Drug Legalization: A View From a Gringa in Colombia

by: Kara Crawford 

What do you think of when you hear “Colombia?” Violence, hot weather, the FARC, and if you’re well-versed in Colombian history, the paramilitaries; you might know about Plan Colombia and the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., if you’re a foreign policy nerd.  Of course, you know about cocaine. [1] But there is a hidden reality of Colombia, one that is unknown and invisible to people for whom it is not a daily reality: displacement. Colombia is among the countries with the highest numbers of internally displaced people in the world, with an estimated 3.6-5.2 million who have been displaced from their land. This is roughly between 8 and 11 percent of the country’s population.

I feel it necessary to begin this with a disclaimer: U.S. foreign policy, in my humble opinion, is stupid, selfish, and narcissistic. It hinges on the ideology that the U.S. is not only an absolute superpower and, therefore, the “most important” country in the world, but also that every action of US foreign policy must serve to reinforce that ideology and position of power.  No matter the cost. [2] I think Latin America is one of the clearest cases of this. The US has a history, especially strong since early in the Cold War, of military and political intervention in the region and continues to economically colonize the region and generally treat it as absolutely inferior.

The unthinkable levels of internal displacement in Colombia are largely a direct result of the historical and present political, military and economic intervention by the U.S. in the country. Some of the displacement can specifically be accounted to multinational corporations from the U.S. and Canada, which is particularly influential today — especially in natural resource extraction, looking for land to exploit both for natural resource extraction and crop production.

Another cause of displacement is the almost half-century of violence the country has experienced; which, arguably, also has a lot to do with US intervention and domination. [3] Finally, another significant cause of internal displacement in Colombia has been the fumigation which has taken place as a part of Plan Colombia, a U.S. policy aimed at halting drug trade coming from Colombia by killing coca plants. I have been told that the fumigation kills all plants, so the campesinos, or “peasant farmers,” who depend on growing crops have their livelihoods stripped away by U.S. policies.

Halting or diminishing the drug trade has been the cause of so many lost lives in Latin America, and the policies implemented under Plan Colombia are extremely off-base and polemic, for a variety of reasons. Most simply put, I believe that the U.S. foreign policies around drug trade address the wrong issues. They are more focused on keeping the drugs and violence out of the U.S. — with little sign of improvement — and less on preventing drug trade-related violence everywhere.

The ideology upon which drug trade-related policies, like Plan Colombia, rest is that the root cause of the problems related to drug trade is something distant, something away from the U.S.: production. This, of course, leads to the aforementioned issue of displacement.  Thousands of people are then suddenly finding themselves without land in the aftermath of fumigation. Additionally, there are problems around indigenous rights, because coca is a sacred and medicinal plant to many Andean indigenous peoples.[4]

But the ideological fallacy of Plan Colombia is rooted in the idea that it does nothing  to address the drug trade from the consumption side of the market. Drug trade is, in my understanding, heavily fueled by consumption. Without the demand for drugs, created by the consumers, there is no reason for production. Yet Plan Colombia does nothing to stop or at least control the trade from the consumption side.  It simply misdirects its efforts in a way that causes death, destruction and displacement.

Legalization would provide an inroad to addressing the drug trade from the consumption side of the market. Of course, there are perks for the US government in legalizing.  After legalization, the government can impose a hefty tax on drugs, providing more tax income for the U.S. budget, which, after the fiasco that was 2011, we all know is desperately needed.

But, more importantly, legalization would help quell the drug trade-related violence. For example, take the short-lived prohibition on alcohol, where the mob was heavily involved in the production and sale of bootlegged liquor.  Today, you don’t see gangs forming to smuggle and sell bootlegged liquor, let alone the resultant violence of the illicit trade. I believe drug legalization could act in a similar fashion. Take away the illicit market, and you take away the “need” for violence to protect and dominate that market.

So, U.S. government, stop fumigating Colombian fields and start taxing drugs. Think critically before you make stupid and narcissistic policy decisions that affect far too many people negatively. And drug users, I don’t want to guilt-trip you, but I’ll do it anyway: please think of the effects on the lives of millions of other people worldwide of the drugs you use for your pleasure before you use them. Think critically before you use and take for granted where those drugs came from.

Kara Johansen Crawford is a graduate of DePaul University, with a BA in International Studies and Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies. Kara has been actively involved in activism and community service for much of her life and is particularly passionate about labor justice, queer issues and engaging faith communities on social issues. Kara is currently serving as a Mission Intern with the United Methodist Church at the Centro Popular para América Latina de Comunicación, based in Bogotá, Colombia. Follow Kara on Twitter @revolUMCionaria and on her blog.


[1] If you were thinking: “It’s a university in New York City” or “It’s a college in Chicago,” you FAIL.  Both of those are spelled “Columbia” — because the US never learned to spell the country’s name properly, apparently.

[2] Can you say “collateral damage?”

[3] Unfortunately, the violence is far too complex to elaborate much in this post. But definitely something worthwhile to look into if you’re interested in Latin America. Or U.S. foreign policy. Or both.

[4] Again, way too complex an issue to elaborate much. But also worth looking into if you’re interested.

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2 responses to “Drug Legalization: A View From a Gringa in Colombia

  1. Pingback: Suggested Stops for Obama’s Next Trip to Colombia « In Our Words·

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