´The War on Drugs and the Elections in Colombia´, Alexandra Kirby

The War on Drugs and the Elections in Colombia

May 24, 2010 | by Alexandra Kirby, blog.soros.org

In the lead-up to the May 30 presidential elections in Colombia, Alexandra Kirby of the Open Society Institute Global Drug Policy Program interviewed economist and drug policy expert Daniel Mejia of the Economic Development Research Centre at the Universidad de los Andes, an OSI grantee in Bogota, Colombia. Mejia is editor (with Alejandro Gaviria) of Illicit Drugs in Colombia, launched April 15.

What have been the effects of the U.S.-led “war on drugs” in Colombia?

The effects are mixed. While a lot of resources have been spent in combating illegal drug production and trafficking under Plan Colombia—a joint U.S.-Colombia strategy to fight illegal drugs and organized crime—coca cultivation has remained relatively stable.

Potential cocaine production varied little between 2000 and 2007, and only in 2008 we saw a significant decrease in estimates by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It remains to be seen if this is just a temporary shock or a permanent one.  The evidence on cocaine prices is consistent with these figures. In particular, cocaine prices remained stable through 2007.

Only very recently have we seen a marked increase, probably reflecting a supply shortage as a result of anti-drug policies implemented in Colombia and the intensification of the war on drugs in Mexico under Plan Merida.

Decriminalization is a topic of hot debate in Latin America today. What are the economic benefits of decriminalizing illicit drugs for personal use and possession?

The main benefit of decriminalizing drug consumption is that it treats consumption as a health issue and not a criminal activity.

In terms of economic benefits, the decriminalization of drug consumption would release pressure on drug prices, thus making drug production and trafficking activities less appealing and profitable.

The main concern that I have about decriminalizing drug consumption is the approach that should be taken in terms of production and trafficking once consumption is decriminalized. It is not necessarily obvious why drug production and trafficking should be criminalized if consumption is not.

Presidential elections are coming up at the end of May. How does drug policy reform fit in to the agenda?

Drug policy is a first-order issue in Colombia and it will definitely feature in the current presidential campaign. The two candidates leading the polls are Juan Manuel Santos, former Defense Minister and a member of the current government coalition, and Antanas Mockus, a former mayor of Bogota running as an independent candidate.

While Santos would continue with most of Uribe´s anti-drug policies and perhaps will push towards a slightly more balanced approach, Mockus, a former member of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, would most probably change the approach, concentrating much more on prevention and educational campaigns, and less on the criminalization of drug consumption.

I would say that most presidential candidates today have learned from the experience of Plan Colombia and will be willing to redesign some policies that have not been very effective in reducing cocaine production in the last few years, such as the intense aerial eradication campaigns of coca crops.

In terms of decriminalization, in my view, the candidates are divided. Unfortunately, however, I don’t see the two candidates who are leading today’s polls changing the current Colombian government’s position regarding the criminalization of drug consumption.

Describe your newest book, Illicit Drugs in Colombia.

Illicit Drugs in Colombia aims to contribute to the debate about illegal drugs in Colombia, the type of anti-drug policies, their effectiveness and costs, the different issues of international relations between Colombia and consumer countries regarding drug policy, and the institutional effects of illicit drug markets and the so-called “war on drugs” in Colombia.

The book is a joint effort by more than 20 scholars from the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, from a broad array of fields including psychology, economics, political science, law and government.

The main goal of the book is to provide an independent and academic perspective to the different dimensions of drugs and drug policy in Colombia. It includes precise policy recommendations aimed at improving the drug policy making process in order to make it more balanced and evidenced-based.