Colombia, one of the world’s top producers of cocaine, has long been a key partner in Washington’s failed war on drugs. But Gustavo Petro, the newly sworn-in Colombian president, has made good on a campaign pledge to take his country in a different direction. Last month, he said he would end forced eradication of coca, and support legislation to decriminalize and regulate cocaine sales in an effort to undercut illicit markets and the profit motive that drives them.
Here at home, the Biden administration has also signaled an important shift. In April, Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, introduced a new strategy that directs federal resources to harm-reduction services. The aim is to prevent deaths from opioid overdose by increasing access to medical treatment and addiction recovery programs, and promoting alternatives to incarceration for minor drug-related offenses.
This new strategy recognizes that the way we have approached the drug problem here at home hasn’t worked. But U.S.-led international drug control efforts have also been a staggering failure, contributing to violence, degradation and displacement in places like Colombia, which largely export cocaine. It has also fueled the move toward synthetic opioids like fentanyl, driving overdose deaths here at home. The Biden administration’s new forward-thinking national policies are a step in the right direction, but the president must go further and end the global drug war.
In the 1980s, the United States began working closely with the Colombian National Police to reduce illegal drug production and trafficking, including by eradicating coca fields and intercepting smugglers. Then in 1999, President Bill Clinton signed into law Plan Colombia as violence and drug trafficking escalated and a concern about guerrilla influence grew. The plan sought to stabilize the nation and undermine drug production, among other things. But the militarized crackdown failed to stamp out cocaine production.
Plan Colombia has also taken a staggering human toll. The Truth Commission created in 2016 as part of the peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia recently found that the war on drug trafficking left more than nine million victims, a vast majority of whom were civilians. More than 450,000 people died, 121,768 went missing, thousands were kidnapped, raped or tortured, and millions were displaced. The panel called on Colombia and the United States to move toward the legal regulation of drugs.