Cocaine is prohibited across the world. Since governments in most countries, led by the U.S., launched a war against the infamous white powder back in the 1970s, millions of dollars have been poured into programmes to tackle cocaine production and use. Fifty years on, rising availability and drug consumption cast doubt on the effectiveness of the strategy.

Text: Josefina Salomón / Editing: Madeleine Penman / Illustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

All Banned (Nearly)

A global framework. In 1961, countries gathered at the United Nations and agreed on the first set of rules to regulate the availability of narcotic and psychedelic drugs for medical use. The agreements aim to avoid substances from being diverted into illegal markets, control precursors essential for manufacturing illegal drugs, tackle money laundering and set a framework for international cooperation. The International Narcotics Control Board oversees the requirements for producing drugs for legal use – including the regulated production and distribution of opioids and cocaine, for example. 

Coca, Cocaine. While both are prohibited in the vast majority of the world, coca leaves are allowed as part of cultural practices in Bolivia and Peru. In fact, in 2013, Bolivia was given a special exception to the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Things are different when it comes to cocaine, although legal regimes vary greatly across the world. Saudi Arabia, for example, is one of 35 countries that still sentences people to death for drug possession, transport or consumption. In other countries, such as the United Kingdom and the U.S., cocaine is prohibited under all circumstances but penalties range from fines to prison time. Countries including Argentina, Brazil and Colombia tend to decriminalize private use while still targeting commercialization. 

Legal High. Have you ever been given anaesthesia for a medical procedure? Those were likely opioids or even medicine containing cocaine. Each year, the Drug Administration Agency (DEA) in the United States sets the amount of drugs that can be legally produced for legitimate research and medical proposes. Over the last decade, the number never exceeded 290 kilograms each year which is less than 0.2 percent of all of the cocaine consumed in the country. Another interesting fact? Peru is the only country in the world that legally exports coca leaves to the global market, through the state-owned National Coca Company (ENACO). For its part, legal or not, in some corners of Colombia, cocaine is used as currency.

The War of Wars

The war on drugs. Even though it was not an exclusively U.S. problem, it was President Nixon who, in 1971, declared drugs “public enemy number one” and with those famous words effectively launched a global “war on drugs” that still rages on. The famous Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was born of that effort in 1973 and, from there, the rest is history. Although methods and narratives may have changed over the decades, this war still has one overall objective: stop, in whatever way possible, drugs from being produced and getting into the hands of consumers. For more than 50 years, the global strategy has remained pretty much unchanged: forcibly eradicate coca plantations, and throw as much money, and force, as possible at the issue to chase drug kingpins. There was an argument that making cocaine prohibitively expensive was going to contribute to lowering demand. 

Has it worked? Well, that’s a hard “no”. Not only is cocaine availability and demand as high as ever, but crime organizations continue to expand their reach and influence, successfully adapting to new government approaches. Nearly 300 million people between the ages of 15 and 64 used illicit substances in 2020, a 26 percent increase over the prior decade, according to the most recent United Nations data. More young people are using more drugs, including harsher ones as the use of fentanyl-laced cocaine expands. Experts have a few explanations for this. Economists as early as the 1970s argued that the implementation of strategies to raise the cost of a product for which demand is not linked to price had very little effect. This is given that people who have an addiction will always find a way to buy it, no matter what the price. A lack of cocaine only increases its price, making the market more profitable and attractive for criminal groups. In producing countries, the impact of these policies has been even more tragic. For example, spraying coca crops with chemicals has  often simply pushed criminal groups to other areas. 

Side Effects. Aside from failing to tackle availability of harmful drugs, and increasing violence, the “war on drugs”, experts say, has demonized and punished certain sectors of the population (overwhelmingly Black and Latin-American communities). Drugs are more available, cheaper and more potent than they have ever been. The cost of the failures (of current drug policies) have fallen more heavily on socially and economically marginalized communities, immigrant communities, minority communities, the poor… and there’s a growing understanding of that,” Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation told In.Visibles. Prisons have been filled with marginalized people involved in small-scale trafficking, which has had no effect on the reach and power of large criminal organizations. Drug possession and trafficking, even in small quantities, has become a defining feature of prison systems across many parts of the world. In the United States, for example, 1 in 5 people are held behind bars on drug-related offences, most of them from marginalized communities. Across Latin America, studies have shown that the majority of women held behind bars are imprisoned for drug related offenses. 

A different way

Decriminalization? Those who argue for such an approach claim that problematic drug use is a public health issue and not a criminal one. Back in 2001, Portugal decriminalized personal possession of so-called “hard drugs”. Drug use is  still illegal but personal use no longer carries a prison sentence nor leads to a criminal record. In the years that followed the law change, overdose deaths, HIV cases linked to the use of used needles and drug-related prison sentences plummeted – although some experts argue that it’s difficult to say for sure if decriminalization was the reason behind the change or if it was due to the country taking a holistic approach to the issue, including the introduction of social programmes to guarantee minimum income and housing. Portugal is not alone. In Argentina, for example, drug possession is also decriminalized, although trade is harshly punished and  one of the main causes of incarceration, particularly for women. Experts told In.Visibles that decriminalization of certain drugs, particularly cannabis, is opening the door for a wider debate regarding the use of drugs in general. The government of British Columbia, in Canada, is the latest to jump on the trend. In January 2023, it launched a three-year-long pilot to decriminalize the possession of small quantities of drugs including cocaine, methamphetamine, fentanyl and morphine. While those substances will remain prohibited, adults found in possession of a combined total of less than 2.5g of any of the drugs will not be arrested, charged or have their substances seized. Instead, they will be offered information on available health and social services. 

One Step Further. Most decriminalization approaches are focused on drug users. The problem with these tactics? They don´t deal with people caught up in the drug trade. At least that’s what some analysists and leaders argue. They say legalizing coca production and sales would go a long way in solving rising violence in producing countries, although unilateral legalization in producing countries won’t help tackle a market whose profits are largely based on their illegal markets. “It is often said in Colombia that if the U.S. had coca plantations, the world would be flooded with McCocaine’s. As it is, North America has a monopoly on overdoseswhile Latin America has a monopoly on violent deaths and the destabilization of its democracies. That is why it is a binational issue,” Juan Diego Quesada, a journalist from El Pais argues. Steve Rolles says the problem is that there’s a lot of confusion over what legalization means. “One of the problems is that when we talk about legalization, people think that it would be like buying tobacco, being able to buy heroine in supermarkets or sweet shops. Or buying cocaine in bars. But what organizations like Transform advocate for is regularization of risks so drugs would be regulated in different ways according to their risk. We propose a range of different models, medical models, pharmacy sale models, retail regulation models, and some free retail models.” 

Other Voices. Even within the U.S., the tide seems to be slowly starting to turn. The most recent White House strategy on illicit drugs prominently features calls for “harm reduction” and measures to tackle discrimination. “We can’t confront today’s challenges with yesterday’s methods; we have to modernize and make sure our approaches are responsive to current trends,” Regina LaBelle, Acting Director of National Drug Control Policy in the United States has admitted. In other corners of the region, calls are growing (and increasingly matched with actions) to move strategies away from punishing marginalized communities. In Argentina, for example, a judge in 2021 acquitted a woman tried on drug trafficking charges who had been found carrying four kilos of cocaine on a bus crossing into Chile. The judge argued that the woman’s extremely marginalized economic context had forced her to agree to carrying the drug. “There’s a very active debate around the world about what we do about all this. If this enforcement paradigm has failed, what then should we do?,” Steve Rolles asks. “Harm reduction is the most well-established response because prohibition and the war on drugs increases the harm that many people who use drugs are exposed to. You may wish that we lived in a drug free world but that is not the world we live in, that is the pragmatic reality that policy makers need to accept.”

A market of opportunity. Organizations that advocate for legalization of drugs argue that creating licit markets involves developing new ways of thinking about commercialization of plant-based substances. “You have to ensure that the legal market benefits a diverse cross-section of society, particularly including the communities who have been disproportionately harmed by prohibition historically. For example, growers given preferential access to participate in the market,” Steve Rolles says. Pien Metaal, Senior Project Officer at the Transnational Institute, argues that the problem with the way countries deal with drugs is their binary approach: drugs, and people who use them or have anything to do with them are either good or bad and there is no consideration or analysis of the context. “We see changes [in policy] but those do not come with an element of social justice. So, it’s not like with regularization people who participated in illicit activities are going to be brought into licit markets. The transition from illicit to licit is unlikely to benefit growers in most countries like, for example, large companies are, and that is very problematic,” she explains.