Legalize Cocaine: The Real Way To End Drug War Violence In Colombia

Bill Frezza Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute
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Why does the United States insist on exporting violence to developing countries? Is it because our politicians pay little price for the human toll exacted by our failed social policies? Some 5.5 million American consumers seem determined to satisfy their appetite for cocaine regardless of the law, according to the 2014 UN World Drug Report. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of our 535 Members of Congress continue to believe they can end that market by doubling down on a war on drugs that includes sending heavy weapons and billions of dollars to client governments — many of them corrupt — to kill the people working to meet that demand.

Human Rights Watch estimates that 200,000 Colombians have died in drug war related violence. 60,000 have died in Mexico in the last eight years alone, a transit country our policies have transformed into a war zone. Perhaps the carnage could be justified if the four decades long war on drugs was working to protect Americans from the folly of their own consumption choices. But there is no evidence for this. Year after year we fill our jails, Colombians fill their graves, and nothing seems to change. America’s entrenched duopoly political system seems hell-bent on continuing — and even escalating — this failed war.

Thankfully, some of its victims are beginning to take matters into their own hands, seeking to opt out of the battle. ¡Verdad! (Spanish for “truth”) is a coalition of Colombian citizens working together to end the violence created by the drug war in Colombia. I had a chance to interview its soft-spoken founder, Daniel Raisbeck, at the recent 2015 Antigua Forum in Guatemala. (You can listen to the interview on YouTube here or download it from iTunes here.)

Raisbeck is an unlikely warrior. A thirtysomething professor of Latin and Greek classics, he grew up in Bogota during the reign of the infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. One of his family members was killed in a botched airline bombing targeting a prominent Colombian politician. Since then the Medellin Cartel was supplanted by the Cali Cartel, which has been supplanted by the FARC in a never ending economic cycle under which insatiable demand will always find a supply. Ironically, and perfectly underscoring the hypocrisy of America’s war on drugs, he was introduced to marijuana as a high school student by the children of American DEA agents stationed in Bogota!

Though not a pot smoker himself, Raisbeck sees hope in the recent trend of certain American states to end drug prohibition, at least for marijuana. “The general trend in both the U.S. and Europe seems to be moving away from prohibition,” he says. And though he recognizes that cocaine is both more dangerous and more addictive, he is tired of seeing his countrymen die in a fruitless effort to stamp it out.

“The entire drug war is based on hypocrisy, it’s based on a lie,” states Raisbeck. “It’s based on the lie that if you try to attack the production of coca leaf and cocaine you can drive the prices up to a point where people in the United States or Europe will stop buying it. This has absolutely failed.”

Raisbeck hopes to create a “Big Tent” coalition that can work together to legalize the cultivation, processing, and export of cocaine in Colombia. He is actively seeking advisory board members from the current government, opposition politicians, the clergy, farmers, academia, the press, mothers who have lost children to the drug war, bankers seeking to legitimize this sector of the economy, and even the FARC. “We don’t have to agree on everything. We just have to agree to end drug violence, if we take appropriate steps.”

The goal is to tax and regulate cocaine just as governments around the world tax and regulate alcohol and tobacco, potent self-administered drugs that kill countless more people every year than cocaine. Raisbeck feels it is better to use the tax proceeds to administer drug prevention and rehabilitation programs than to continue waging an endless civil war that has only brought death to Latin America and corruption to politicians, judges, and police.

A peace process of sorts is already underway in Colombia, with the government negotiating to get the FARC to lay down its arms. While a step in the right direction, Raisbeck has little hope that anything short of ending Colombian drug prohibition will yield a permanent solution. While this may make his country a pariah in the eyes of the American government, this is a price he is willing to pay. At least until Uncle Sam wakes up, takes a hard look in the mirror, and acknowledges the hard truth of the drug war’s failure.

Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the host of RealClear Radio Hour.