Colombian president calls for drug policy rethink

No country has suffered more than Colombia because of drugs. Now, in a remarkable interview, Colombia's president has openly discussed the possibility of drug legalisation.

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has strong views on the impact of drugs. ‘Every sniff of cocaine,’ he says, ‘produces blood... It’s creating havoc to the environment... Much of the deforestation that you see in Colombia, in Peru, in Brazil is because of cocaine production. So it is not only the blood that it creates, the violence it creates – it’s destroying the world.’

This is not idle talk. For decades, Santos’ homeland of Colombia has been the global centre of cocaine production – an illegal trade that has devastated the country, causing crime, corruption and civil war.

In fact, while Western governments traditionally worry about the impact of drug consumption at home, the impact of drug production on the poor, often lawless countries in which it happens is far more severe than anything consumer nations experience.

Huge sums of money flow from the West into places like Latin America or Afghanistan. Vast profits allow producers and traffickers to buy the loyalty of politicians, bribe police chiefs and acquire deadly arsenals of weapons, which are used for murder and terrorism. Taliban Fighters in Afghanistan, who kill thousands of soldiers and civilians each year, are largely funded by sales of heroin to Western drug addicts. The cartels of Mexico, responsible for 42,000 deaths in the last five years, earn their income from the rich US market for cannabis and cocaine.

Efforts at crushing this trade are occasionally successful. In Colombia itself, a programme involving billions of dollars in aid, and extensive US military assistance, managed to reduce the country’s cocaine production by about a third. But many producers simply relocated to other countries.

Now, says President Santos, it may be time for a new strategy, to ‘try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking.’ How might that be done? Santos is cautious – but, he says: ‘If that means legalising, and the world thinks that’s the solution, I will welcome it.’

Lesser evil?

To many people, this sounds like madness. Drugs are illegal because they can ruin lives, causing deep misery to users and to those who have to live with them. The fight against drugs may be hard, but no society should just accept the presence of substances that are the source of so much evil.

Drug policy reformers, of whom Santos is among the most senior, do not deny that drugs cause terrible harm. Their argument for legalisation is twofold: first, the ‘war on drugs’ simply cannot be won with current methods. Second, the illegality of drugs allows a multibillion-dollar market to be controlled by gangsters and terrorists. That leads to terrible violence which is even worse than the impact of drug use itself.

You Decide

  1. What do you think is the most sensible drugs policy? Why do you think politicians are so reluctant to discuss this question?
  2. '˜The war on drugs is unwinnable. But so is the war on burglary. That doesn't mean either should be made legal.' Is this a good argument? Why / why not?


  1. Draft a letter to President Santos responding to his controversial views. What would you say?
  2. Buying illegal drugs can contribute directly to violence and environmental destruction in other countries. Research a particular case, and create a poster or infographic showing the consequences of buying that drug. Do you think this information might change attitudes to drug use?

Some People Say...

“What drug users do to themselves is their own business – governments shouldn't interfere.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why would legalisation solve anything?
The idea put forward by policy reformers is that trade and production of legalised drugs could be supervised and regulated by governments. Profits could be used to further anti-drug campaigns in schools and better treatment for addicts.
But then governments would be selling toxic substances to their own citizens!
Yes. Many people feel that this should never be acceptable, for any reason. It certainly wouldn't be comfortable.
And wouldn't drug use go through the roof?
That's hotly debated. Drug liberalisation in Portugal appears to have led to adecrease in drug use. But anti-drug campaigners say decriminalisation of cannabis in Alaska led to a big increase in use.

Word Watch

A large country at the northwestern tip of South America. It is one of the most populous countries in the region, but is also the most violent, and it remains the world's largest producer of cocaine. Much of Colombia is covered in jungle or high mountains, which makes it very difficult to police.
A drug made from the refined leaves of the coca plant. It is a powerful stimulant, and is one of the most frequently used illegal drugs in the world.
Civil war
The cocaine trade in Colombia funds a Communist guerrilla force called the FARC, which has been fighting against the government since the 1960s.
The Taliban is a military and religious faction in Afghanistan, where many farmers live by growing the opium poppy, which is used to make heroin. Sales of the drug raise millions of dollars per year for the Taliban – money which is used to attack Western troops.
Few drug policy reformers are in favour of total, blanket legalisation. Most proposals involve some drugs being legalised but controlled like alcohol or tobacco while others are available only with a prescription, or not at all.

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