Beatriz Acevedo-Holguín

Researcher in Drug Policy

Within two years of September 11th, we are experiencing a major reconfiguration of global geopolitical power, mediated through a strategy of intervention based on the War on Terrorism. The apparent connection between drug trafficking and terrorism seems to link these wars: the war on drugs and the recent war on terrorism.

Latin America and specially Colombia is one such scenario for both these wars, where attention has focussed on the symbolic and de facto relationship between drugs and terrorism. According to this situation scant consideration is given to the socio-economic factors that shape the drug problem in the producer countries. 

The history of drug policy in Colombia exhibits similarities with the history and treatment of madness, as outlined by Michel Foucault (1998) , and this is the main reason for the title of this article. Indeed, this reference introduces other factor such as power relations, knowledge construction and self-recognition, into the discussion. 

It can be argued, that this comparison shows that drug use and drug abuse has frequently been coupled with insanity and deviance.  The perception of drug use has been associated with moral panics and folk devils (Becker, 1966) .  This comparison is also applicable to the way in which the State (in the Colombian case) has pretended to manage this issue.  The Colombian state remains confused as to which department or agency should be responsible for drug policy.

As on the Ship of Fools, the subject of drugs in Colombia has been continually shunted around from one agency to another – from health, education and hygiene, to its recent status as a security issue.  In consequence it is now the army and police who make the final decisions regarding this complex and multi-faceted topic. 

Nowadays, ‘Plan Colombia’ and its War on Drugs promise a miracle solution that will lead to their total eradication.  In Foucault’s history of madness, the Extraction of the Folly Stone promised the cure of lunacy at the expense of the patient’s will. The same image seems applicable to Plan Colombia’s pledge in so far as it holds the possibility that we, Colombians may loose our will in this very process.

This article is a summary of my Master Thesis in Sociology, which aims to make sense of drug policy making in Colombia (Acevedo, 2002) . It develops a model of interpretation, which can be eventually applied to other countries. In this case, it situates the historical analysis of the origin and development of the drug policy, within a particular social, political and cultural context.

The model considers drug policy as a negotiation process influenced by:

·          Social constructions: e.g., drugs as evil, portrayed by the media

·          The nature of the state: e.g., whether you are a drug producer country or a consumer.

·          External and internal pressures: e.g.,   international convention and cultural factors

All of these elements exist in an environment of illegality, prohibition and market economy. 

The following figure illustrates this model: 



Social constructions about drugs

Society has certain ideas regarding drugs. These ideas influence drug policy.  Based on the sociological theory of William and Dorothy Swaine-Thomas, a determined image of reality stated in a social group can be reproduced as a fact.  In the case of drug system, the social construction that links drugs with crime, produce a consequent reality.  (Baratta, 1990: 50) . 

The knowledge about drugs proceeds from certain groups or organizations.  This knowledge is not always scientific or based on research, and goes on to reinforce the mainstream paradigm (Cohen, 2003) .  In spite of the wide variety of discourse about drugs, the prohibitionist discourse is prevalent, so too its repressive prohibitionist strategy.  This is indeed a mirror of the power configuration that reflects drug policymaking in general.   

Public opinion is not a spontaneous process, but is influenced by the institutions, media and legislation.  In this sense, the production of knowledge has important consequences in the social construction analysis.  At the same time, policymaking reflects social opinion. (cfr. García, 1993: 49)

In the Colombian case, there is a kind of ambiguity in terms of attitudes toward drugs within Colombian society. For example, from colonial times, Catholic Church missionaries considered coca plant as something evil.  At the same time, Spanish colonisers often used coca as currency in the payment to the indigenous labour force (Arango and Child, 1985) .  The same contradiction can be found in the evaluation given to drug trafficking by Colombian society: i.e. although colombians have suffered the worst effects of drug trafficking violence, many people are still involved in this profitable business.   

The case of alcohol consumption in Colombia deserves special attention. Although alcohol is considered socially problematic it never the less generates revenue for the State at the provincial (or regional/departmental) government level. These regional departments (or provinces) maintain the monopoly over the local production and distribution of rum and, more significantly ‘aguardiente’ the most popular alcoholic beverage of Colombia.  Thus, it is not convenient for the State to diminish the consumption of alcohol, despite the general acknowledgement by the State of the negative aspects of such consumption. 


Nature of the State:

The state expresses its mandate through legislation and bureaucracy.  The state can be understood by its history and political culture (Weber, 1997) .  Because of that, it is important to examine the characteristics of the state in which a particular policy is made, and also how it reflects specific social constructions.

In Colombia, the State has been the scenario for the distribution of favours among the country’s powerful groups, frequently to the detriment of the general interest.  In the case of drug policy, the state has behaved in the same way, benefiting these powerful groups and, opting to follow the short term pressures of the moment. Despite ample legislation regarding drug issues, drug policy remains attached to established historical and cultural patterns of favouritism (Reveiz, 1997) .


Internal and External Pressures

As an international concern, drug policy cannot be understood in isolation. It is the answer to both internal pressures and external agreements.  With their increasing power, drug trafficking groups began to push for a place in political negotiation within the Colombian State.  As it was mentioned before, the nature of the Colombian State made it possible for these groups to be included in the policy making process.

Drug traffickers who wanted to legitimate their business have pushed policy makers.  The crucial discussion was about the ‘extradition’ treaty [1] .  Drug traffickers took advantage of the political moment of a New National Constitution (1991) to voice their opposition to extradition.  In the meantime, the United States insisted on extradition due to the evident failure of Colombian justice system to deal with drug traffickers. Therefore policy makers should take into account such external pressures in the formulation of drug policy.  (Tokatlian, 1997)  

The government at the time tried to satisfy both parties. The New National Constitution banned extradition, responding to the pressure of drug traffickers [2] . In the end, the government agreed with them ‘a kind of’ surrender offering the traffickers special treatment [3] .  In this way the Colombian government was able to demonstrate it had taken action against drug traffickers, thus complying with the United States requirements.  For the sake of this lenience to the United States Government, Colombia agreed to implement neo-liberal economic measures.  Unfortunately these conditions pushed the peasant economy to increasing reliance upon illicit drug cropping, due to the lack of more profitable legal economic opportunities.  (Matthiesen, 2000) .

These economic measures are defined by Tokatlian (2000) as a case of ‘incomplete globalisation’, because, the unprotected Colombian industry was ill-prepared for such a new competitive environment. Ironically, drug traffickers took advantage of these measures by utilising the international monetary exchange system to their benefit.  Nevertheless, as such money laundering did not represent a real investment in labour and capital; this input of drug trafficking money served to enhance the subsequent economic crisis.  (Rocha, 2000)


Environment:  Illegality, Prohibition and Market Economy

The elements of this model do not exist in a vacuum, but exist in a specific context.  They interact in an environment characterized by illegality, the prohibition paradigm and the market economy.  Illegal drugs as a commodity satisfy a real market demand and are a profitable business. Illegal drugs do not need advertising budgets, they do not pay taxes and they have few if any legal substitutes in the marketplace.  (De Rementería, 2001: 165) .

Prohibition has been the main strategy toward drugs since the beginning of the Twentieth Century.  The United States of America have been the main leaders in the Crusade against Drugs.  After the First and Second Conferences on Opium (1912: The Hague; 1925: Geneva), international regulations to restrict production of opium were formulated.  In 1988 President Reagan stated the Directive No. 221, declaring drug trafficking a national security issue. At the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy focused on drug trafficking as a new enemy to combat.   Since then, the War on Drugs has promised a drug-free world, but it has focused on the symptoms of the problem, rather than underlying causes.



It is vital to consider the symbolic aspects and the social constructions of the War on Drugs.  Our current perception of drugs as evil reinforces the necessity of such a war.  However, there are alternative connotations toward coca (not cocaine) belonging to our indigenous heritage although this is beyond the scope of this article.

Drugs have become defined as simply a ‘problem’ related to public health –addiction- and of public disorder –deviance-.  Due to these connotations the policy and its institutions have adopted a repressive approach to them. Institutions create and re-create social constructions through legislation and policymaking.  Ironically, despite failing in eliminating drugs, institutions argue for increased resources in order to persist in this strategy, without wondering about its worthiness. 

One might hope that international conventions would incorporate new insights about the problem. However, the ‘Prohibition Church’s bureaucrats’ (Cohen, 2003) keep on supporting the anti drugs strategy, without considering other alternatives.  In addition to this situation, Colombia’s relative powerlessness in these negotiations with the United States further exacerbates the problem.

For example, Colombian ambassadors are busy ‘begging’ for money in the war against drugs, without considering such factors as: ecological damage of aerial spraying, the social impact and economic effects of the enforcement strategy.  As one commentator noted, the United States’ patronising attitude keeps one foot permanently in their ‘back yard’.  (Mitchell, 1998) .

Like in the history of madness, the drug policy has been a history of repression and exclusion of certain populations and countries.  However, this is not a problem of ‘goodies and baddies’, where producer and consumer countries blame each other for their plight.  The enforcement strategy has become vindictive towards the weakest actors on the drug scene: the users in the streets (imprisoned with severe penalties), and the poorest peasants who get less than the 1% of the total drug trafficking revenue. (Vargas, 1999) .

As some researchers have stated, the demonization of the drug problem means that both societies are unable to begin a proper dialogue (cfrThoumi, 2002) .  This attitude also serves the purposes of military intervention and the control of natural resources.  (De Rementería, 2001)

It is vital that activists, researchers, experts, academics, concerned citizens and committed politicians, challenge this anachronistic state of affairs.  To challenge such obsolete social constructions about drugs will take time, effort and cultural awareness. Likewise changing political decisions in Colombia requires social participation and political will.  However, war and intolerance continue to diminish any attempt to question the current status quo. 

As in the ‘madness metaphor’ it is important to realize that drastic measures may drive us to lose our reason.  Could we substitute aerial spraying, war, and military investment by ‘the extraction of the folly stone’ as a modern day metaphor?

It is the former that are causing a tragic lobotomy in Latin-American society. 



Acevedo, B. (2002) In Facultad de Ciencias HumanasUniversidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogota, Colombia, pp. p. 111.

Arango, M. and Child, J. (1985) Los Condenados de la Coca.  El Manejo Político de la Droga, Editorial JM Arango., Medellín.

Baratta, A. (1990) In ¿Legalizar las drogas? Criterios técnicos para el debate.(Ed, Baratta, A.) Editorial Popular S.A., Barcelona.

Becker, H. S. (1966) Outsiders: Studies in Sociology and Deviance, Free Press, New York.

Cohen, P. (2003) International Journal of Drug Policy, 14, 213-215.

De Rementería, I. (2001) La guerra de las drogas, Editorial Planeta, Bogotá.

Foucault, M. (1998) Historia de la locura en la época clásica. 2 Tomos., Fondo de Cultura Económica,, Bogota.

García, M. (1993) La eficacia simbólica del Derecho. Examen de situaciones colombianas, Ediciones Uniandes, Bogotá.

Matthiesen, T. (2000) El arte político de conciliar.  El tema de las drogas en las relaciones entre Colombia y Estados Unidos 1986-1994, Fescol-Cerec- Fedesarrollo, Bogotá.

Mitchell, C. (1998) In Estados Unidos:  Potencia & prepotencia.(Ed, Restrepo, L. A.) Tercer Mundo Editores-Universidad Nacional de Colombia (Iepri)-Departamento Nacional de Planeación, Bogotá.

Reveiz, E. (1997) El Estado como Mercado. La gobernabilidad económica y política en Colombia antes y después de 1991, Santafé de Bogotá: Fonade, Carlos Valencia Editores, Bogotá.

Rocha, R. (2000) La Economía Colombiana tras 25 años de narcotráfico, Siglo del Hombre Editores.  UNDCP, Bogotá.

Thoumi, F. (2002) In Revista Semana.

Tokatlian, J. G. (1997) In En Drogas Ilícitas en Colombia: su impacto económico político y socia(Ed, Thoumi, F.) Ariel, Ministerio de Justicia, Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes, Bogotá, pp. 463-536.

Tokatlian, J. G. (2000) Globalización, narcotráfico y violencia: Siete ensayos sobre Colombia, Grupo Editorial Norma, Bogotá.

Vargas, R. (1999) Fumigación y Conflicto.  Políticas antidrogas y deslegitimación del Estado en Colombia, Transnational Institute, Bogotá.

Weber, M. (1997) Economia y Sociedad, Fondo de Cultura Economica, Bogota.

[1] The extradition refers to the application of US legal system to  Colombians who have commited crimes on US territory or against US citizens.  This mechanism was proposed for the first time in 1979, but its application was delayed due to subsequent governmental changes in office.  Finally, in Colombia,  the New National Constitution (1991), banned the extradition of Colombians to the US. 

[2] During the second half of the eighties, drug traffickers began a campaign of assasination of public figures who oppossed them.  The infamous cases of bombs and assasinations in shopping centers and airplanes, cost the lives of thousands of Colombians.

[3] For example, the infamous case of Pablo Escobar, who owned a prison called La Catedral. He managed to build the prison, in which he and his partners were ‘incarcerated’ according his own choice of location, design, interior fittings and additional comforts. 


Home InitiativesConferencesDocumentsMama Coca

©2003 Mama Coca. Please share this information and help us to circulate it quoting Mama Coca.