On the 25th of January 2016, the John Mordaunt Trust under the initiative of Andria E-Mordaunt of Users Voice organized a meeting in the House of Lords on the Need for Drug-Policy Reform in the UK. The meeting was hosted by Baron Brian Paddick, Liberal Democrat, and chaired by Francis Sealy, co-founder of the GlobalNet21: Recreating Our Futures networkers which brings people together to discuss pressing issues of the 21s century.

I, Maria Mercedes Moreno, was invited to speak on Colombia’s most pressing issues.  I thus spoke on the risk for the ongoing peace process of failing to address social justice and carrying out a true, and not solely on paper, agrarian reform. Below you will also fin the links to the diverse conferences presented at this meeting.


All of the countries in the world produce and consume one or another of the substances that have come to be known as “drugs”. What happens is that, much like a distinction has been drawn between licit and illicit substances, we’ve been made to believe that there are, on the one hand, countries that produce drugs and, on the other, countries that consume them.

Colombia is one of those countries that are known as producer countries. Colombia is known to produce cocaine, grow cannabis and more recently grow poppy to produce heroin. Fact is Colombia grows large expanses of coca and that is basically where our issues with antinarcotics agencies lie. The UNODC estimates that there are approximately 70,000 families (4 members per family) tied to coca growing in Colombia alone (that is, not counting Bolivia and Peru -the other two Andean nations that produce coca).

This means that around 250,000 (if not more, knowing how these official estimates work) of the 11 million people that live in rural Colombia, are directly dedicated to coca growing. This is where Colombia’s true tragedy as concerns the drug conventions lies. There might be a greater number of users than growers and there surely are; and some of these users (since they are right next to a large production center) suffer the way substances such as basuco (which is the very generally speaking the Colombian equivalent of crack) are marketed due to prohibitionist controls which, what it comes down to, is a total lack of control measures.

Nonetheless, in Colombia, drug use in not a real legal tragedy since coping with drug use depends more on what drug you consume and your financial circumstances than on the law persecuting you since possession of certain amounts for personal use (1 gram of cocaine and/or crack, 20 grams of marihuana, 5 grams of hash, and 2 grams’ methaqualone) has been legal for the past 20 years. It is interesting to note that no mention is made of heroin. Heroin use is fairly new to Colombia. Colombia started growing poppy in the early 1990’s. Poppy is grown at high altitude mainly in the coffee zone and this is the route along which the first injected drug users are found and where, nowadays, there are incipient programs for injected heroin users where they are beginning to have access to methadone and naloxone. Poppy growing in Colombia was first promoted by the Cali cartel who gave the Yanacona indigenous communities seeds because it was a much more profitable business than coca for cocaine- This venture (approximately 400 hectares of poppy in Colombia in 2015) contributes to the destruction of Colombia’s watersheds /moorlands and disintegrates indigenous communities.

As concerns growing coca which, together with coffee, makes cocaine Colombia’s main agricultural value-added product, it subjects peasants to war from all sides (the country’s 4 most-known armed groups ―Armed Forces, FARC. ELN and paramilitary groups which have now, after formal demobilization in 2006, become what is known as criminal bands Bacrim. Crop persecution displaces peasants be it through aerial spraying (which we just managed to stop in October 2015) or through armed confrontations to control these crops and/or the corridors via which cocaine is exported.  Thus, drug prohibition due to the way it’s carried out pushes peasants to remote unconquered territories and paves the way for land deforestation. The frontier lands opened up by coca growers are afterwards bought up, or more often, violently taken over by land grabbers and concentrated in the hands of the few and used for large mining ventures and extensive cattle grazing.  So Prohibition is a handy tool for opening the way for capitalism and large corporations.

That which brings us to what is currently happening in Colombia. President Juan Manuel Santos has dedicated his mandate to singing peace with the FARC guerrilla (formally since October 2012) and, more recently (past 2 years) informally with the ELN guerrilla. Santos has also vowed to change the way the drug issue is approached. In this sense, there have been changes. Namely, the way not all drug users are now considered potential criminals but more like victims of the illegal system. The Santos government has started by regulating medical marihuana but we cannot lose track of the fact that this Presidential Regulatory Decree is, grosso modo, geared at making medical marihuana a large private business and export venture whose market earnings are hoped to be an estimated at USD$2.000 million for Colombia.

However, as concerns coca growing, although the government in effect stopped aerial spraying, coca growers are still persecuted and manual forced eradication continues to be the pat answer and an enormously controversial issue. Peasants are being forced to eradicate their means of livelihood without any visible substituting crop or income. So naturally there are marches and protests which the army, more often than not, forcibly suppresses. Apart from on the ground glyphosate, forced crop eradication is also related to militarization of their territories to which communities are opposed. What all of this goes to show is that changes, despite the peace process and supposed drug policy reform, are slow coming as concerns growers’ issues.  Although the conventions are to blame it seems to be more a domestic obstacle tied to national and international economic vested interests. Namely, obstacles such as traditional (and more recent narcotic trafficking-induced) large land holding interests and corporate agricultural interests. One the one hand there is the Colombian tendency to extensive monocrop cultivation and, on the other, the tendency both by large agricultural producers and small crop growers to intensively use agricultural chemical inputs. Agricultural inputs have become a large import (and re-export to other LA countries) business in Colombia, in part due to 35-year official use for aerial spraying and to the uses of these inputs in the spreading of coca crops for the narcotics traffic.  

The background is that Colombia has historically had an extremely unequitable land distribution system and everything seems to indicate this (despite the peace negotiations) is not about to change, that is not without serious social resistance. The failure to implement an agrarian reform is one of the main reasons for the country’s 60-year-long internal armed strife. Insanely, 0.4% of the land holders own 41.1% of the agricultural lands. Furthermore, in the last two decades, the Drug War has contributed to the theft/despoliation of 6.6 million hectares of rural land mainly into the hands of narcotics traffickers, now part of the national political and economic institutions or extradited, or not.

Comprehensive Rural Development together with a “solution to the drug problem” are crucial to peace. In 2015, Congress passed a law called ZIDRES (Zones of Rural, Economic, and Social Interest). [Espectador] President Santos singed it a month ago and is currently promoting it as the answer to peace. But the idea of taking 7 million of the Nation’s public lands in remote regions and giving them to large private national and international capital investors with lines of credit so that they can hire farmers to farm the land is far from the ideal solution for farmers themselves who believe this is just more of the same refusal to carry out an agrarian reform and give land to the landless.

Oxfam calls this the “Agrarian Underdevelopment Law” and the great majority of social organizations CODHES, CINEP Planeta Paz, Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, Mesa de Incidencia Política de Mujeres Rurales Colombianas; Cumbre Agraria, Campesina, Étnica y Popular; Dignidad Agropecuaria, ANZORC have studied this proposal and are total opposed. Politicians defend this project on the basis that these remote public lands (7 of Colombia’s 114 million hectares) are not being exploited and that peasants cannot afford to do so. This project is not new and Colombia’s large land-owner made up Congress has been rehashing it for years in order to pass it. Colombian social organizations have put up the fight until finally greed won out. 

What ZIDRES basically leads to is the legalization of large private tenure of public lands. After the past few years of drug war-induced land devastation, not all of these lands are as remote as they say but some of them are some of Colombia’s last environmental frontiers. And, apart from the fact that these are the Nation’s lands and legacy and not any particular government’s to give away, giving them up to large private national and international investors to exploit poses a great environmental hazard to Colombia’s biodiversity and water sources. Firstly, because the monocrop system implemented by large agribusinesses is contrary to food sovereignty and protecting biodiversity. Secondly, because these large agribusinesses tend to intensively use chemical herbicides and fertilizers to be competitive. Thirdly, because the government is planning to build roads for these investors through these environmental havens. The Colombian Environmental Movement is totally opposed to this and has consistently demanded that sustainability be a serious consideration in the peace accords.

So this is to say that, even if the world currently knows Colombia as one of the countries from where the drug paradigm is being changed, the fact is that the legal changes mentioned confirm a historical fact in Colombia, namely that users have not suffered extreme legal persecution (they’ve been ignored and their health put at risk), and that these changes are in tune with those commercial cannabis reforms of the times.

However, as concerns the country’s more pressing problem which is coca growers’ issues, its overlap (interference) with land ownership rights and with the agrochemical business (92% in the hands of 6 importing companies) is making it impossible to find an answer to extensive coca growing and to alternative means of income for impoverished peasants – If equitable land ownership in Colombia is not addressed as part of finding a “solution to the drug problem” (as this is called on the Colombian peace agenda), then coca growing will continue to be the inevitable way out from rural poverty. What is more, basuco processing, which is already a coca-value-added production issue with a growing number of peasants (UNODC says 95% in the Orinoquía), will continue to spread, with all of the repercussions this implies for users and rural and urban communities and for the international community.

Basuco, or its more refined basic coca paste (BCP) form, is currently becoming an export product to laboratories where the optimal precursors to process cocaine hydrochloride can be found. This is mainly to the LAC Latin-America and Caribbean countries but also to labs in Europe, where there are cocaine extraction labs (that is to remove cocaine or BCP from the carrier materials used to export it) and, for now to a lesser degree, cocaine hydrochloride processing labs. The issue with this is that it often happens that importers start creating local markets for BCP (crack equivalent) since it is a lot cheaper and rotates faster and is thus much better for narcobusiness. Thus the urgency to advocate for the Colombian government to conscientiously address coca growers’ issues.

For now, organized coca growers themselves are applying correctives. They are demanding that the government respect Law 160 of 1994 which establishes Peasant Reserve Zones (ZRC) and which would be abolished by the ZIDRES. They are limiting their coca crops to 4 hectares and are planting one hectare of food crops for every hectare of coca. They are proposing food safety, sovereignty and environmental protection solutions and that Parques Nacionales leave peasants in the National Natural Parks (PNN) they were living in before these areas were declared PNN. Whether the Colombian government drafts true-to-life solutions or it concedes to its large land-holder political class will determine the chances to control coca crops expansion, cocaine and BCP exports-  This is significant to peace and if we do not want fumigation promoters to justify the comeback of aerial spraying on the argument of coca expansion.

A recent triumph (this week) is the Santos government’s acceptance of the Peasant Reserve Zones (ZRC) in the Catatumbo region bordering with Venezuela. Thanks to these peasants’ peaceful resistance and initiatives. This is the way out from decades of destructive drug policies: peacefully making a point and peacefully conceding that Prohibition is not the answer to current needs and for future perspectives. Recognizing that ending Prohibition in Colombia is the path to peace but that lasting peace and drug policy reform require social justice and equitable land distribution. #NoALasZIDRES


María Mercedes Moreno

“The Need for Drug Policy Reform in the UK

House of Lords, 25feb2016


Links to the meeting organized by Andria E- Mordaunt of the John MordauntTrust and Users Voice

House of Commons -London


The Need for Drug Policy Reform UK PART1

The Need for Drug Policy Reform UK PART2 conferences

Q&A The Need for Drug Policy Reform UK PART1 - YouTube

Q&A Need for Drug Policy Reform UK PART2 - YouTube

February 25, 2016  

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