Right now there are conversations about to start at “la Havana” (Cuba) between the colombian government and the FARC (a revolutionary marxist army self nominated “Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). To create a bit of context, in case you don’t know the why and how. The story of why the Colombian government ended up in the same table with the FARC, why a democratic elected government has to negotiate with what is basically a terrorist group now days is very complex and involves many factors, non of which is the center of this post, but let’s say around the 1950’s Colombia was a very unequal country (still is) and there was a long history of violence to solve conflicts, starting by the eternal wars held between both dominating political parties since the very independence of the country. With that in mind it is not difficult to imagine that in the middle of the Andes a family that suffered the struggle of that violence got together and chose to defend themselves as sort of a paramilitary group. Few years later with the new comunist ideas arriving from eastern Europe, this group grew and became a guerrilla group around the 60’s vindicating some claims for the poorest. Later on and in looking for fincancing their war against the state they got involved more and more in drug trafficking and around the 80’s tried to create a political party. In this scenario, almost all the members of this political party were killed and the group decided to abandon a multiplicity of peace process that came to happen with other guerrilla groups around the 80’s by both paramilitary and military individuals. This led to a even more complicated war strategies from the FARC which included kidnapping and murdering political personalities as well as civilians and asking for ransoms; in many cases the result of those kidnappings were the death of the civilian, military or political person, specially of the civilians since the FARC tried to keep some alive so that they could trade them for members of their group held in jail. Finally in the 90’s the government tried to held some peace conversations with the FARC during which this guerrillas continued kidnapping and assassination of civilians, and finally those peace conversations were broken and an alliance with the US Government known as the “Plan Colombia” was signed. Couple of years later Mr. Uribe came into office as president and started an offensive against the guerrilla groups making them go back to the guerrilla’s war techniques. Given the geography of Colombia and the extension of the country, achieving a military victory seems impossible, so the government has agreed to negotiate with them.
Feeding this war, as well as feeding most of the illegal groups in Colombia is the money that the illegal drug business produce. Therefore this subject is over the table in this peace negotiation process and is the problem I want to address in this post.
There are some facts I would like to state at first and are the following. Drugs (legal or illegal) are highly addictive and when a person becomes addicted it is a health issue, when several people become addicted it is a public health issue, the addicted person is sick, has a mental problem which is basically a chemical imbalance in the brain, and needs the specific product to function, it can be cured, but it is not an easy process. Second, the fact that some drugs are illegal (cocaine, marijuana) creates a profitable market. Third, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, etc are ideal places for growing this plants since the territory is complicated, the governments can’t do not spread all over the territories and in some cases there are ancestral ties to the usage of these plants (which means there is also a cultural background). Forth, the plants per se are not evil, they do not kill anyone, and they do not make anyone an addict, is the processing and the abuse of them what makes them dangerous. Fifth, this business is responsible for the loss of great areas of different kinds of forests, since the business is so profitable. Sixth, everyone is free to do as they please, the exercise of individual liberties is an important asset for democracies. A government is responsible for taking actions that prevent or diminish the impact on the population from natural or man made problems.
That being said, I think it is already quite clear that there is no simple answer to the problem of the illegal drug market. So allow me to portrait some of the thesis I’ve heard.
First, citizens have the right to exercise their liberties, so the government should legalize drugs, and take advantage of the taxes it will generate. So my individual liberties are more important than the general good if we see addiction to drugs as a public health problem. I disagree, if we follow this approach, government should not provide vaccines, or drugs for the control of HIV, for instance. If you don’t want to get HIV just don’t have sex or have sex with protection if you can afford it, but if by some random chance you get it, I am sorry, you are on your own, you got it in the free exercise of your sexual liberty. Not a really acceptable result.
Second, and adding up on the first one, the state has to legalize and use the tax money from this drug business to help drug addicts, since it is not their fault they are addicts. While it is true that there is some responsibility (if the country has at is core of values the solidarity) to help those who have fallen into this (or any other) disease, there is also an individual responsibility specially those individuals who have had education and have clear the consequences of their actions and obviously are sick during the addiction, but were not sick when they decided to try this substances that it is pretty clear now days are highly addictive. Therefore, just in the same way the government doesn’t use the taxes from the alcohol business to build highways so that the alcoholics can drink and drive, in finding a solution to the illegal drug market and it’s impact on society a government should find a midpoint.
Third, continue with the illegal market as it is now. Clearly as of now this market has generated a public health issue bigger than the addiction to drugs itself. The amount of dead people secondary to this illegal business is way higher than the one that could be produce by people overdosing. And obviously is the main fuel of Colombia’s current war.
So, what to do. I want to point out with this examples that this business is is a complex one and it’s consequences very complicated to foresee weather making it legal or continuing with the current policy. Just today Amsterdam is banning foreigners from their Marijuana coffee shops, and only allowing nationals that previously are in a list to use be able to use them.
The problem with drugs is not only the business itself, it is also their potential to harm (the user and other people) and their potential to make one person dependent. Which creates sort of a scale of really bad drugs, like heroine with a huge potential to make one person dependent to it, and also when someone is under the effects becomes dangerous for other people (and even more when they are in need to use the drug and have no means to buy it). But a much better analysis of what drugs do to the user and to the society can be found here or in a study published by Lancet, one of the most important medical journals the name of the study is “Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis” and I believe you can find a pdf version of it should be available here Just to comment on the study, there are multiple factors included, and it has a huge bias, number one is done in the UK where the damage to the society is not as bad as in Colombia, second, precisely they include that variable (International consequences) but I think it is greatly underrated (Mexico’s and Colombia’s current situation speak for themselves), third, the high score of alcohol is greatly influenced by it’s widespread use, one has to realize that if cocaine or heroine were used in the scale alcohol is used, they would get a much higher level of danger specially for the society.
So, now this is my approach to this problem, government should legalize drugs, both cocaine and marijuana, but their selling shall not be open to anyone and can’t be cheap. The government should make sure that it suffices the demand therefore discouraging illegal markets but must control the people who produce it and the people who consume it. And some responsibility should be called upon the individual, since and specially in Colombia, everyone who has put a line of cocaine or a joint in their system has pretty clear that they helped buy a bullet or a gun or a bomb that eventually killed somebody. If the market is legal, still the individual has a responsibility with him or herself and with the society. And the society should be responsible enough and teach (every parent and every friend) that in the end, drugs are drugs, they have nasty consequences (all of them even marijuana) and one should be responsible with them