“No medicine cures what happiness cannot.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The story starts somewhere else, with marijuana. The commerce of Marijuana is a worldwide phenomenon that opened up millions of black trade routes long before anyone really tried to sell cocaine in the USA. Arguably less “dangerous”, it was considered, and still is in many countries, as a drug whose use sits somewhere between slightly naughty and marginally criminal. Cocaine, on the other hand, socially posits you as a hobo or a rock star, and in any case a criminal.
The coca plant has been grown and used in the Andean regions of South America for eons. The leaves are chewed or made into tea and in many areas they are used medicinally and socially, for appetite suppression or the treatment of altitude sickness. If you walk the Inca trail in Peru your guide will doubtlessly chew the stuff, and offer it to you, and it is as normal and safe as if you were being offered a mint (and it does actually balance the effects of altitude). Coca, in this form, is no bigger threat than many others we wilfully face every day in the world – like crossing the road or trying to take stuff out of the oven with a tea towel.
The problem arose when someone managed to isolate the cocaine alkaloid from the coca leaf, and gave birth to what was then called cocaine. The earlier trade routes, already opened up by the commerce of marijuana, offered a perfect means to bring this new wonder drug to the people who would buy it. The most successful and well-known criminal to have exploited this market on a grand scale is Pablo Escobar. He was responsible for the majority of the world’s cocaine production and distribution in the 1980’s, ran for parliament and wanted to become President of Colombia. He gave away vast swathes of his wealth to the poor after seeing them ignored by the government, but is also responsible for igniting the bloodiest war that was fought on the South American continent in the 20th century: 30 judges killed, 457 policemen, 20 murders a day for two months…
Cocaine is dangerous, addictive, romantically glamourized, and affords you enormous profits, as Escobar found out. As with many things that are horrendously “good” (according to addicts) but horrendously dangerous, it is illegal in almost all countries. Despite this, many people take the drug, and often find themselves in a desperate fight to get their lives back – sometimes, finding death instead. The users remain apparently unaffected by the law: the legal risk, like the health risk, is accepted. This poses a serious problem for the people who outlawed cocaine, and it has led us to where we are today: in the middle of the endless, so-called “War On Drugs”. Facts say we can only ever lose or draw. Propaganda says we are winning. The question is, who is losing?
It’s not the users who pay for the war on drugs, nor is it really the governments, although $4.7 billion has so far been spent by the US on ‘Plan Colombia’. Coca farmers are pawns in a game played by Western powers fuelled by uncompromising laws based more in tradition than morality, against drug traffickers who began as businessmen and are these days changed beyond recognition into people capable of carrying out shocking crimes against their fellow humans. To survive, a farmer will grow a legal crop, selling to the highest buyer who may not be on the right side of the law. Refusing may mean their wife’s blood will be spread all over the kitchen table. Destroying the coca crops in Antioquia will do nothing except harm, in the long run.
Legalize the drug, and there will be no more need for violence. The problem is not that someone in Manizales grows coca, but rather that many people are either uneducated to the effects, don’t care about them, or don’t care about themselves. That last point is a huge problem in itself.