Changes in Colombian Drug Cultivation and Culture: A Potential Shift from Cocaine to Medical Marijuana

November 12, 2018

Between the 1980s and early 2000s, Colombia was notorious for drug trafficking and the cultivation of illegal drugs, primarily Cocaine. The Colombian drug traffickers were the primary suppliers of cocaine in many Unites States cities during the later half of the century and were the lead suppliers for the Miami “crack cocaine epidemic” that killed hundreds of Americans due to overdoses and thousands of Colombians and Americans alike in drug violence. An average year in the drug business would generate approximately 12 billion dollars, and created Colombia’s notorious drug lords and cartels, bringing fame, wealth, and political power to drug kingpins Pablo Escobar and the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers among others— all of whom were listed on Forbes Magazine billionaires list (United Press International, 1989). The Medellín Cartel, led by Pablo Escobar brought in up to $60 million in profits per day at their peak (History, 2017). The Colombian drug trade led to tens of thousands of reported deaths in Colombia, however, this number is estimated to be much higher with many unreported deaths (Human Rights Watch, 1992). While drug lords flourished, the AUC and FARC guerilla groups began using illegal drug cultivation and trafficking to fund their revolutions. The influence of Colombian cocaine was so extreme that it prompted U.S. President Ronald Raegan’s “War on Drugs” which in turn lead to the U.S. having one of the highest incarceration rates in the world (Turner, 2016). The drug lords’ reigns slowly came to an end over ten years ago, however, Colombia’s guerilla groups replaced the drug lords in drug trafficking as the demand for illegal drugs proved to be immensely profitable. Today, nearly 300 million people worldwide have consumed cocaine, and over half of the cocaine they have used still comes from Colombia.
In 2016, the Colombian government and FARC signed a peace deal that planned for the demilitarization of the guerilla group, and the burning of coca farms— the land of which would be reallocated among ex-FARC members during their reintegration process. The hope of this plan was that coca plantations would be transformed into farms for legal crops such as coffee and cacao. Despite this hopeful plan, cocaine production is at an all-time high (Parkin Daniels, 2018). It’s no surprise that the cultivation of illegal products remains so prevalent. Estimates show that in 2016, over 100,000 Colombian families made their living from coca crops, with approximately 169,000 hectares of Colombian land cultivated by coca farmers (Colombia Reports, 2018). This is made possible by the lack of state control in these rural regions. Hidden by mountains and rainforests, coca production provides a relatively stable, though dangerous income, which many rural farmers are incapable of finding elsewhere. Cocaine production, however, may soon be rivaled by a drug that has been around for even longer and is rapidly growing in popularity.
While an astonishing 42.8 million people in Europe and the United States alone had used cocaine at least once in their lives according to a 2012 census report, over 131 million people have used marijuana at least once in their lives in just the United States. 52% of adults in the United States over 18 years old have admitted to using marijuana at least once in their lives in a 2017 report, while 44% admitted to using it on a regular basis despite illegality of the drug in most states (O’Hara, 2017). Colombia has always been a major producer of marijuana, though cocaine has always been at the forefront of the illegal drug trade’s media coverage. In 2016, Colombia passed a law that legalized both the domestic use and exportation of medical marijuana. This landmark legislation resulted in 33 approved medical marijuana companies in just two years (Faiola, 2018). The Colombian government hopes that legalizing medical marijuana might result in a decrease in coca and other illegal crop production. Farmers, they believed, would be able to grow a plant similar to what they were used to cultivating, but they would be able to do so legally.
The United States has historically been the most prominent consumer of illegal drugs from Colombia, however, the U.S. is currently closed to the importation of medical marijuana. This does not hinder the lucrative nature of Colombia’s medical marijuana business. An estimated 4.5 million Colombians will be treated with the newly legal crop production as well as 60 million Latin Americans suffering from various cancers, epilepsy, and other medical conditions (Murphy, 2018). As more countries legalize medical marijuana, Colombia hopes to be one of the top providers of the product, a feat that would greatly stimulate the economy and take one aspect of the illegal drug trade out of the hands of guerilla groups and paramilitaries. By doing so, Colombia is following in a trend that many other countries have already taken and are experiencing positive results. Canada, for one, has been very progressing in the legalization of medical marijuana. Canadians have already begun to see the economic benefits of the legalization of medical marijuana, which is expected to add an additional $8 billion to the country’s economy (Fournier, 2018). In October of this year, Canada legalized recreational marijuana, the second country to do so joining Uruguay. This is projected to add another $5 billion to Canada’s economy through internal recreational marijuana consumption, and this number will likely increase due to the high economic potential of “pot tourists” visiting from other countries (Bilefsky, 2018). Colombia hopes to see the same results in its own economy while also providing an alternative to illegal drug production.
Becoming a leader in the production of medical marijuana will not happen in Colombia without overcoming key challenges— the most immediate of which will be to convince governments to open their borders to medical marijuana imports. As previously mentioned, the United States which has legalized medical marijuana in most states will not allow the importation of the product. Not only will Colombia instead trade with other Latin American countries, but some European countries such as Italy have begun to allow the import of medical marijuana from Colombia. Canada is also one of Colombia’s top consumers. By the end of 2018, Colombia has the potential to support 44% of the world’s demand of medical marijuana (Emblin, 2018).
Although the illegal cocaine industry in Colombia is thriving now more than ever, medical marijuana has only been legal for the past two years, and if the industry proves to be as successful as it has in other nations and is projected to be in Colombia, then coca farmers may be more inclined to make the switch to cultivating the legal product. Not only would replacing coca farms with medical marijuana benefit the nation’s economy, but it would help to put an end to the violence caused by the illegal drug trade— a violence that has haunted Colombia for years as guerilla groups and paramilitaries use illegal drug trafficking and cultivation to fund their militias. Colombia, once infamous for its notorious drug lords and drug cartels is now seeing rise to a new drug culture, one that is legal. If predictions are correct, Colombia may be known as the world supplier of medical marijuana, and not a country threatened by the violence of the illegal drug trade.


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About Author(s)

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Rachel Bierly
Rachel Bierly is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Linguistics as well as pursuing a minor in Computer Science and a certificate in Latin American Studies. Though her focus lies in Latin American languages, culture, and politics, she also finds interest in East and Southeast Asian culture, and is studying both the Chinese language. Rachel's interest in Latin America comes mainly from working as an intern in Phoenixville Area School District's English Language Learner (ELL) program as well as travelling to Puerto Rico and Costa Rica.