This article, which was written prior to the 1st Ocotber 2015 which marked the end of over 30 years fo aerial spraying in Colombia, is once again pertinent due the outgoing Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas's last act which was to make manual bakpack spraying with glyphosate official - This is unacceptable not only for environmental reasons but because glyphosate continues to  potentially cancerigenic for the goverment employees who will spray the plants as well as for coca and cocaine users. Not to mention the leftover effect on coca growers who enter the fields post spraying. We have no information on the doses and frequency with which these fields will be manually sprayed oficially as of October 2016.  The WHO decision to halt aerial spraying was based on the IARC evaluation (danger warning)  taken on the basis of manual spraying repercussions.

Protecting Drug Users without Harming Growers


A MamaCoca report for Corporación Acción Técnica Social (ATS)


A recent World Health Organization (WHO) - IARC scientific study which classifies the herbicide Glyphosate (and others) as “probably carcinogenic to humans “ led to the announcement that aerial spraying with Glyphosate in Colombia was going to be discontinued. We are still asking ourselves what hit us all these years. This is only natural since aerial spraying was carried out which such lack of transparency that its origins and history only became apparent to the public at large after decades and innumerable hectares and gallons had been sprayed.

Nothing tied to the drug issue is the way it is made out to be. Policies designed to address drug use; crops; production; and trade are designed as if these phenomena took place in parallel worlds. Likewise, there is noticeable gap between growers —coca growers since cannabis growers are increasingly users themselves—and consumers; as well as an amazing unawareness of the drug reforms users have demanded and achieved. Firstly, because the stigma is hard dying; many still believe that drug users are dangerous; degenerate; people who live exclusively for drugs; poorly motivated; marginal delinquents; weak-willed; undependable; failures; addicts; hazardous to society; and these are just some of the popular beliefs ingrained by years of Prohibition /intolerance. People still fail to distinguish between an easygoing, fundamental right to pleasurable recreational drug use —which is in fact the case of the great majority of drug users— and compulsive use which is also a personal issue, possibly an attempt to solve preexisting situations, and which basically becomes a social ‘problem’ since it is not dealt with as health issue but as something to be punished/criminalized. The second obstacle to peasant growers not relating to users is that politicians have led them to believe that crops and growers are criminalized and persecuted because of “demand” and that crop prohibition originates in the need/obligation to protect users from themselves.

One of the worst forms of persecution and control suffered by peasants is fumigation. ‘Fumigation’ is the term by which Colombians have come to know the massive spraying of chemicals from aircraft in flight with the stated purposes of eradicating plants which have been proscribed by the international community: cannabis, coca and poppy. Chemical eradication was designed to eradicate weeds, not plants. Thus, since there are no defoliants fitted precisely to the need of killing these plants, antinarcotics agencies have been trying to find the “ideal” chemical among the existing commercial products and brands. They have been at it since the 1970s. In the face of nature and market resiliency, they have even attempted to propose/impose the use of pollen again marihuana to reduce its quality and market value; [1] the fusarium oxysporum fungus[2] or insects such as the Eloria Noyesi, coca’s natural enemy.[3]

In Colombia, antinarcotics agencies finally ‘resigned themselves’ to using a formulation called Glyfos which is made up of Roundup-SL®, Fuete-SL® and Gly-41® enhanced by the surfactant Cosmo Flux 411SL. This mixture is sprayed in concentrations which are up to 26 times more potent than the dosage recommended for agricultural purposes.[4] What’s more, the same plot is sprayed several times over. [5] The pray missions are accompanied by armed helicopters which fire over the fields to be sprayed in order to keep the planes from being shot down. It is highly possible that since 2012, with the ‘colombianization’ of aerial spraying, the Colombia Antinarcotics Police, on the basis of intelligence /reconnaissance reports made by Dyncorp,[6] has been spraying with the 1.155 200-liter barrels of Chinese Talanu Chemical Ltda Cúspide 480SL® Glyphosate in which Colombia invested 12.000 million pesos..

On Drugs and other Demons

Antinarcotics policies are the fruit of a puritan view of the world that holds that pleasure is a sin, that drugs are pagan demons and undesirable foreign vices. But, above all, out of the need to protect the pharmaceutical industry and its consumers from incorrect formulations and doses of potions which, when prepared by private entrepreneurs (the competition), might be poisonous.[7] Fumigation follows the same logic. Alleging the need to cut the flow of drug supply to the consumer market, at the beginning of the 1970s, antinarcotics agencies opted for a supply-side approach, which means attacking the ‘source’; that is crops. Not only because this is the most vulnerable sector of the drug economy but because it is considered fairly static and easy to hit and eliminate. And because it’s good business for, among others, the pharmaceutical companies that make defoliants.

Before fumigation settled in in Colombia for 35 years [1978-2015], aerial spraying in America in the context of the Drug War went through Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panamá, Belize, Venezuela and the United States. Colombia received the U.S’s ‘recommendation’ to spray with Parquat (whose aerial use in banned in Colombia since 1989) in 1978. The first official reaction to the announcement that Colombia was seriously considering aerial spraying came from the National Natural Resources Institute (Inderena) via a communiqué which warns the Julio Cesar Turbay Administration [1978-1982] of the risks for which the Colombian State might be responsible should it decide to fumigate as was the goal at the time (and was in effect carried out) the estimated 19,000 hectares of marihuana in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. At the time, coca in Colombia was for indigenous and peasant consumption and poppy was an exotic flower.[8]

Turbay, say U.S. reports “indicated a reluctance to engage in an immediate spraying eradication campaign” [9] and, in the end opts, in accordance with his repressive tendencies, for militarizing the drug issue and he sends in troops to attack marihuana crops in the Caribbean Coast. The urban legend had it that Turbay was into cocaine. Despite Turbay’s ‘reluctance’, from 1978 to 1984, the United States and Colombia experimented spraying with a wide variety of chemicals, including paraquat with its pulmonary fibrosis repercussions for smokers. They fumigate the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta —a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve [designated 1979] and Colombia’s Natural legacy to humanity— with the stated objective of eradicating the mellow Golden sativa and Punto Rojo. In 1978, the Financial Institutions Association (ANIF) under the Presidency of Ernesto Samper, on the basis of economic estimates and calculations, proposes the alternative of legalizing marijuana crops in Colombia. [10] Colombia was way too dependent/controlled by the U.S. to pay attention to Samper and he (and Colombia) will pay his daring dearly when he is elected president [1994-1998] and thanks to Andrés Pastrana’s eagerness to follow in his father’s presidential footsteps at any cost.[11]

The marijuana that stopped aerial spraying

The very first aerial spraying campaigns (in México in 1975) were undertaken with the discourse that marijuana use was a problem and the solution lay in spraying paraquat on the country that was at the time the U.S.’s largest supplier, Mexico. A few years later, the health hazards posed by paraquat became obvious. Not to peasant growers in México but to ‘ilegal’ marijuana smokers in the Sates. The study “Paraquat and Marijuana: Epidemiologic Risk Assessment” indicates that: " In March 1978, 13 (21 per cent) of 61 marijuana samples from the southwestern United States were found to be contaminated with the herbicide paraquat, a pulmonary toxin,... The source of the contamination was an aerial spraying program in Mexico, supported indirectly by United States funds. ... Combustion testing indicated that approximately 0.2 per cent of paraquat on marijuana passes into smoke”. [12]

Despite the fact that drug users are at the heart of a good number of the reforms brought about, while in Colombia drug users are still viewed as part of the problem, organizations such as NORML are the ones that managed to stop U.S. ‘assistance’ for the paraquat used to spray marijuana on federal lands and in Mexico, and further tried to keep aerial spraying from moving Colombia. In 1979, NORML, states: “Unless the law is observed, the spraying of paraquat could spread beyond Mexico to other nations, such as Colombia, that will see paraquat as a viable and U. S. Government-approved means for stopping their marijuana problem. If this takes place the United States will be facing a serious health epidemic, far beyond present circumstances”. NORML also tried to stop Glyphosate and all spraying but the U.S. Congress amended the phrasing in such a way as to continue providing ‘assistance’ to the poppy plant eradication effort [13] and to go on to coca.

Aerial spraying moves on to Colombia without apparently being wanted and under the pretension of not knowing what they were doing. Fumigation fit in perfectly into a scenario where anything and nothing was possible: defending this measure as an untouchable antinarcotics and counterinsurgent policy and not being able to protest against it for the same reasons. Colombian marihuana relocates from the Sierra to the Cauca region or to hothouses and/or it is harvested immediately after having been sprayed and then sold just like that. In some cases, at the time when marijuana grown in open fields was sprayed, the people who sold it ground pills (a dime a dozen in Colombia) into it so that it would have some effect. Little does it matter that failure to regulate/ accept the drug use by millions of Colombians allows this herbicide concentration in the buds and/or coca leaves and seeds to leave a toxic residue which is most probably harmful to users

But, mainly fumigation pushed marijuana growing gradually to the States where aerial spraying was selective. Everything seems to indicate that, in the U.S., spraying campaigns were carried out between 1979 and 1983 mainly in Kentucky and Georgia, and that Florida sprayed its weed with backpack sprayers in the 1980s; and that, after a two-year interruption in the use of paraquat, aerial spraying resumed with glyphosate until 1998/1999, basically in Hawaii and against hemp and ditchweed. [14]

Chemical helter skelter

In Colombia, from sporadic and experimental marihuana fumigation with all sorts of chemicals since 1978, in 1984 the country goes on to declare aerial spraying with glyphosate against coca an ‘official’ policy. The Police receives authorization to experimentally spray 2 hectares of coca but straight away they go all the way and start spraying massively and, before we know it, there are years, such as 2006, when Colombia and the U.S. spray up to 170,000 hectares of coca. Estimates are that Colombia has sprayed over 2 million hectares (almost 5 million acres) of the nation’s territory, basically chasing coca, which the ONDCP estimated at 16,000 hectares in 1984; and, from 1984 to 1985, 5.546 hectares were sprayed using 11.418 gallons of glyphosate [15] and, according to the ONDCP, in 1986 there were still 17,600 hectares of coca in Colombia.

For this first official stage of fumigation [1984], the National Health Institute (INS) was commissioned by the National Narcotics Council (CNE) to convene a Herbicide Experts Committee, whose statement warning the government of the risks and preventive measures it should take in view of this proposed indiscriminate use of agortoxins, was sovereignly ignored by the Belisario Betancur Administration [1982-1986]. The government also paid no heed to the Inderena’s warnings,[16] and to the INS and Health Ministry opposition to spraying. The decision to spray was taken at a closed-door meeting for security reasons as of the assassination of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla with the war declared by the narcotics traffic against the State going strong and, according to Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, this assassination was what finally moved the Colombian government to give in to U.S. pressures to officially implement aerial spraying. [17]

The almost perpetual State of Siege/Emergency under which Colombia was governed for decades was propitious for passing a good number of the antidrug decrees that gradually became permanent fixtures and incorporated in Colombia’s drug legislation. As concerns forced eradication, it was carried out for years without due authorization and then thanks to transitory environmental licenses; and it is basically certified by decrees issued by the National Narcotics Council which is for all purposes a consultative body (without the authority to create procedures). The National Police sustains that it has the authority to fumigate because illicit crops do not fulfill the social and ecological function called for by the law and everything seems to indicate that the drift (which officials estimate at approximately 50 meters) and which impacts licit crops, forests, animals, and water sources is just “too bad” and a sacrifice to be made in the name of “the supremacy of general interests over private interests/’rights’”.

Prohibition and Aerial spraying bring poppy to Colombia

Aerial spraying of poppy which was kept up in México and Guatemala during the 1980s and marijuana and coca spraying in Colombia bring a third crop for illicit purposes to Colombia: poppy whose latex is used to process heroin and opium. The first sign of what was in store for Colombia is a classified 1991 CIA document (made public in 2001 through FOIA). This document holds that: “...opium cultivation in Colombia could surpass the combined totals for México y Guatemala by the end of next year”.[18] Official estimates are that there could be about 400 hectares of poppy for 2015. Comparatively, Afghanistan is said to have approximately 224,000 hectares of poppy. Although the Afghans did not give in to U.S. pressure to spray, they have had their lot of U.S. intervention which contributed to pushing the country’s poppy crops to the record heights as a well as having their own quota of mercenaries which are still, like the Dyncorp in Colombia, getting rich off of the State Department’s Drug War contracts.[19]

So, as refers to poppy figures, the only thing to be said is that apparently no one really knows. The only certainty is that “official drug estimates” differ depending on who issues the reports and the purpose in mind. Whatever the case might have been, in mid-February 1992, President Cesar Gaviria [1990-1994], attacked from all sides, by the narcotics traffic; three different insurgent groups; the expanding paramilitary forces; but, above all, by Washington, disregarding adverse environmental and health statements against this toxic policy, carried out the first aerial spraying campaign against poppy.

The poposal which Colombia paid dearly

During his presidency [1994-1998], Ernesto Samper paid dearly for having dared to propose marihuana legalization in 1978, and new chemicals were tested on Colombians and counternarcotic legislating reached a peak.[20] Notwithstanding, in 1994, two historical rulings were passed by the Colombian Constitutional Court: Ruling C-221 of May 5th 1994 presented by Judge Carlos Gaviria which establishes that the use of drugs is not a criminal offense and Ruling C-176/94 which confirms Colombia’s reservations to the 1988 Vienna Convention. Ruling C-176/94 makes it mandatory for the Colombian State to “reserve itself to assess the ecological impact of its polices against the narcotics traffic since the persecution of the narcotics traffic cannot lead to (be translated into) a disregard of the Colombian State’s obligation to protect the environment, not only for the sake of the current generation but for future generations as well..” [21]

That which in no way alters the fact that, as far as aerial spraying is concerned, in December 1998 we raise the stakes and risks: the Plan Colombia and, with it, the intensified and greater outreach of aerial spraying to, among others, the Amazon Basin, the Pacific Rim and the rich and biodiverse Northeastern Catatumbo Region (bordering with Venezuela). A few months prior to Andres Pastrana’s [1998-2002] translation of the Plan Colombia into Spanish, in the U.S., Donald Wirtshafter and Paul Armentano/NORML were submitting their “Public Testimony of NORML Opposing U.S. Government's Domestic Hemp Eradication Program” through which “The NORML Foundation strongly opposes the ‘aerial directed spraying’ of herbicides from low flying aircraft for the purpose of eliminating wild growing marijuana plots. After evaluating the Drug Enforcement Administration's Domestic Cannabis Eradication Suppression Program (DCE/SP), we find it misguided, overly burdensome on taxpayers, counterproductive, and potentially harmful to the health and safety of residents and the environment”. [22]

From then on, all the great accomplishment aerial spraying progress reports referred to Colombia, the only country that has used aerial spraying in the context of war, the Drug War, since 1998/1999. Anecdotally, during the period when Andrés Pastrana was the Mayor of Bogotá [1988-1990][23] and promoting his program “say no to drugs”, there were some really fantastic concerts where there was an abundancy of the cocaine then known as “fish scale” (not the hazardous substance which is currently known as such) and ‘news” had it that the Mayor’s employees had the best cocaine to be found. At the time, the slogan was prevention and the business was in marketing and not in adulterating drugs.

Users’ issues

What is not taken into consideration is that, apart from having penalization and  persecution in common, one of the risks shared by both users and growers are the chemicals used; particularly, herbicides, pesticides and the precursors that are used with the total ignorance, disregard and adulteration allowed by laws that do not protect users by fittingly regulating these substances. It is apparently not redundant to note that regulating is not the same as prohibiting; contrary to what we are led to believe. Prohibiting is denying, banning pushing into the shadows. Regulating is making sure that these substances are used with full knowledge in the optimum sanitary conditions for the purpose for which they were intended, since, like it or not, these products are made to be used, consumed voluntarily (as opposed to the involuntary consumption of government-sprayed herbicide).

Coca is also grown to process cocaine which many of us consume voluntarily. Cocaine is consumed by bankers; politicians who make laws against it; yuppies; activists; loving and responsible parents; and millions of other people whose lives (contrary to what prohibitionists want us to think) do not necessarily revolve around “drugs”. These are largely people whose lives, much like a person who takes an occasional shot of whisky, revolve around their Jobs and their families. The difference is that people who drink whisky run less risks of it being adulterated and rye is possibly sprayed at a rate of 1.12 kg ai ha by the growers themselves and not by the State at a rate of a 23,5 liter high-potent mixture discharge and hitting to kill.  

Since these underestimated 13 million cocaine users, are species to be exterminated, put away and/or kept hidden and we have no “right/authority” to speak out, there are no known studies on the effects of the variety of up to 67 chemical pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers used on coca prior to processing the end product: cocaine hydrochloride.

Society has not even remotely started as should be to take directed samples and carry out studies on the impact of the herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers used and of the precursors which are now used to replace those which are the best suited to process medical and recreational cocaine; namely, a cocktail of chemical substances which, together with adulterants and due to arbitrary/selective drug controls, constitute health hazards for consumers: growers, processors and users. For now, the public at large and drug agencies are barely starting to accept the fact that what is banned and consumed as cocaine is a mixture of adulterants with a pinch of cocaine hydrochloride.[24] Let alone the final product which is smoked as pasta base (PBC) and that which is injected by heroin users without the slightest hint of quality control in Colombia. These are some of the “collateral” effects which knowledgeable users are quite familiar with but which are overshadowed by the monumental drama suffered by peasants from aerial spraying: loss of their staple crops, forced displacement, dispossession of their lands and debilitating illnesses, among others.

The end at last

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) study which classifies Glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A)” led/allowed Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria to issue a statement on April 24, 2015 recommending “the immediate suspension of Glyphosate in aerial spraying operations.”[25] This does not necessarily mean the Glyphosate will be banned, it means that the government will not be indiscriminately spraying it from planes against crops used for illicit purposes as has been ‘officially’ done for the past 30 years and the Ministry suggests that the product be clearly labeled so its use can be voluntary and with full knowledge.

On Saturday May 9th, we were informed by an article in El Espectador that President Santos has asked the National Narcotics Council (CNE) to “establish together with the Defense Ministry and with all the competent authorities involved, and with whom we ae committed to the fight against the narcotics traffic, a transition period which cannot go beyond the 1st October, to adopt new mechanisms in the fight against illicit crops, such as, for example, intensifying manual eradication”.[26] Santos has convened a meeting with the CNE for today Friday May 15, 2015.

With the end to aerial spraying and a refusal to continue human and environmental experimentation in Colombia, together with the design, development and implementation of other Public Health initiatives and alternatives to imprisoning consumers, growers, dealers and mules, among others.[27], President Santos could well go down in history as the politician in an important public office who truly made a difference by promoting wide drug-policy reform.  

Drug Users and New Mechanisms

People who use drugs in Latin America who have come together in the Latino network –LANPUD[28] join the cause of seeking “new mechanisms” to contribute to making the end to aerial spraying stick. Believing that “Nothing About Us Without US” [29], we propose the design of alternatives of our own based on our knowledge and experience. We hope that, within the framework of an approach to drugs as a public health issue, the Colombian social organizations of which Lanpud members are a part, —and that are proposing innovative and much needed peer-to-peer approaches— are listened to and receive the official support needed for Colombia to truly and in practice change the way the drug issue is addressed; for Colombia to show paths to be followed.

We propose that a social interdisciplinary group be formed to research and design alternatives on the part of drug users in support of the Santos Government’s search for new mechanisms to voluntarily contain crops used for illicit purposes.  We request that, as proposed in the New National Drug Bill still under discussion, users be invited to participate in the design, decision-making discussions, implementation and programs of the Health Ministry and other government bodies with an approach that addresses drug use, crops, production and trade as what they are: several aspects of the same social phenomenon.

We applaud the Santos Administration’s move to protect users’ health without harming that of growers.

Maria Mercedes Moreno

15 de mayo 2015

[1] CIA (FOIA) “Regarding your question on the use of viruses to attack coca” : 1989Tomado de /en mamacoca:

[2] BBC "Britain's Secret War on Drugs" Transcripción 2/10/2000- emitido el 15 de Octubre en Colombia




[6] “ Joint Intel and ISR Support Manager


[8] Disponible en la Fundación Pro Sierra

[9] Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control "Fact Finding Mission to Colombia and Puerto Rico”



[12] “Paraquat and Marijuana: Epidemiologic Risk Assessment ", AJPH July 1983, Vol. 73,. 7 de julio 1983



[15] Arrieta et al.: “Narcotráfico en Colombia, dimensiones políticas, económicas, jurídicas, e internacionales”, Ed Artico, 1989


[17] Juan Gabriel Tokatlian “Glifosato y política: ¿Razones internas o presiones externas?”,

[18] CIA: Colombian Traffickers and Heroin Production”, November 1991 /en mamacoca: