By Zaid Moosa
While Cannabis prohibition is clearly damaging to a country such as the UK, the effects can be far more debilitating in a developing country such as Colombia, which is still emerging from a decades-long conflict that has inflicted a heavy cost on the lives of all of its citizens.
I feel that if countries such as Colombia could prove that legalisation is logical and viable then it will only become more difficult to refute the evidence in the UK. Most British people like to imagine their country as always being at the forefront of social developments and yet countries such as Uruguay have proven to be the true leaders in the drive for this type of change. Having spent almost 2 year living in Bogota, Colombia I would like to share a bit of what I have learnt about this plant-loving nation so that we can consider a similar struggle for legalisation in a different context.
While prohibition in the UK can result in time wasted in prison, money wasted on ineffective law enforcement and countless medicinal applications missed, in Colombia it can and has resulted in the loss of human life and it risks causing ever more damage to society. Most people will be aware of Colombia’s most famous export (which comes in powdered form) and hopefully many will be aware of the damage it has inflicted upon the country as criminals such as Pablo Escobar, politicians and paramilitaries had at their disposal a lucrative source of income. Cocaine wasn’t the cause of Colombia’s troubles but it was their funder, and only because it was illegal.
Data on drug seizures which was published by the newspaper El Tiempo help show a changing trend in the Colombian drugs trade, with 2013 seeing the largest total seizures of Marijuana (347 tonnes) since 1993 (and up 46 tonnes on last year), also outstripping seizures of cocaine. At the same time the estimated area of land used for cultivation of marijuana is believed to be only around 350 hectares which is down from previous estimates of around 600 hectares in 2008. The fall in cultivated land coupled with an apparent rise in supply is down to a few simple causes, improvements in technology and increasing demand. Advanced cultivation techniques have spread through the country and growers are now able to produce high quality cannabis in dedicated and specialised facilities. Around 70% of cannabis is sold domestically and growers know that high quality cannabis (such as the local favourite ‘Creepy’) sells for over 3 times as much as regular strains. It still brings a tear to my eye when I recall the outstanding quality I was getting when I lived in Bogota and just how much ‘Morada’ (blackberried or purple) I was able to buy.
As most of the marijuana grown in the country is sold locally, this points to a maturing in the tastes of the population and the potential for a varied and sophisticated market in marijuana production and sales. Colombia’s economy is performing well and there is a large proportion of the population which is both able and increasingly willing to pay for a quality product. And this brings me back to my initial concerns. Prohibition of cocaine placed it into the hands of gangs, guerrillas and paramilitaries and turned what could have been a profitable cash crop into a blood money used to buy weapons, power and death. Colombia is still emerging from this conflict and has slowly and laboriously worked to bring peace and stability to the country through political, social and judicial reforms amongst many other things.
Faced with the possibility of a return to those days, I find it incredible that politicians are not seriously considering legalising marijuana (although more credible when I consider the vested interests and corruption which plagues the system). Legalisation would allow regular, hard-working citizens to benefit from the production of a crop which is in high demand and brings high returns. It would allow taxation, encourage investment and could place Colombia in an enviable position as legalisation will inevitably spread around the world benefitting those who already have experience in the industry. Most importantly of all, as is the case in every other country, it would starve the corrupt of an easy, readily available source of income, and this can only be considered a good thing for society as a whole. Cocaine is and will be the main source of revenue for those who seek to bring misery to the general population but there is no reason that marijuana need add to the problem. It is no coincidence that the major zones of production are also those in which the FARC and other groups predominantly operate, such as Cauca and Meta.
I truly believe that if something is right then there will be numerous ways to justify it. By providing the full range of arguments in support of legalisation, we increase the chances that one of the benefits will stick and even the fiercest opposition may begin to change their thinking. I have chosen to focus on the benefits to social harmony and the stability of a nation as I personally find that sufficiently persuasive. For me, learning from history and preventing the recurrence of violence and civil strife seems an adequate reason for legalising marijuana in Colombia. From personal experience I have found a widespread tolerance towards smoking cannabis in the country and estimates suggest up to 30% of the population smoke in the main cultivation areas, with large numbers in major cities. With pretty much every fruit of the world at their disposal, Colombians are very fond of smoking out of any number of different fruits; why buy a pipe when you’ve got a papaya to hand. The government seems to be moving in the right direction and they have already decriminalised possession of small amounts of marijuana or cocaine, but it remains to be seen whether they will go the whole way. Each country will have its own specific reason for changing its ineffective and draconian drug laws, but all will be inter-linked and contribute to the global movement for a new political approach to Cannabis.