A Solution to Colombia's Cocaine Problem: Why Wouldn't This Work?

I was watching the recent Vice episode on the Colombian cocaine production, and the situation surrounding it throughout the country. I had an idea for a possible solution – now, I realize, this solution would never ACTUALLY HAPPEN in real life, but if you mind-controlled the right people somehow to get past all of the political realities involved – would this actually be a bad idea?

The takeaway of the situation that I got from the episode was such:

[li]Colombia grows the vast, VAST majority of the world’s cocaine.[/li][li]Currently, the Colombian government is attempting to eradicate coca operations by sending in troops to uproot the plants. They leave the plants themselves behind, and allow the workers to tear the leaves off the plants, so that the communities dependent on the plants survive.[/li][li]There are many communities that are so dependent on cocaine production that they really can’t switch over to anything else without major societal upheaval. This does need to happen in these places, but it simply isn’t going to unless somebody other then the drug dealers pours money into their economy. It’s all well and good to point out that they never should have turned to cocaine production in the first place, or that they should just go back to being self-sufficient agricultural communities, but that just won’t happen without some monetary incentives driving the economy. Their dependence on coca plantations is so high that in at least one town that Vice showed, the most common form of currency was coca paste.[/li][li]Most of the everyday people Vice interviewed were just simple peasant workers. They’d be happy to work on a banana plantation instead, if they could, but there just aren’t any banana plantations hiring in that part of Colombia. Lots of coca plantations, though.[/li][/ol]

So, a few notes. Obviously, the decision made by the plantation owners (and quick sidenote – these aren’t sprawling Virginia plantations owned by rich people and worked by slaves. Mostly they look like small farms run by the peasants who live in the village.) to stop growing whatever they grew before for sustenance and switch to growing coca was a morally reprehensible one. Yes, these guys aren’t the ones actually making cocaine or selling it to children, but without what they produce, the drug dealers wouldn’t have any raw materials. But they made that decision, and it’s in the past. Unless we want to burn that part of Colombia to the ground, we need to get them to make a new decision, to go back to growing other crops. The problem is, they can make much more money growing coca then they can anything else. Based on that simple economic fact, they aren’t going to do what we want them to do on their own. So we need to incentivise them to make the right decision.

There are two ways we could go around them. We could fight a war on drugs, and that’s what Colombia tried to do; the problem is, if all you do is remove the coca, you’re taking away what these people use to make their livelihood. The coca SHOULD be taken away, but when you do that, you make those people desperate. They’ll do anything to survive – including going back and growing coca, despite the danger. The harder you press them, the more desperately they’ll cling on to the coca.

We can all agree that the coca has to go, but the harder we pull it away from these communities, the tighter they’ll grasp it.What we need to do is help them let go of the coca at the same time that we pull it away. We still end up taking it, of course – it’s way to dangerous to remain - but the Colombian government doesn’t end up at war with its own people.

So what I would suggest is, a sort of voluntary buyback program. Colombia can tell the owners of these plantations (who, again, are regular, poor people - the cartels buy the coca paste from them, but they don’t run the growing operations themselves, because there really isn’t any reason to) that instead of selling the paste to the cartel, they sell it to the government. Not only will the government pay for the coca, they’ll also help you transition your fields to growing bananas or sugarcane or coffee beans. Now the government is helping these communities – it’s a friend, instead of the enemy – but the coca still ends up going away. There would be strict rules about how long after the government starts these programs in a particular area they’ll continue buying coca – and at the same time, the government can really crack down on those who continue to grow coca, because now those people aren’t desperate, just greedy. Now that you’re providing a viable alternative, you can spray herbicides from the air on any coca fields that don’t take you up on your offer without impoverishing an entire community. For any plantation owners, this makes the equation even simpler – you’re not comparing “some money and government aid” to “more money from the cartel”, you’re comparing it to “no money from anyone at all”.

So far, we’ve got a program that could work, but we have two big issues standing in our way. First, how can Colombia afford to subsidize farmers who switch from coca to conventional crops? It’s not exactly the richest country in the world. Second, what about corruption? According to various studies and rankings, Colombia might not be the most corrupt country in the world, but it certainly has its problems. How can we be sure the cartels won’t simply bribe officials to ensure coca continues being grown?

That’s where foreign aid can come in. “But wait!” Hypothetical Objector says. “Why should a foreign country help Colombia clean up this act? They got themselves into this mess! Let them sort it out on their own! And if they can’t, let them suffer!”

Wow, Hypothetical Objector! You’re kind of an asshole! But that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. The members of these communities – or at least, those of them who made the decision to switch from growing whatever it was that they were growing before to growing coca – are at fault. They contributed to a huge amount of human suffering across the years. They’re kinda assholes, too. But unless you’re willing to commit to a scorched earth solution of burning down their crops and then following it up with their village, they will go back and grow more cocaine. Maybe the most “fair” thing to do is to dry up demand for their product by tracking down and jailing every last cartel member, but we’ve tried that for years, spent tons of money, and failed to do anything. In fact, we made the problem worse. So let’s give something else a try.

Well then, which countries might want to contribute? Well, maybe the US might want to consider it, since we spent $31 billion on fighting drugs last year. Not all of that is cocaine, of course, but there are side benefits to consider. For example, without cocaine, conflict in Central and South America eases, and maybe we deal with a few less people crossing out southern border illegally, all without having to waste a dollar on a wall. Oh, right, it was gonna be free anyways because Mexico was gonna pay for it.

Ideally, I guess this is the sort of thing the United Nations should be for? But of course, they’re useless. So this would never happen. But if it somehow did – why wouldn’t it work?

I think the problem with your idea is a faulty assumption here:

The demand is from the end user in the US, for example, not from the cartels. As long as there is demand in countries like the US, there will be supply from somewhere. The cartels could “make an example” of a few farmers who chose to sell their product to the government to intimidate the others to not do the same thing. Or, they could move production elsewhere. You’re not going to eradicate the supply unless you eradicate the end user demand.

I think the only way to end (or significantly reduce) the problems associated with cocaine is to legalize it.

Babale deserves credit for anticipating objections to his plan and addressing them. There is a variant of his proposal described here.

There are alternatives to US legalization. Decriminalization combined with treatment guarantees is one. There might be technological solutions. And greater CDC and NIH research into harm reduction would be welcomed by this doper.
Snarky attack on cocaine legalization: http://www.samefacts.com/2012/12/drug-policy/duhhhh/

I don’t see it working. The farmers growing the coca plants may not be seeing the profits from producing the coca but they don’t really have a choice over what to grow. The drug lords want a steady supply of coca to produce cocaine which they can sell for huge profits.

So if farmers switched from coca to bananas and cut off the drug lord’s supply, the drug lords would respond by shooting any farmer who was growing bananas. And probably his extended family as well. The farmers would quickly realize that switching away from coca growing is a bad idea.

Same thing if the farmers kept growing the coca and selling it to the government for destruction rather than to the drug lords. The drug lords would shoot the farmers who were selling to the government and the other farmers would quickly switch back to selling to the drug lords.

I think the US has two possibilities:

  1. Embrace cocaine.

  2. Pay BIG money, on a regular non-stop basis - its own permanent line item in the federal budget - to compensate the Colombians for US hypocrisy.

“And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.”

  • Kipling.
    Start giving people money for nor growing drugs, and there will be an ever increasing stream of people not growing drugs and wanting more and more money for it.

Well then, see option 1.

Yes, and on occasion drug lords are known to have close ties to the government. We could dump billions of dollars into Colombia without making it any less corrupt. Quite the opposite actually. Squeezing out corruption is a heavy lift in any country.

There might be some role for supply policies. But it’s difficult to see one: cocaine prices have apparently gone down over time in the US. If supply side policies worked, prices would rise.
As I noted above, there are alternatives to legalization though. Harm reduction is both a more plausible framework and arguably a better one.

Even if you successfully drove all cocaine production out of Columbia, surely you can see that the cartels would just shift location. It’s grown all over South America. They would set up large scale production in Venezuela, Nicaragua, etc, etc. Pretty much anywhere that can be easily destabilized, ie much, if not most, of central and South America.

If you don’t address the demand, I don’t think you can hope to gain ground in this battle.

How do that address the end user demand? Marijuana was decriminalized in CA a long time ago (before legalization) and that didn’t curb end user demand. No change in end user demand, no change in supply non-legal activity to grow it and get it to the end user.

Can you clarify what “harm reduction” is?

I have the theory that this can be solved by plant genetics.

i.e. select/breed/gene splice a strain of cocoa which is vigorous, has high leaf production but very low to devoid of alkaloids and air seed the nurseries. Once it got established it would be near impossible to eradicate.
Similarly with opium poppies.

On a more practical (?) basis, develop genetically engineered plant viruses that would similarly degrade plants’ ability to produce pharmacologically active alkaloids.

Seems to me that farmers in some places have already been encouraged to grow alternate crops. The problem is that none of them offer anywhere near as good a return as coca or opium poppy crops, so long-term, farmers would go back to growing what brings them enough money.

It would only work if you payed everyone who lives in an area where the coca plant could be grown. It could work in one area only to move cultivation to another area.

The way to dramatically damage the cocaine industry is for people to stop buying and using it.

As long as there is a significant demand, there is going to be a supply because the money is astronomical, and thus the cartels are extremely powerful both politically and as fighting forces that are the equivalent of small armies.

This is really the supply-side solution. And it also deal with corruption and such.

Development. Give people growing coca plants some upward mobility and they’ll stop doing it. It’s hard work - like most farming - and very low wage. Only in the incredibly poor areas of the developing world is it seen as viable. But develop Colombia and other parts of northern South America and get people factory jobs and it becomes hard to feed the middle men the product when people are off building toasters and such instead of growing coca.

But yes, the primary way to deal with it is the harder one: dealing with demand. The US demand for narcotics has enacted a terrible price on our neighbors to the south.

Using Vice as a trustworhty source is a bad starting move.
In Peru, planting coca is perfectly legal and so is buying coca leaves. Chewing coca leaves is the andean person’s red bull (by the way, it gives you the worst bad breath of all time). Our government buys coca leaves from legal farmers and then sells it to producers of coca products such as tea and flour. One of the conditions is that you have to sell everything to them and, of course, it creates a black market for coca leaves (especially good quality ones) that go for legal products but that are bought at a higher price.
Outcompeting the drug lords is a losing proposition, but this works in a carrot-and-stick way: you can plant it, but not sell it to anyone directly.
As much a farmers say coca (for cocaine) is a way out of poverty, the fact is that they keep on being poor intergenerationally. Farmers sell to drug cartel because of the price and also because there is no paperwork or taxes involved. Also, coca is very simple to grow.
Recently, products like cacao and coffee are making a dent into that market, they can get even better economic results, but they require more effort and care.

Well, crop substitution is how we got rid of all the opium, so why wouldn’t it work with cocaine?

The OP seems to ignore that the cartels in Colombia are heavily armed paramilitary groups. So the “foreign aid” will probably have to include military aid to enforce the plan. How far down that road are you willing to go?


Paediatrics & Child Health 2008: Harm reduction can be described as a strategy directed toward individuals or groups that aims to reduce the harms associated with certain behaviours. When applied to substance abuse, harm reduction accepts that a continuing level of drug use (both licit and illicit) in society is inevitable and defines objectives as reducing adverse consequences. It emphasizes the measurement of health, social and economic outcomes, as opposed to the measurement of drug consumption (1–5). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2528824/#

Bow-wow from Harm Reduction Coalition: https://harmreduction.org/about-us/principles-of-harm-reduction/
Think of the blanket legalization approach as the one advocated by libertarians. Harm reduction acknowledges that drug abuse can be a serious health problem, while noting that prohibition has a poor track record. They also distinguish between different sorts of drug regulatory regimes, eg different frameworks for legalization. The chief guy I have in mind is Mark Kleiman. Here’s one of his discussions of marijuana legalization, not necessarily the best: http://newsroom.ucla.edu/stories/q-a-mark-kleiman-expert-on-the-legalization-of-marijuana

The Mexican cartels have already started experimenting with small crops grown in Mexico. They’ve already made a major move into opium production with Mexican based poppy growth increasing rapidly; the dominant source of heroin production for the US is now in Mexico. Mexico in the last decade has become the third largest grower of opium in the world as a result of cartel efforts.

The cartels are already working to vertically integrate and simplify their supply chains in order to increase their profits. It’s what successful businesses, even illegal ones, do. I doubt they’ll stop just because Colombia successfully cuts most of their cocaine production. Mexican cartels might even be the ones that reduce cocaine production in Colombia.

Yeah, I think that’s probably the biggest issue with what otherwise seems a reasonable, if rather hopeful plan. The cocaine industry will not go quietly - farmers who have accepted the deal to get transitioned to different crops will be in fear of their lives, because the cartels will destroy them to discourage others from taking the deal.