Colombian Gold was the name given to the good green being exported from Colombia in the 1970s due to its high potency and general awesomeness. To this day, Colombia produces some of the best cannabis in the world. Thanks to the violent infamy of Pablo Escobar (as epitomized in the Netflix hit Narcos), the country is more famous for its cocaine trade, but a resurgence of cannabis cultivation and a decline in coca production is a welcome byproduct of the growing legalization sweeping across North America.
And why should you care? Well, this could be the beginning of the end of the violent upsurges that gripped Latin America since the U.S. drug war began. The slow decriminalization of cannabis in the U.S. is having an enormously positive impact across the world, but Latin Americans are poised to see the greatest difference in their day to day lives. Having a legal means for farmers to sell their product outside the cartels means they can make more money without living in fear. The U.S. generated more than $2 billion from cannabis sales in a little over a year, and that kind of prosperity in Colombia, which has ideal conditions for growing cannabis, can mean the end of drug cartels and guerrilla groups competing to get the biggest, bloodiest piece of the pie.
Reviewing a bit of their history can show you how this is true. In the 1960s, the U.S. tightened border security in Mexico (and later Jamaica), which provided the majority of cannabis imports to its northern neighbor. The securitization of the border meant new opportunities for other would-be suppliers, which is something the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) never seemed to comprehend. The general rule of economics says that, with a huge demand for something, there will always be a supply. And trying to eradicate supply against the backdrop of escalating demand only serves to increase prices and motivate suppliers to get crafty and more dangerous.
By the end of that same decade, 70 percent of cannabis that reached the States was grown in Colombia, and the quality was far superior. Last year, Steve DeAngelo of the Harborside Health Center told PRØHBTD how the Colombian plants wowed him, describing them as, “Amazing, so sticky, you would squeeze the seeds out of the bud, and the bud would remain completely intact.” Prohibition in the U.S. and the lack of competition from Mexico made drug cartels very rich. Meanwhile, the cultivation of food in Colombia declined overall because all the good growing land was used for cannabis. In addition, all the legitimate businesses were slowly bought up by the mafiosos to launder their drug money.
Escobar originally worked in the cannabis trade, but when he first learned about the addictive drug potential in coca leaves, he immediately moved into the cocaine trade,and growers started uprooting cannabis plants and replacing them with coca plants. The Andean countries grew coca for thousands of years, and the farmers were able to meet the increased demand that led to skyrocketing profit margins. In the decades that followed, the Cocaine Wars produced more than 450,000 deaths and 2.5 to 4 million people displaced. Another unintended consequence is the widespread addiction to basuco amongst Colombia’s youth. Basuco is a highly toxic, addictive and more harmful form of cocaine dumped on the Colombian market because its inferior quality failed to meet the standards for U.S. exports. It sold for cheap and soon overtook the popularity of cannabis. To this day many Colombians mistakenly believe that basuco is less harmful than cocaine.
Thankfully, we’re starting to see a turnaround. In December 2015, President Juan Manuel Santos signed a decree to legalize the growth and sales of cannabis for medicinal purposes. The new law comes as surveys find that cannabis is once again the illicit substance of choice for 87 percent of Colombians. Furthermore, on the Llanos Orientes of Colombia’s eastern plains, campesinos are starting to uproot coca plants and replant cannabis. In other words, North America’s initial victories over prohibition have already caused a noticeable shift away from cocaine and created huge economic opportunities for Colombian farmers. There is even talk of international companies coming to Colombia to produce medical marijuana.
More money in the pockets of honest Colombian officials and hard-working citizens will mean less money in the pockets of drug cartels and guerrilla groups. Yes, cocaine will continue to flow into the U.S., but legalization efforts are helping Colombia come full circle and return to its roots. Just as the cocaine boom turned the finest cannabis fields into coca plantations a generation ago, many of the same fields are reverting back to cannabis today.