself at the mercy of the repressive whims of the US government and in practice was not autonomous nor sovereign.  Any drugs policy should take as its starting point that Colombia is not sovereign in the matter and it faces a massive enemy when it comes to solving the problem: the USA.  It is not a matter of a restrictive interpretation by Colombian governments, but rather the reality of imperialist domination.  This was the case with Uruguay.
… according to the Uruguayan government implementing a national law [on drugs] depends on the modification of a foreign law.  Note that at no stage is a modification of international drug treaties that Uruguay has ratified mentioned, but rather a federal law that internally classifies cannabis in the USA.(12)
The government has no proposals in the matter and its proposals for the peasants are remoulds of the previous policies with a slightly modified language.  They no longer talk of crop substitution but rather licit alternatives or economies.  And the licit alternatives for the countryside are the usual ones, exportable monocultures.

And the iron hand continues for the peasantry.  They have talked a lot about distinguishing between large and small-scale coca producers, increasing the definition of small-scale producer as one that has up to 10 hectares.  But the iron hand continues.  They have said that they will not use forcible eradication but…

Forcible eradication will be applied to crops that: (i) do not fall into the category of “small-scale grower”, (ii) increase in area, (iii) planted after the publication of this policy (regardless of size), (iv) have infrastructure for the production of base and cocaine hydrochloride, (v) do not fulfil their commitments to substitution and other mechanisms on the path to licit economies.(13)
Many peasants have some infrastructure to produce base, an infrastructure that is not all that complicated.  So, I don’t know who these peasants who will not be subjected to forcible eradication are.  It is not all that different from the policies of Uribe and Pastrana and borrows policies from Plan Colombia, the Exporting Stake of Uribe and the directives of the former Social Action and of course the Peace Laboratories of the European Union and the nefarious apologist for the economic policies of Uribe and also in passing the World Bank, the priest Francisco de Roux: the so-called Productive Alliances.
• Productive agreements between the public sector, private sector and grassroot economies
These consist of a tripartite collaboration between the state and the private sector as drivers of the productive reconversion, through actions such as capitalist investment, transfer of know-how and insertion into local, national and international markets.  To that end the “Productive agreements for life and hope” will be implemented, in which the state will offer benefits to the businesses that commercially associate themselves with the communities.  The Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism will facilitate and strengthen these type of alliances.(14)
Not that long ago in 2017, various current senators and representatives of what is now called the Historic Pact publicly denounced a proposal from Santos on the countryside.  They stated.
… limits [the communities] chances of defining the productive and economic model that would allow the building of peace with social justice, by tying it to technical criteria… that give priority to the establishment of alliances and chains of production between small and large producers and the efficient use of rural land, technological innovation, technical aid, credit, irrigation and commercialisation that favour an entrepreneurial large-scale agro-industrial production.(15)
So, what about now? Ah of course, the proposal is yours, and it doesn’t matter whether it is the same proposal or not, but rather who makes it.  And if the peasants do not agree with the economic model being imposed, what will happen to them?  Well, “a differential treatment will be promoted that will be transitory and conditioned on their signing up to processes on a path to licit economies”.(16)  In other words, they are going to jail.

As for money laundering, there is nothing new.  The government is obliged by various international treaties to fight against money laundering.  But the language used is telling.

This last point [laundering] is based on identifying high value financial targets, understood to be persons or legal entities, goods, assets or bodies that due to their nature, volume or characteristics may be exploited  by criminal groups (emphasis is mine) to hide or channel illicit funds and thus launder money from criminal activities.(17)
As with other governments, including the USA, the banks are seen as another victim.  More so than the peasants, exploited by criminal groups when in reality they themselves are criminal enterprises.  The massive laundering of assets that HSBC carried out in Mexico cannot be understood in any other light.  There are no measures taken to jail the banks’ directors, cancel their banking licence, freeze their assets, fine them to the point of leaving them naked in the street. No. The asphyxiation the government talks about is like the law, to be applied to some but not to others.  They are more concerned about illegal mining in coca zones than the laundering of assets only yards from the Presidential Palace.

The document is very similar to previous policies with some small changes, a slightly distinct language and “new” proposals that are not new.  Perhaps we could say that it indicates some goodwill in some aspects, but nothing more.  Petro can’t fight for a new paradigm without changing the current one.

Proposing a revision of the international legal framework does not imply a conflict between prohibition or total freedom in the market for psychoactive substances.  On the contrary, it means coming up with intermediate solutions such as alternatives to prison, harm reduction strategies and the responsible regulation adult use substances such as cannabis.  The progress, failure and lessons learnt from international cooperation on drugs represent an opportunity for the international community to evidence based innovative strategies and policies.(18)
Harm reduction is policy in most of the world, including some parts of the USA.  Alternatives to prison also, though in practice it is not always the case in all countries.  What is put forward is the current state of play, not a big struggle to change the paradigm.  It is a disappointing document, more so than previous policies, as this one tries to play with the language to stupefy, fool and lie to us.  In the end, it is another lost opportunity.  If you want to see something innovative in drug policy, you would be better off taking a drug, preferably a magic mushroom.


(1) H13N (16/08/2023) El mercado de la cocaína se desplomó por algo peor: fentanilo”; dijo el presidente Petro. Sandra Segovia Marin.

(2) Spencer, M.R. et al. (2023) Estimates of drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and oxycodone: United States, 2021. Vital Statistics Rapid Release; no 27. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. May 2023. DOI: 10.15620/cdc:125504. P.3

(3) Spencer MR, Miniño AM, Warner M. Drug overdose deaths in the United States, 2001–2021. NCHS Data Brief, no 457. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2022. DOI: https://dx.doi. org/10.15620/cdc:122556.

(4) El Colombiano (09/11/2023) Cultivos de coca en Colombia vuelven a romper récord: fueron 230.000 hectáreas en 2022.

(5) Ministerio de Justicia (2023) Sembrando Vida Desterramos el Narcotráfico: Política Nacional de Drogas (2023 -2033). Colombia.ítica%20Nacional%20de%20Drogas%202023%20-%202033%20%27Sembrando%20vida,%20desterramos%20el%20narcotráfico%27.pdf p.7

(6) Ibíd., p.16

(7) Ibíd. P. 18

(8) Ibíd.,

(9) Ibíd., p.24

(10) Ibíd., p. 26

(11) Galain, P. (2017) Mercado Regulado de Cannabis vs. Poli?tica Bancaria

(12) Ibíd.,

(13) Ministerio de Justicia (2023) Op. Cit. P.46

(14) Ibíd., p.49

(15) Open Letter (18/04/2017)   the signatories are Senator Iván Cepeda, Senator Alberto Castilla, , Representative Alirio Uribe, Representative Ángela María Robledo, Representative Víctor Correa y social organisations Fensuagro, Coordinación Étnica Nacional de Paz- Cenpaz, Comisión Colombiana de Paz, Grupo Género en la Paz , CINEP/Programa de Paz, Grupo Semillas, Corporación Jurídica Yira Castro.

(16) Ministerio de Justicia (2023) Op. Cit p.52

(17) Ibíd., P.72

(18) Ibíd., p.82

Return to top of page