Gearóid Ó Loingsigh (with kind donation of photos)
(Reading time: 7 mins.)
08 March 2023
Photo Coca Plants Northern Colombia: G.O.L.
The drugs issue in Colombia supposedly occupies the time of and is a concern to the government.
It has been an important issue for all the governments and as was to be expected it is one that has come up again in the dialogues with the ELN, despite this organisation denying any links to the drugs trade.
In the peace process with the FARC, agreement was reached on the issue. What was agreed to in Point 4 of the Havana Accord was abysmal and showed that the FARC did not understand the problem nor the possible solutions.
Of course, there could be a difference between what the FARC understood and what it agreed to, as at the end of the day the state won the war and imposed the greater part of what the FARC signed up to.
Following the agreement in the declarations of the main FARC commanders there is nothing to be seen that indicates that they really understood the problem. Will it be any different with the ELN?
One of the main concerns of the ELN has been to put a distance between themselves and the drugs trade.
Whilst it is true that the ELN is not the FARC, it is also true that in their areas of influence or those contiguous there are coca and poppy crops and the USA is not going to believe them that they have nothing to with it, whether they like it or not. The ELN accepts that it places taxes on economic activities and for the USA that is drug trafficking.
So, some time ago, the ELN issued a statement where they restated that they have nothing to do with drugs and invited an international commission to visit the country to see the reality for itself.(1) They ask that a UN delegate take part in the delegation. They also make a series of proposals in relation to the issue as such.
On the first point, the ELN feels sure of itself regarding its ability to show in practice that they are not drug traffickers. The ELN correctly states that:
When the Colombian government and the USA accuse the ELN of having an active role in the trade, they are lying, but above all they are covering up for those really responsible and the deep-seated problems, which indicate their unwillingness to take real and effective measures.(2)
But for the USA, it is not about whether they are guilty or not, it is a political tool and weapon and to give them a voice and vote in the affair is extremely dangerous. When the USA accuses the ELN of being drug traffickers, it is not making a mistake.
A mistake on their part would be to say something they believe and be wrong about it, but they accuse the ELN for political reasons on the basis of their strategic needs and the legal basis to their accusations is the least of it: it is just propaganda. By inviting them into the country, the ELN falls into their trap.
The UN participated in the commissions of investigation for supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The lack of evidence of such weapons wasn’t of much use.
The USA played around with supposed or real non-compliance by Saddam and did what they always wanted to do: invade Iraq. In this they counted on the explicit support of Great Britain and the tacit support of others.
There is a myth in Colombia that the only baddies are the USA and that other imperialist powers such as Canada (a country that is not seen as imperialist by many sections of the “Colombian left”), and other countries of the European Union are good, or at least not really that bad to the point they are friends of the Colombian people.
In the case of Colombia, the EU competes with the US in almost everything. The EU is Colombia’s second commercial partner and its companies are dominant in sectors such as mining, health and oil, amongst others.
The ELN also asks for the legalization of drugs. The demand is justified and quite opportune, but their counterparts i.e. the Colombian state is not sovereign in the matter and furthermore there is a need to clarify what is understood by legalization.
If by legalization they mean legalizing production for medical purposes, the bad news is that medical production is already legal. The thing is, that it is controlled. In fact, in many jurisdictions they don’t talk of illegal drugs but rather controlled substances.
Cocaine is a controlled substance. Its production for medical reasons is authorized by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) and production is almost exclusively carried out in Peru. And the market is quite small, not even reaching 400 kilos per year as I pointed out in an earlier article.(3) It solves nothing in relation to Colombia.
If on the other hand, they are talking about legalizing recreational use, something which could positively impact the Colombian countryside, then it is a matter of international jurisdiction. Colombia cannot legalise it on its own.
Colombia is a signatory to the Single Convention of 1961 that holds sway in the matter and in addition there are power relationships at play.
It doesn’t matter whether it legalises production for recreational use, it will never be able to legally export it, not only without the consent of the other country, but also the whole setup of the UN and its bodies such as the INCB i.e. at the end of the day, the USA.
Even if it is legalized for internal consumption, there are other problems that have already arisen in countries such as Uruguay which legalised recreational use of marijuana or some of the states in the USA.
The banking system dare not receive funds from those legalised markets and the producers resort to old methods more akin to money laundering to deposit legal funds in legal accounts in a legal banking system.
Even in the hypothetical case of the USA and the EU agreeing, the legalisation of cocaine would go far beyond Colombian cocaine and would include other drugs such as opium and its derivatives such as heroin. It is worth looking at the drugs market and its production.
According to the UN, cocaine is produced directly or indirectly in eight Latin American countries (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia account for almost all of it), whilst 57 countries produce opium, the Asian countries being the largest producers (Afghanistan, Myanmar and Mexico dominate the market).
Cannabis, which is the most widely consumed drug in the world is produced in 154 countries.
For 2020, the UN calculated that there were 246,800 hectares of opium and 234,000 of coca.(4) They also calculate a production of 7,930 tonnes in 2021(5) and 1,982 tonnes of cocaine in 2020.(6) We are not talking about small quantities of production or land. Almost half a million hectares between these two drugs and 64 countries.
Any proposal of legalisation has to include these countries and their peasantry.
The number of drug users is also large. The UN calculates that in 2020 there were 209 million cannabis consumers, 61 million people who had consumed opiates, 24 million amphetamine users, 21 million cocaine consumers and 20 million users of ecstasy.(7)
They say that in 2020, they had calculated that 284 million people between the ages of 15-64 years used drugs, i.e. one in every 18 people in this cohort.(8)
There are consequences to this, in economic but also cultural terms regarding the use and abuse of substances. But there also consequences in terms of health. Some 600,000 people received some treatment for drug problems.(9)
So when the ELN says that “Drug addicts are ill and should be cared for by the states and not pursued as delinquents”(10) their idea is correct, however, the size of the problem is greater than the real capacity of the health systems in the countries that have large numbers of users.
Photo Opium Poppy Nariño Colombia: G.O.L.
The total number of people injecting drugs is 5,190,000 in Asia, 2,600,000 in Europe and 2,350,000 in the Americas (almost 75% of which is in north America).(11)
Of those who inject, 5.5 million have Hepatitis C, 1.4 million are HIV positive and 1.2 million are HIV positive and also have Hepatitis C.(12) These are not minor problems and are high-cost illnesses.
Of course, these figures do not include the unlawful abuse of legal pharmaceuticals. In the USA almost 80% of the overdoses are from the consumption of legal opiates such as fentanyl, which caused 78,238 deaths in 2021 in that country.
But the issue does require legalisation and not other means that the FARC aimed for. The peasants of Colombia did not make a mistake in choice of crop when they planted coca. Coca was and continues to be a very profitable crop, despite all the difficulties that it generates.
There is no need to substitute it with another crop such as cocoa or African palm etc. It is not about the crop but rather the production model and the political and economic context.
The increase in coca production in Colombia, is not due to subjective factors such as the decisions of peasants, not even of the drug barons and less still of the insurgencies but rather objective economic factors.
This is a key point. It was the decisions of northern countries that impacted the countryside and pushed thousands of peasants around the world to grow opium poppy and coca. The neoliberal cutback policies in the north also contributed to the dramatic rise in problem drug use due to the increase in misery in those countries.
In any discussion we should distance ourselves from the idea that the drugs problem can be solved in a negotiation with the ELN, although they could negotiate some points that would contribute positively to a solution.
But the problem is political and the free trade agreements and other measures that had a negative impact on the countryside have to be looked at again.
Also, they have to reach an agreement with the Colombian government, not for some perks for peasants nor corrupt projects and budgets such as those the FARC agreed to, but rather a political agreement where the government argues and campaigns for the derogation of the Single Convention of 1961.
(1) ELN (2022) Propuesta para una política antidrogas https://eln-voces.net/propuestas-para-una-politica-antidrogas/
(4) UNODC (2022) World Drug Report Booklet 2. https://www.unodc.org/res/wdr2022/MS/WDR22_Booklet_2.pdfp.53
(6) Ibíd., p.54
(7) Ibíd., p. 13
(8) Ibíd., p.15
(9) Ibíd., p.46
(10) ELN Op. Cit.
(11) UNODC (2022) Op. Cit., p.35
(12) Ibíd., p. 32
(13) See https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/nchs_press_releases/2022/202205.htm