Drug-Torn Colombia Just Made (Medicinal) Weed Legal

Colombia is still fighting the cocaine trade but is embracing medicinal pot.

Young men take part in the third world bicycle ride against drug trafficking and in favor of the legalization of self-cultivation of marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes in Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia on October 4, 2014.  AFP PHOTO/Raul ARBOLEDA        (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Young men take part in the third world bicycle ride against drug trafficking and in favor of the legalization of self-cultivation of marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes in Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia on October 4, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Raul ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Young men take part in the third world bicycle ride against drug trafficking and in favor of the legalization of self-cultivation of marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes in Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia on October 4, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Raul ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Colombia is host to one of the world's deadliest drug wars, and the United States has spent more than $9 billion since 1999 to help fight it. But on Tuesday, Bogata embraced a new law legalizing medical marijuana — even as President Juan Manuel Santos insisted he was not backing down from stamping out drug trafficking.

Yet the move was a clear break from the expensive, hard-line, American approach to Colombia’s drug crisis. It’s the second time this year that Santos, a center-right former defense minister who was elected in 2010, has lightened up on U.S.-backed drug policies in the strategic nation.

Colombia is one of the world’s largest cocaine producers, and drug production has helped fuel conflict there by funding armed groups, including the FARC -- Colombia’s most notorious rebel group. In addition to killing more than 220,000 people, violence between rebels, paramilitaries, and the government has forced an additional 6.8 million people from their homes.

Colombia is host to one of the world’s deadliest drug wars, and the United States has spent more than $9 billion since 1999 to help fight it. But on Tuesday, Bogata embraced a new law legalizing medical marijuana — even as President Juan Manuel Santos insisted he was not backing down from stamping out drug trafficking.

Yet the move was a clear break from the expensive, hard-line, American approach to Colombia’s drug crisis. It’s the second time this year that Santos, a center-right former defense minister who was elected in 2010, has lightened up on U.S.-backed drug policies in the strategic nation.

Colombia is one of the world’s largest cocaine producers, and drug production has helped fuel conflict there by funding armed groups, including the FARC — Colombia’s most notorious rebel group. In addition to killing more than 220,000 people, violence between rebels, paramilitaries, and the government has forced an additional 6.8 million people from their homes.

Cynthia Arnson, who directs the Latin America program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., called Santos’s move to legalize medical marijuana “part of a dramatic rethinking of strategies for fighting the drug war throughout Latin America.”

Despite economic and military cooperation between the United States and Colombia, coca cultivation grew by 44 percent in 2014. In one northern province alone, coca cultivation increased by as much as 131 percent, according to InSight Crime, a foundation dedicated to studying organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Santos, who himself led the fight against the FARC as defense minister, has sought new solutions — even if it meant backing away from policies funded by Washington.

In May, Santos announced Colombia would stop spraying coca fields with an herbicide the World Health Organization labeled as “probably carcinogenic.” The spraying was intended to reduce the country’s cocaine production; instead, Colombian farmers claimed their food and legal livelihoods were also ruined. Since then, Santos has pledged to give land to farmers who choose to give up coca cultivation instead of spraying.

After Colombia banned spraying, “the U.S. government was very careful in not condemning the move,” Arnson said. “But it is certainly a rejection of the dominant approach that the U.S. government had promoted for over a decade-and-a-half.”

Tuesday’s decree allows the cultivation, import, export, and processing of marijuana for medical use and research. Colombia now joins Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Israel, and some U.S. states in allowing medical marijuana.

But even if the move represents a shift away from Washington’s tactics, Santos was careful not to advertise it as such. After signing the decree, he told reporters that legalizing medical marijuana “does not go against our international commitments on drug control.”

Instead, he said, “it places Colombia in the group of countries that are at the forefront … in the use of natural resources to fight disease.”

Photo credit: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. Twitter: @megan_alpert

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