I was walking home from the park the other day reflecting with my friend Larisa about the conversations we both had before coming to Colombia with friends and family. A number of times, I was told to watch out for drug traffickers, or, jokingly told that I could come back to Canada rich if I participated in drug production.
The stereotype of Colombia as a country of drug traffickers and armed actors is widely held. However, after being here for the past two and a half months and repeatedly hearing about the laws of supply and demand that comprise the global drug trade, I feel like it is just as easy, and just as valid, to assume that those in North America making those comments are the ones who fit the stereotype of a typical consumer of Colombia drugs.
Of course, just as not every Colombia is involved in the drug trade, so not every North American is a consumer of drugs. However, for every person in Colombia, and Mexico, and Central America, who plays a role in the illicit drug industry, there is a person in the global north who plays a corresponding role as a consumer of that product. The law of the market demands it. After all, 90% of the cocaine produced in Colombia is consumed in the United States. In fact, two-thirds of the illicit drugs produced in the world are consumed in the United States! How does, or should, this impact drug policy in North America and here in Colombia?
Drug violence and related deaths are growing, not only in Colombia and in Mexico, but all throughout Central America. The war on drugs, including an undiminished demand in the north, continues to have a very negative impact on the most vulnerable members of Colombian society. (As well, you never know where the money will actually go, as this story about Plan Colombia broken by the Washington Post this week reveals).
Watch this Witness for Peace video to learn more about the impact of Plan Colombia here in Colombia:
I really like this video because it begins by stating that the devastating impacts of drugs can be felt by both Colombians and North Americans. In the “War on Drugs”, there are no winners and new policies must be adopted on either side. The video also highlights the fact that for many Colombian campesinos, coca growing is not a choice, but often the only option available to feed families and ensure survival.
However, the impact of a violent war on drugs is not only felt in Colombia. According to a June report by the Global Commission on Drugs, anti-drug policy has fuelled organised crime, cost taxpayers millions of dollars and caused thousands of deaths. Drug use around the world has actually increased: opiates by 35% worldwide from 1998 to 2008, cocaine by 27%, and cannabis by 8.5%.
What role does advocacy play? This past week has been political advocacy week, and we have had rich and exhausting discussions on the potential within our group, the communities we will work with, and our communities at home, for advocacy. It was amazing to spend time with people from the MCC Washington Office and the Latin American Advocacy Office. Check out Adrienne’s amazing blog to learn more about advocacy that MCC is involved with throughout the region. We also looked at links that could be made with MCC Ottawa, particularly where mining justice is concerned. It’s exciting to see what we will possibly be doing throughout these two years, and more when we return home!
Part of advocacy is working with local communities to empower them to learn their rights, both under Colombia and International Law, and to work with North American governments to empower them to also respect the rights of citizens, both at home and abroad. In terms of drug use, this may include focusing on alternative development in Colombia, as well as drug abuse prevention in North America, including looking at other strategies beside blatant criminalization.
In my mind, people are always trying to fulfill their needs, whether we view their needs or responses as valid or not. Just as many Colombians are involved in coca growing to meet their basic needs, what types of needs are drug users trying to meet? What kind of alternatives can be put in place at home, that deal with prevention, not simply punishment? How do we define drug use, as a health problem or a crime? This discussion involves a more difficult type of political discourse and would mean that we must move beyond simply black and white ten second talking points in our media. But I really don’t think people are stupid. I think it is possible to have intelligent discussions on this issue that go beyond condemnation and victimization.
Of course, things are even more complex than this basic analysis; I’m not even going to try to pretend that I am an expert here. Add right and left wing armed forces, global trade policies, police corruption and drug money at the highest level of government and a whole other layer of analysis is needed. But there is no doubt that change is necessary.
We live in a globalized world that has often served to exacerbate these developments. How can we use the very channels of globalization that make drug distribution so easy to encourage global solidarity and action for sustainable change?
One thing that I love about grassroots peacebuilding and resistance movements is the opportunity for creativity and thinking outside of the box. Instead of looking at drug use and production as simply the need for punishment, what are some creative responses that can help tackle some of these issues? What does a peaceful end look like? The very fact that the war on drugs cannot be won opens up a whole entire realm of nonviolent possibilities and alternatives! How can tools like social media be used? What other tools are available? How can we encourage our politicians and media to address this issue in a profound, non-surface, manner? I’d love to hear some of your thoughts!