Solving Colombia’s Drug Violence Dilemma: Legalize Drugs and Guns

José Niño – May 16, 2018

With the 2018 Colombian presidential elections rapidly approaching, presidential front-runners Iván Duque and Gustavo Petro face numerous challenges ahead.

One of them involves dealing with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the perpetrators of a more than 50-year-long armed conflict in Colombia that has left 220,000 dead and has displaced over 5.7 million people.

Part of outgoing President Manuel Santos’ legacy was brokering a peace deal with the FARC that would be decided by the Colombian people through a popular referendum.

However, things did not go Santos’ way at first when Colombians rejected the peace accords by the thinnest of margins.

Following the original peace agreement’s defeat, Santos’ government and the FARC came together to sign a modified version of the previous agreement, which the Colombian Congress later approved. The modified agreement included several key points that would guarantee the FARC legislature seats and require them to pay reparations to war victims.

Naturally, this modified agreement drew substantial criticism from opposition figures such as former president Álvaro Uribe and current presidential candidate Ivan Duque, who believe the agreement was far too lenient on the FARC.

Many of these critics contend that Santos’s move to rehabilitate the FARC politically would put Colombia on the path to becoming the next Venezuela — the current posterchild of socialism’s failures.

At first glance, these critiques have a strong degree [of] validity given the FARC’s mission to overthrow the Colombian government and seize the country’s means of production.

But one must still wonder how the FARC could still maintain relevance in the first place, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The answer lies in the unintended consequences of drug prohibition.

Prohibition: The Root of Colombia’s Drug Problem

Prohibition artificially inflates the price of drugs, encouraging black market actors to get involved in the distribution and production of these substances.

However, rational economics flies over the heads of politicians hell-bent on tackling every perceived crisis with the full force of the State.

Since the 1970s, the United States has waged a War on Drugs to curb drug consumption and production.

Despite these efforts, drug use and production have not fallen by any meaningful metric.

Countries like Mexico are in complete shambles due to a combination of institutional corruption and cartel violence—heavily fueled by the artificially high profits of prohibition. A trip down memory lane shows how Mexico’s current plight is not too dissimilar to Colombia’s experience when the Medellin Cartel was at its peak.

On the black market, the rule of the jungle and lack of transparency are the order of the day. But when goods move to the white market, consumers not only have better information on the goods they consume, but they’re also safe from extrajudicial violence commonplace in black markets.

Despite implementing robust programs like Plan Colombia, where the United States spent $10 billion to tame insurgent and cartel violence, a report from Insight Crime illustrates how Colombian cocaine production still reached an all-time high in 2017.

Although Colombia has made progress in decriminalizing possession of small amounts of cocaine and marijuana, decriminalization is not enough.

Part of the answer to Colombia’s violence dilemma is embracing the legalization of drugs.

Detractors will argue that legalization opens the door for mass mayhem and public health problems. Yet the American experience of the 19th century up until the early 20th century, where a wide array of drugs was legal, tells a different story—one that did not feature large levels of organized crime or mass epidemics like the current opioid crisis. A push for legalization would not spell doom for Colombia despite all the hand-wringing from political busybodies.

Establish Gun Rights

But Colombia shouldn’t stop at drug legalization.

Colombian policymakers must also consider liberalizing Colombia’s draconian gun control laws.

While the Colombian Constitution of 1991 nominally recognizes the right to bear arms, law-abiding Colombian citizens must still jump through substantial bureaucratic hurdles just to own a firearm.

Civilians 18 and up can only legally purchase and carry small caliber handguns and shotguns with a license. On [the] other hand, they are barred from owning or carrying higher caliber handguns and semi-automatic guns, which can only be acquired under “exceptional circumstances”.

In addition, gun owners must register their guns with the military, which enjoys a monopoly on the sale of weapons and issues all weapons permits.

Colombia remains one of the most violent countries in the world, while boasting very low rates of legal gun ownership among the populace.

According to a 2014 study, only 400,000 gun owners hold 500,000 legal guns in Colombia. Of these 400,000 guns owners, half of them come from Colombia’s robust private security sector. Despite the growth of Colombia’s private security sector, the average Colombian simply can’t enjoy the luxuries of private security like their richer counterparts.

Reforming Colombia’s gun control laws would provide Colombians of humbler means a more economically viable security option against crime and insurgency.

Instead of relying on top-down measures like Plan Colombia, Colombia should look to more bottom-up alternatives that empower citizens to defend themselves against cartels and guerillas while stripping both groups of their artificially high profits.

Colombia can lead the way by legalizing the drugs and guns.

This article was originally published at José Niño is a Venezuelan-American political activist based in Fort Collins, Colorado. 


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