About four years ago I found myself on a “special tour” in the backwoods of Colombia, where you can try your hand at making the country’s most famous export (and I’m not talking about coffee). At a shack somewhere in the lush emerald hills outside a small town, my guide emptied a sack of green leaves into a bowl before covering them in gasoline and crushing them with a rock. The brownish sludge was then heated over a fire and left to dry under a light, leaving us with a pinch of the purest white powder known to man.
This wasn’t the type of tour you’ll find on TripAdvisor. It’s highly illegal, and my coke-induced paranoia didn’t ease up on the ride home, especially after bumping into my guide again at a small local bar where he tried stuffing a few “souvenir” vials in my pocket (I politely declined).
Colombia’s a beautiful country and a popular destination for backpackers looking for something more adventurous than Prague or Berlin (“Don’t get kidnapped!” one of your friends will inevitably quip, although the kidnapping rate is at its lowest point in decades). Colombia also produces 70 per cent of the world’s cocaine and is the homeland of Pablo Escobar, now enjoying a postmortem popularity post-Narcos.
Despite the stereotypes, coke is actually somewhat taboo there, especially among the middle classes of Colombia who blame it for death, destruction, and enabling a decades-long civil war that’s claimed over 260,000 lives. That’s not just a view held in Bogota, either.
“We’re kidding ourselves if we think that drug use in any form is harmless,” Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate for London mayor, wrote. “Every time someone buys drugs, they’re not just committing a crime; they’re funding crime. Every drug deal funds human trafficking. Every drug deal helps gangs buy weapons. Every drug deal fuels the violence and knife crime that we see on London’s streets.”
Bailey’s plan as mayor to introduce drug testing for office workers was backed last week by Priti Patel, who’d earlier claimed “there’s no such thing as dabbling in drugs”.
It’s not just a Tory thing, either: Sadiq Khan, too, has lashed out at the “woke who do coke”; yuppie professionals oblivious to the damage they’re causing.
But this blame game is misplaced.
First of all, as many have pointed out, the link between middle-class users and violent crime isn’t as solid as certain politicians believe. However, it is an inevitable result of the drug business. An analysis of all drug-related homicides in New York in 1988, at the peak of the crack epidemic, showed that around three-quarters were “systemic”, ie, business-related (dope boys robbing each other or having shootouts over corner spots), while less than 8 per cent were “psychopharmacological” – the effects of the drug itself (for example, someone got high and beat up their neighbour). And despite supposedly being the worst form of cocaine, only 1 per cent were committed under the influence of crack. In other words, the dangers of these politically-incorrect pick-me-ups was wildly overblown, while banning them created an underworld industry many times deadlier.
Going back to Colombia, cocaine gets singled out because it’s a drug and therefore naughty. We don’t moralise the same way about coltan, a mineral forming key components in the phones and laptops you use to furiously complain about middle-class hypocrites on the internet. It also happens to be mined by orphans in African warzones or militia-held territory in Colombia (in fact, those running coltan mines and coca plantations are often the same people). Coltan’s value is down to its usefulness in the tech industry, but cocaine’s value is artificially inflated (many times over) by its standing with the law. Would Escobar have been able to get ludicrously wealthy and terrorise an entire nation by selling novelty T-shirts? No, so why keep propping up his whole business model?
Colombia’s suffered enough at the hands of the narco-warlords, which is why earlier this year a coalition of centrist and leftist politicians put forward the first bill legalising cocaine: allowing adults to pick up a gram a week from their local pharmacists, and strictly controlling coca cultivation, taking narcos and paramilitaries out of the picture. The bill’s unlikely to go through, but it’s interesting to see the harder stuff being talked about the same way as marijuana.
Of course, it’s not only terrorists, rebel fighters and mafiosi making money off the white stuff. Why do we always dwell on the carnage and death, but ignore how it’s the single most worthwhile crop for struggling farmers in South America? As a government-funded study found this year, coca’s what puts children through school in parts of Colombia. The only way out of this dilemma is to allow peasant farmers to sell their produce legitimately, as they’ve done in Bolivia.
In the Eighties, drug barons schemed with generals to launch military coups while angry clashes erupted with native communities who considered the coca plant sacred and part of their culture (not unlike wine in Europe). This carried on until the mid-2000s, when Bolivia kicked out the DEA and lifted the ban on coca, allowing each household to grow a certain number of plants which could be used legitimately in tea, sweets and even toothpaste. The supply to narco cartels was cut dramatically: by 2015, more than half the coke seized in the country came from neighbouring Peru. It’s progress, although last years’ coup installing a new pro-US regime is threatening to throw all that under the bus.
The problem lies in the supply chain, not the consumer. It’s not fair to hold our conscience hostage to a menace you yourself are enabling.
Niko Vorobyov is a convicted drug dealer turned writer and author of the book ‘Dopeworld’, about the international drug trade