Drug eradication efforts in Colombia. (AP)

Drug eradication efforts in Colombia. (AP)


Q&A: Dr. Angélica Durán-Martínez on Petro’s Pitch to Shift Colombia’s Drug Policy

By Jon Orbach

The political scientist covers what the Colombian leader’s proposal to decriminalize cocaine means for Latin American and U.S. ties

Decriminalizing cocaine is easier said than done. Colombia’s president has done the first part.

In his first address to the UN General Assembly in September 2022, Gustavo Petro lambasted current global drug policy, saying: “From my wounded Latin America, I demand you end the irrational war on drugs.”

Next comes the task of getting the job done. But what would decriminalization look like? It could involve a phased process, starting with allowing farmers to legally grow coca, as occurs in Bolivia. Colombia, the world’s largest source for cocaine, already suspended aerial fumigation with glysophate in 2015 and forced eradication in August 2022.

And Petro may have momentum on his side. After all, he’s resurrecting a question about the efficacy of current drug war policy that a group of former Latin American presidents has been asking for more than a decade. In early November, Nobel Peace Prize winner and one of Petro’s predecessors, Juan Manuel Santos (2010–2018), told El País: “Prohibition must be abolished, otherwise, the drug war will have worse and worse consequences.”

But there is a hurdle: The country’s longstanding relationship with the United States. Since 2000, Washington has spent $13 billion on the counternarcotics program Plan Colombia. Petro’s pitch to change his country’s drug policy comes amid an ongoing rise in the number of U.S. cocaine overdoses.

Angélica Durán-Martínez
Dr. Angélica Durán-Martínez

“There is a lot to be said about the domestic market, but cocaine exports are what keep this market as enormous and complex as it is,” explains Dr. Angélica Durán-Martínez, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the author of the award-winning book The Politics of Drug Violence. “It could start to get much more complicated from the U.S. side of the story if it sees that Colombia is doing something to start legalizing exports.”

AS/COA Online spoke with Durán-Martínez about Petro’s proposal to change Colombia’s drug policy and what it means for the Americas.

AS/COA Online: Do you think Petro's government will be able to make substantial steps toward decriminalization? What forces could stop it?

Angélica Durán-Martínez: Yes, but there is a lot more that can be done in terms of trafficking and distribution, which is the part the government has tried not to get involved in. That part of the story is way more complicated than decriminalization.

The difficulties are both logistical and practical: how to regulate, what kinds of policies, what kinds of institutions, what kinds of regulators are going to be intervening in the process.

And the other obstacles are, of course, political—both inside Colombia and outside. With the recent election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, there is a window of opportunity in terms of having more allies thinking along similar lines regarding the need to change and introduce new drug regulation policies.

"It’s a very difficult political decision to say, 'We're going to legalize cocaine exports.'"

AS/COA Online: The White House has said that it doesn't support the decriminalization of cocaine. What will the two countries' relationship look like after decades of the war on drugs if Colombia takes substantial steps toward decriminalizing cocaine? 

Durán-Martínez: That's tricky because on the one hand, there are some people within the Biden administration who would be less likely to just start fighting directly with the Colombian government, especially if these policies are mostly domestic. Of course, there is going to be a lot of opposition internally in the United States, and that may start impacting the money coming to Colombia. More Republicans in Congress or people who are really against this might start blocking aid to Colombia.  

But even though the United States has said directly, “We are not supporting this,” it may assume a similar position to what has happened with marijuana legalization: “We don't like this. We are not going to say that we support it, but we are not going to do anything to stop it from happening as it is now.”  

It could start to get much more complicated from the U.S. side of the story if it sees that Colombia is doing something to start legalizing exports. Of course, exports are really the core. There is a lot to be said about the domestic market, but cocaine exports are what keep this market as enormous and complex as it is. It’s a very difficult political decision to say, “We're going to legalize cocaine exports.”  

AS/COA Online: Would decriminalizing cocaine in Colombia be enough to change the state of narcotrafficking? What would those changes mean in terms of the trafficking of fentanyl? 

Durán-Martínez: Not right now because the largest cocaine markets and profits are abroad. Colombia does not have big fentanyl markets like the ones coming from Mexico. There are some connections, of course, but I don’t foresee an initial impact on fentanyl trafficking.  

In terms of the domestic cocaine markets for Colombia, [decriminalization] would have an implication. With any form of decriminalization internally, there may be some impact on micro-trafficking, which has become a lot more profitable inside Colombia. There might be some benefits for users, of course, for treating addiction, for dealing with low purity levels, and the most common cheaper derivatives of cocaine. Will that impact the largest drug trafficking markets? No, because these are very large, very complex markets. Micro-trafficking is a very important part of it, but it’s not the main thing. 

And there is still a huge amount of cocaine that leaves the borders to the United States, to Europe, and to other parts of South America. So, this will work more as a potential experiment rather than really thinking that this is going to have a large impact on the structure of drug trafficking organizations. Will it eliminate trafficking groups? No. Will it eliminate violence? No. It’s more like, “Okay, let's try to do a domestic experiment and see what impact it has.”  

AS/COA Online: Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia all have leftist leaders now, with Peru and Bolivia also being sources for cocaine. Do you think Petro's potential drug policy changes could lead to changes in those countries as well? 

Durán-Martínez: Bolivia has a system for legalizing coca production for legal uses of coca leaves, which is the kind of thing that Petro will also try to replicate in Colombia by creating a system of coca production both for legal uses and perhaps for domestic consumption, while still maintaining prohibition of cocaine trafficking. Bolivia has started to see more problems with drug trafficking, with the refining of coca leaves into paste and then into cocaine. But, the social sectors that led to the creation of this legal coca market are very keen on maintaining that distinction: that they are not producing for international cocaine trafficking.  

So as much as there may be some ideological alignment between the governments, because of the internal politics of Bolivia and how Bolivia has thought about drug regulation, there are still major differences that would prevent synchronization. In Bolivia, the population is not keen on drug legalization, as the country has just started to see the problems that Colombia has faced for a long time, with some violence, for example, and with more presence of large drug-trafficking organizations. It can go two ways: either cracking down a little more on that illegal market or maybe trying to jump on board with Colombia’s plan. But I don't think it's automatic that Bolivia would say they’re going to jump into this.  

Peru is an in-between. Politically, it has been in flux. And I do think that on some level, all these things are connected with domestic politics. Both Bolivia and Peru have been much keener than Colombia historically on thinking about regulating the legal coca market. So, in some ways they do have that tradition stronger than Colombia, and it's possible that because they’ve had legal coca regulations for longer, they may be willing to consider these discussions with Petro. But in the short run, it’s risky for everybody involved.  

So, there is this window of opportunity, but it really depends a lot on diplomacy and on what specifically is going to be proposed in Colombia. What will the nuts and bolts of Petro's proposal be? 

AS/COA Online: What are you watching for to happen next in terms of regional drug policy? What do you expect to be the most immediate regional trend? 

Durán-Martínez: We are definitely at a complex moment regionally for drug markets and organized crime. Many more countries in the region are experiencing problems. The markets are expanding to places that we wouldn't necessarily think of as having problems with drug trafficking or crime, like the northern parts of Peru, parts of Argentina, and parts of Chile.  

That creates both urgency and a possibility of thinking, “We need to really think about this before it keeps proliferating.” But it also creates complications because we're still in a polarized environment, and for many sectors, the way to address those problems is with more repression, with more police intervention. We have a complex situation that seems to be getting more complex: more fragmented geographically with higher levels of markets growing.  

On the other hand, we're going back to revitalizing a drug policy discussion initiated by the ex-Presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico created more than a decade ago, when they founded the Latin American Commissions on Drugs and Democracy in 2011. That commission put some life into the drug policy discussion again. Then, it died down, but that discussion is starting to be at the top of the agenda again for many countries. Lula’s election is crucial because Lula has also been very outspoken about this. 

The difficulty is always that it's easier to move in the direction of, “Let's talk about decriminalizing consumption, let's talk about decriminalizing certain legal uses of things like coca leaf.” It's always more complicated to talk about how we are going to think about production and distribution, and that has always been the case in drug policy discussions. At this point, we also have more than 10 years of discussions that, at some level, are going to help us move forward. 

It's very complicated, and there are many moving parts, but the more you have people talking about it, and especially people in high levels of power, the more possible it becomes to move in a direction where we start having even small experiments to try different things.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.