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INTERVIEW-Colombia lawmakers seek to decriminalize coca crops

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 29 Mar 2012 17:30 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Farmers jailed for growing illicit crops

* But price of cocaine remains high

* United States likely to oppose change

By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA, March 29 (Reuters) - Colombian lawmakers have introduced a bill to decriminalize coca cultivation in the world's top cocaine producer, a move that would radically alter the Andean nation's fight against drugs by using market forces to deprive traffickers and leftist rebels of revenue.

The measure, set to be debated in Congress in the coming days, would eliminate prison terms for growing the main ingredient for cocaine. The aim is to lower its price by flooding the market and creating incentives for farmers to grow legal crops.

Though likely to fail, the plan focuses attention on the drug problem just ahead of the April 14-15 Summit of the Americas in Colombia, when Latin American heads of state are expected to pressure U.S. President Barack Obama to find new ways to combat a trade that has fueled decades of violence.

Intractable debates over who is to blame - producers or consumers - and whether to legalize drugs have sapped the ability of governments around the world to respond to the multi-billion-dollar trade.

"We have to tell the United States and other consumers, Colombia has already paid enough, mostly in blood," Liberal Party lawmaker Hugo Velasquez, who introduced his bill to Congress this week, told Reuters.

"It hasn't worked, it's time to change the strategy."

The measure, signed by seven other lawmakers, faces an uphill battle in the legislature. Justice Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra has already said such a law would violate Colombia's commitments to international treaties.

"We have to be particularly prudent and careful," Esguerra told Reuters.

But the move reflects growing recognition among Latin American nations that decriminalization and reduction of demand must be part of any long-term solution to decades of drug violence.

President Juan Manuel Santos said this month that a change in the approach to drugs should be discussed at next month's summit in Cartagena, following similar statements by two former Mexican presidents and a growing list of other regional leaders.

MARKET FORCES

Velasquez, whose party is part of Santos' governing coalition, said lifting criminal penalties could cause coca prices to plummet from their current level.

Over time that would reduce incentives to grow it and dry up the supply to drug cartels and insurgent groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, he said.

The current law sets prison terms of between four and 12 years for anyone involved in growing illicit crops. Of the 105,000 men and women in Colombian prisons, almost 23,000 are behind bars for narco-trafficking and illicit cultivation.

A farmer with 2.5 acres (1 hectare) of land could harvest more than 950 kilos (2,090 pounds) of coca leaves every six months, bringing in about ${esc.dollar}2,670 each year, according to police figures.

"Let's see how well the laws of the market work. If there's excessive production due to the lack of criminal penalties, surely the market will depress the price," said Velasquez, 65, a lawyer from coca-growing Meta province.

Despite the destruction of 3.2 million acres (1.3 million hectares) of coca crops through fumigation over the past decade, authorities estimate that some 150,000 acres (60,000 hectares) remain under cultivation.

The price per gram of cocaine on European and U.S. streets remains high enough to keep the business booming. Police say a kilo (2.2 pounds) of cocaine leaves Colombia's jungle labs valued at ${esc.dollar}2,500. It hits New York at ${esc.dollar}26,000 and Madrid at ${esc.dollar}54,000.

"COUNTERPRODUCTIVE STEP"

Velasquez said onerous restrictions on the sale of fuel and fertilizers meant to limit cocaine production have had the perverse effect of making it harder to grow legal crops.

"They get wrapped up in bureaucracy or can only buy small amounts and that has a negative impact on earnings in the legal market," he said.

Approving the measure would likely anger the United States, which has poured billions of dollars into a decade-long offensive against drug-funded rebel groups, improving Colombia's security but failing to stamp out coca production.

"It would be a counterproductive step and undermine progress," Asa Hutchinson, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration between 2001 and 2003, told Reuters. "It goes contrary to the tremendous progress the government of Colombia has made in reducing violence and increasing the rule of law."

Even decriminalizing coca would not make it easy to switch to legitimate crops in some places overrun with insurgents. The FARC has threatened to kill farmers who want to give up.

And transporting produce to market on jungle and mountain roads is a major challenge to the growing of legal crops.

Former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, whose government brought down feared drug baron Pablo Escobar in 1993, told Reuters that decriminalizing was a "first step that should be part of the solution."

"Making farmers criminals is wrong," Gaviria said. "We shouldn't treat farmers as delinquents, just like we shouldn't treat consumers as delinquents." (Editing by Brian Ellsworth, Daniel Wallis and Xavier Briand)

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