Colombia Could Have Had a Coke-Legalizing, TikTok-Famous President. They Elected a Socialist Instead.

President-elect Gustavo Petro could easily take Colombia in an illiberal direction.


Colombia's illegal drug trade arose not with cocaine but with the "marijuana bonanza" of the 1970s. American Peace Corps volunteers kicked off the boom after running across the "Santa Marta Gold" strain that grew on the Caribbean coast and bringing the "luxurious marijuana of heady strength" back to the States. It proved so popular that, by 1979, Colombia was providing "roughly two-thirds of all the pot smoked" in the U.S., according to Time Magazine. The war on drugs, officially declared in 1971 by President Richard Nixon, would soon bury the industry.

Half a century and tens of thousands of violent deaths later, Colombians had their first chance to elect a presidential candidate with an unequivocal legalization agenda last Sunday. Rodolfo Hernandez—a 77-year-old TikTok-famous construction tycoon who was a neophyte on the national political stage—campaigned on an anti-drug-war platform. The drug business, Hernandez argued, needs a capitalist approach instead of repression and violence. "The most dangerous thing about drugs," he said, "is prohibition."  

Hernandez points out that while other countries have already legalized recreational cannabis consumption, Colombia, "which produces the world's best marijuana" in his opinion, has maintained prohibition. "We are more papist than the pope…afraid of what others will say." 

Though Colombia's Congress legalized medical marijuana in 2015, recreational use is still not allowed and red tape continues to saddle the local industry. According to industry sources, patients' access to medical cannabis is limited since physicians cannot prescribe dry cannabis flower—only manufactured cannabis-based products. Also, the use of CBD—a multibillion-dollar industry in the U.S.—is still not allowed in Colombian food, beverages, supplements, or veterinary products. But any Colombian president could deregulate these sectors pretty easily by decree.   

But it doesn't look like that will be happening now, since Hernandez narrowly lost to Gustavo Petro—a former guerrilla group member who has been a professional politician for the last three decades—in the June 19 runoff. Despite his close links to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and his "21st century socialism" agenda, Petro managed to garner the support of the traditional, often corrupt political machines that tend to heavily influence Colombian elections. 

Petro has long held a "public health" approach to the country's drug problems. When he was mayor of Bogotá, Colombia's capital, he set up a short-lived program to provide drugs directly to addicts. Curiously, Hernandez proposed a similar program at the national level.

Petro could deregulate the marijuana and broader drug industry, but, like the rest of the Colombian left, he misunderstands and distrusts the free market. His proposal involves neither across-the-board legalization nor the commercial, private sector solutions that could put an end to black markets, turf wars between traffickers, and the collateral damage that armed cartels inflict on civilians. Rather, Petro's stance involves regulation and greater government involvement in failed measures such as "crop substitution" in coca-growing areas.  

According to his most recent statement regarding the joint U.S.-Colombia counternarcotics efforts, Petro intends to "develop a new drug policy based on a new paradigm of regulation, the non-criminalization of peasant farmers, the subjugation of criminal, narcotrafficking organizations, the treatment of consumption as a public health issue, the substitution of illegal crops, (and) the fulfillment and deepening of the fourth point of the Peace Agreement."

The last point refers to the section on drugs that appears in the 2016 deal between a previous government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a communist guerrilla group that became one of the world's largest drug cartels in the early 2000s. The deal amnestied the FARC's leaders, who sit in Congress—unelected—since 2018. Unsurprisingly, they backed Petro's bid for the presidency.

While Petro boasts of new programs and paradigms of regulation, his stance on the country's drug issues is nothing new. 

A chapter of the FARC deal titled "A Solution to the Problem of Illicit Drugs" amounts to several dozen pages of hot air that provide neither a concrete solution nor a serious diagnosis of the problem. It culminates with the toothless compromise to "make sure that the national territory remains free of illicit crops." There is talk of crop substitution and, as in Petro's campaign platform, an obtuse attempt to link the narcotics problem with a supposed need for drastic land reform. This is an old, leftist hobby horse in a country where some of the largest landholdings belong to indigenous reservations.   

Beyond the rhetoric, any continuation of the current approach would be bad news for the American taxpayer. According to a 2021 Congressional Research Service report, since 2000, Washington had spent "about $12 billion in bilateral aid to implement Plan Colombia," a counternarcotics and counterterrorism program, "and its successor strategies."

Initially, the aid did help the Colombian military to severely weaken the once-formidable FARC. But Plan Colombia's anti-narcotics element was an unqualified failure. According to the United States Government Accountability Office, it sought "to reduce the production of illicit drugs (primarily cocaine) by 50 percent in six years." However, by 2006, "coca cultivation and cocaine production levels (had) increased by about 15 and 4 percent, respectively." In 2019, there were more hectares cultivated with coca leaf in Colombia (212,000) than two decades earlier (160,000).

The so-called FARC "dissidents," thousands of fighters who did not demobilize in 2016, still control large swathes of the cocaine business. They wage constant combat over production areas and export routes against other guerrilla groups and criminal organizations, including several with links to Mexican drug cartels. The deal that amnestied FARC leaders—with the full support of the Obama-Biden administration—was supposed to bring peace. Instead, it is again common to read headlines like, "War returns to Colombia's countryside."

The Biden administration seems oblivious to the drug trade's market dynamics. It touts its "New, Holistic U.S.-Colombia Counternarcotics Strategy," but, like past administrations, it assumes that the lethal mix of constant demand and prohibition is not the underlying problem. Rather, the White House maintains the futile and wasteful "drug supply reduction" approach. 

During the last 30 years, Colombia's republican institutions did hold up against a series of violent, cocaine-funded threats that, besides the FARC and National Liberation Army guerrilla forces, included the Medellín and Cali cartels. Meanwhile, Colombia remained a liberal democracy and a close U.S. ally. 

But Colombia can easily take an illiberal turn under Petro. He has stated that he will require far more than the constitutionally mandated four years to fulfill his political "project" as president. He has also threatened to expropriate particular businesses and individuals and intends to change the current constitution. Under "21st century socialism," Petro's Colombia may begin to resemble the undemocratic regimes of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. 

What should concern U.S. taxpayers the most is that President Joe Biden's Colombia strategy also involves "robust investment" in "comprehensive rural security and development." This is nation-building by another name, even if not as intense as that carried out in Central Asia and the Middle East over the last two decades. Colombia is far closer to home than Iraq or Afghanistan, but the lessons from the latter debacles still should apply to the Western Hemisphere.

If Colombia avoids a Caracas-style economic collapse during the next four years, it won't be due to counterproductive aid packages, let alone those that are tied to the drug war. Drug liberalization and U.S. market access would help the local industry and the country's economy immensely. 

Opening the American market to the nascent, Latin American cannabis industry would create much-needed opportunities for investment and legal job creation. No amount of bilateral aid would help Colombia as much as a legal marijuana bonanza, with the original Santa Marta Gold being sold at your local dispensary.