“It doesn’t make sense,” Joe Biden said on October 6, pardoning some 6,000 Americans convicted of possession of a small amount of marijuana. Although cannabis is completely legal in 19 US states, at the federal level it is still considered as dangerous as heroin and more so than fentanyl, two drugs that last year killed more than 100,000 Americans from opioid overdoses. The point is that the president’s admission applies to drug policy in general. Prohibition is not working, and where it is seen most strongly is with cocaine, not cannabis.
Since Richard Nixon launched the “war on drugs” half a century ago, the flow of cocaine into the United States has skyrocketed. World production reached a record 1,982 tonnes in 2020, according to the latest data, although this is likely an underestimate. That record comes despite decades of strenuous and costly efforts to curb supply. Between 2000 and 2020, the United States spent $10 billion in Colombia to stamp out coca production, paying local armed forces to spray herbicides from the air or uproot bushes by hand. It did not help at all: when coca is eradicated from one mountain, it is transferred to another.
In Colombia, murders are three times more frequent than in the US; in Mexico, four times
The greatest damage falls on the countries dedicated to production and trafficking, where drug profits feed violence. In Colombia, murders are three times more frequent than in the United States; in Mexico, four times. In some areas, drug gangs have so much money and so many weapons that they rival the state and offer police and officials the option of “silver or lead”, corrupt or be killed. The ban also expels children from school, as drug gangs favor recruiting members who are too young to be prosecuted.
Two presidents, Gustavo Petro, from Colombia, and Pedro Castillo, from Peru, demand a change. Petro has proposed moving the police away from coca-growing peasants by decriminalizing coca leaf production and allowing Colombians to consume cocaine safely. These are good ideas, but cocaine gangs will remain powerful as long as cocaine is illegal in the rich countries that consume most of the production, such as the United States.
Partial measures, such as not prosecuting consumers, are not enough. If production remains illegal, there will be criminals producing it; and the decriminalization of consumption is likely to increase demand and boost profits. The real answer is full legalization that allows non-criminals to supply a product that is tightly regulated and highly taxed, like whiskey and cigarettes. (Advertising should be prohibited).
Cocaine-related deaths have quintupled since 2010
Legal cocaine would be less dangerous, since legitimate producers would not adulterate it with other white powders, and the dosage would be clearly labeled, like on whiskey bottles. Cocaine-related deaths have increased fivefold in the United States since 2010, largely because gangs cut it with fentanyl, a cheaper and more deadly drug.
Legalization would weaken the gangs. There is no doubt that some would find other income, but the loss of profits from cocaine would help curb their ability to recruit, buy high-end weapons and corrupt officials. All of this would reduce drug-related violence everywhere, but especially in the most affected region, Latin America.
What would it mean to legalize cocaine?
If cocaine were legal, more people would use it. For some, it will be a choice: to snort a substance that they know is unhealthy because it gives them pleasure. Now, cocaine is addictive. The paucity of research makes it difficult to know how comparable it is to alcohol or tobacco in this regard. More studies and greater efforts are needed to treat addiction. All this (and more) could be financed with the money saved by ending the “war”.
Privately, many officials understand that prohibition works no better now than it did in Al Capone’s day. Right now, full legalization seems politically impossible: few politicians want to be branded “soft on drugs.” However, advocates of legalization must continue to insist. The benefits—less dangerous cocaine, safer streets, and greater political stability throughout the Americas—far outweigh the costs.