A practical guide on how to regulate cocaine

Social justice and public health at the heart of a regulation model

Steve Rolles is a senior policy analyst for Transform Drugs. Transform Drugs is a UK based NGO that focuses on policy analysis and advocacy work related to drug policy law reform. Transform Drugs researches alternatives for the War on Drugs. They aim to decriminalize the use of drugs and develop models for regulating markets of all drugs. Steve wrote ‘How to regulate stimulants’, order your free copy here.

Steve Rolles

Why should we regulate cocaine?

“Even drugs are risky, prohibition increases risks. It doesn’t stop people from using drugs. An illegal market also creates problems: crime, instability, corruption and violence.

But there are problems across the world, for producer-, transit- and supply countries. Whether it’s the criminalization of users, whether it’s street crime, whether it’s corruption. We have a responsibility to come with something pragmatic, that will work.

West Africa for example, places like Guinea Bissau, these countries have been devastated by the cocaine market in less than a decade, since the cocaine route moved from the Caribbean to West Africa. The value of cocaine going through Bissau is many times Guinea Bissau’s GDP. The amount of corruption, chaos and violence that is caused by cocaine trade, has devastated the country, a country that was already in chaos. It just shows the problems with the illegal market and highlights the urgency of why we need to sort this out.”

What is regulation?

“Regulation describes how the government intervenes in the market to control it in order to manage risks. Regulating potentially dangerous products or behaviors to protect citizens. Putting age controls, taxation, price controls, licensing of vendors, mandating information on packaging, licensing producers; all the kind of things we do with alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals.”

Risky behavior and risky products have always been regulated

“Products like alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical drugs are regulated. Apart from risky products, risky behavior is also regulated: gambling, sex work, dangerous sports and driving. Speed limits for the road is a form of regulation so that people don’t drive too fast and crash and die. Anything that’s risky, is regulated.”

Different drugs, different models for regulation

“Clearly, different drugs have different regulation approaches. More risky drugs need stricter regulation and less risky drugs need less regulation. And some drugs like coffee and coca tea don’t need regulation at all.”

What are the principles for regulating cocaine?

“The tricky thing about cocaine is that it’s not a single thing. There can be a whole range of preparations of cocaine: from coca leaf -which is very low risk-, to injected cocaine, smoked crack or pasta base, which is very high risk. In the middle you have cocaine powder, which is generally snorted, which is somewhere in between. Depending on the preparation and on the way the drug is used, you’ll have different regulatory response.”

Step 1: Regulating coca products, like tea and coffee

coca products

“We’ve argued that coca leaf and coca tea would be essentially regulated like coffee and tea, not really much more regulated than groceries in a grocery shop. So basic trading standards; sell-by dates; accountability to the vendor so you at least know what you’re buying and accurately labeled. But there’s no licensing of vendors or age controls or anything like that.”

fair trade cocaine

Step 2: Regulating cocaine: unbranded, pharmaceutical packaging, with clear health warnings

“Cocaine powder is obviously very different, we would regulate that much strictly. It’s potentially risky. So, you don’t want children using it. Moderation is in place because it kind of lends itself to not-moderation, because people often want more of it; it can be quite addictive and it’s often consumed with alcohol. There are distinct and clear health risks associated with powdered cocaine. We advocate for unbranded products, more like pharmaceutical packaging, with clear health warnings on it. We laugh about it but alcohol brands still sponsor sports teams, music events, festivals. You would buy it from something more like a pharmacy, where you’d have a trained individual who enforces a regulatory code but who would also be able to give you advice on health, harm reduction and safety. You would only be able to buy a limited amount, like half a gram or a gram. For a longer period, you can have a membership, a licensed purchaser scheme where you have a card or a thumb print scanner where you can buy one gram a week, or a reasonable amount for an individual.”

A delicate balance regarding availability of cocaine is required

“We need to be careful about the availability of cocaine. When it’s too restrictive, we can’t meet the demand, people don’t want to go to the pharmacy or they want more than they are allowed to buy, obviously an illegal market can continue and we haven’t solved the problem. There’s quite a delicate balance between putting in place restrictions that we think help protect public health, moderate use, encourage saver use and having the risk of having a system that is too regulated or too restrictive, such that people don’t use the regulated cocaine, demand isn’t met, and the illegal market and all the problems continue. But it’s better to start with a more restrictive model and maybe loosen it if it’s working well.”

A non-profit state monopoly

“We suggest that retailing should be a state monopoly. We really can’t trust commercial actors to act in the public interest. A state monopoly that is acting in the public good would potentially preferable to a commercial entity whose interest would be profit and increasing use. There are problems with state monopolies, in Mexico state monopolies can be corrupt, have profit motivations that can be politically quite problematic. But that’s preferable to big tobacco companies running the show.

Step 3: crack cocaine: a harm reduction approach

“For crack cocaine or injected cocaine, we think of a harm reduction management space, we don’t really see a retail model. We wouldn’t criminalize people for injecting or smoking cocaine. You could manage their use with supervised consumption, support them with substitute prescribing and you would give them the broader health and social support, support with housing and mental support. The kind of things that push people into problematic use.

Basically, it’s about three points: 1) a relatively light regulation for coca products, 2) a sort of strict pharmacy model for cocaine and 3) a harm reduction approach for crack and injected cocaine.”

The production chain: Social justice as the driving principle

“We’ll put social justice at the heart of our thinking. We don’t want to reproduce the inequalities of prohibition in a legal market within the production chain. There are millions of people involved in the illegal drug economy, specifically in coca. Whether that is growing coca leaves, processing them, transporting them or selling them. Most of them are not like Pablo Escobar, most of them are not billionaires, most of them are poor, they’re from marginalized communities, often they’re displaced, they’re people who are economically- or political migrants. These are people that moved into the illegal drug economy out of need, rather than greed. These are people often involved in the illegal economy as a form of economic survival. If you’re trying to feed your family, if you’re trying to stay alive, moving into the illegal drug economy can be one of the few options you have.”

coca farmer from Yungas, Bolivia, a region where coca cultivation is a traditional culture

Involve current illegal actors in the legal production chain

“We need to consider these people. And particularly for coca growers we need to explore whether there are ways whether we can protect them and either provide for them alternative livelihoods or trying to find a way for them to transition to legal coca growing. Most of the coca growers are very small scale. They are small landholders who have a few hectares of coca. We’re not talking about large scale production; we’re not talking about rich individuals for the most part. We need the sustainable development goals to be part of the outcomes we’re trying to achieve. There are elements that what happened in Bolivia are useful precedents. Many small-scale illegal coca producers were transitioned into legal small-scale production of coca leaf, rather than for cocaine. We could take some of these lessons from Bolivia. I know it’s all unraveling in Bolivia unfortunately, but certainly what happened in Bolivia the past years, were useful lessons which could be applied in Peru, Colombia and Argentina.”

Prevent agricultural technology from domestic production of cocaine

“Agricultural technology would find a way to grow coca anywhere so that greenhouses can simulate low altitude to cultivate coca. If the UK or any country decide they want to legalize cocaine, there’s not really something stopping them from having a domestic coca production. Alternatively, someone will figure out how to synthesize cocaine, without the use of coca plants. Then the people who are currently growing coca and are depending on it, will be pushed out of the market.”

Andean countries first to legalize

“Let’s say that Colombia will be the first to legalize cocaine and they set up a small pilot scheme to have availability of cocaine in some Colombian cities and licensed card holders. It will be great to demonstrate that this could work, it will be a useful proof of concept. But in terms of Colombian or Andean production it will be a tiny fraction that is being consumed. Most of cocaine is consumed in Europe, North America and Brazil. Until we have legal supply in the consumer countries, there will still be an illegal production to supply it. And that is a big challenge. But if Colombia and maybe some other Latin American countries can establish a responsible regulated market of production and supply cocaine market and show that it can happen, that crime is reduced, that public health is protected, then the conversation can start to move.”

A public debate about regulating cocaine

“Legalizing cannabis was seen as terribly dangerous and seen as the political margins, even relatively recently. And in 2012, 2013 Uruguay and Washington turned into legalizing cannabis, it kind of became a domino effect where other people felt safe to talk about cannabis legalization. It became acceptable to have a public position on this what before was considered taboo.

The case in Mexico about the right to use cocaine, again, these are really important groundbreaking initiatives. Again, they may or may not succeed, they create space for politicians to speak and they create opportunities for the future. I hope to see the pace of change accelerate around coca and cocaine-debate in the way that it did with cannabis.

Coca products as a natural, mild and healthy substitute for cocaine

Coca products can be another useful tool partly as a form of normalizing cocaine. It’s not all about crack, it’s not even all about cocaine powder, there are these other forms of cocaine which have a less potency, they have a slower release, they are more natural and they are much safer. And maybe if we’d made them available now, these coca products can function as a form of harm reduction. If you’ll have a slower, milder effect, the addictiveness is less, the risks are less, but you can get some of the benefits.”

Coca products that are suitable for Western lifestyles

“Chewing the coca leaf in a traditional Andean way is not going to catch on in Western consumer markets. Alternatives can be developed, a coca-based gum or something, we could potentially develop a much safer coca-cocaine product that could eat in for the demand of cocaine powder. One that preserves a link to the original coca producing regions. Unlike cocaine, which is the same as wherever it is produced, coca leaf has regional distinctiveness. There can be a degree of quality and regional connoisseurship. It also could help indigenous producers, so you could buy fair trade coca in the same way you can buy fair trade bananas.”

The future of regulating cocaine

“We would love to see a Latin American country will pioneer in inspiring leadership. Like Mujica in Uruguay, someone who takes a pragmatic and principle position. The bill in Colombia is a good starting point, which I don’t think is going to succeed this time, but maybe in two, three years the bill will return and it will succeed and a small-scale legal cocaine market will be established. That will be the first domino. And after that, if it is shown to be working, other countries will follow and the debate will mature. To be realistic, it will be 10-15 years, I don’t expect it to happen next year. But maybe there will be some bold leadership, who knows.”

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