Colombia broke a new record for cultivating the coca leaf, the plant used to make cocaine, according to a United Nations report. The process involves extracting alkaloids from the leaves using solvents like gasoline. This crude extract turns into a coca base by mixing it with alkaline solutions. Then, with a bit of further refinement, thanks to chemicals like hydrochloric acid, the result is crystalline cocaine hydrochloride. The final product is dried, diluted, packaged, and ready for distribution (and likely stepped on multiple times; one can only hope not with fentanyl) before hitting the illicit market. Colombia is the world’s top coca cultivator, producing 60% of the world’s cocaine, followed by Peru and Bolivia.

On Monday, The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that 230,000 hectares, or 568,340 acres, of land, were planted with coca last year, 2022, which marks an increase of 13% since 2021. 

According to Al Jazeera, Columbia’s potential cocaine output skyrocketed by 24% to about 1.73 million kilograms (1,738 tonnes), the highest number reported since the UN began monitoring the situation in 2001. Colombia has been the world’s biggest producer of cocaine for a long time and is under pressure from the U.S. and the world at large to implement changes to cut down on production. 

However, producing coca is such a valuable profession for so many farmers that it’s been challenging to implement changes. Distanced from the harmful effects of the drug made from the crops they grow, coca farming is a means of survival and a way of life for many Colombian citizens. The government has previously promised subsidies and other incentives to move growers away from the coca plant, but so far, officials have yet to follow through.

Colombian Justice Minister Néstor Osuna said that they’re “flattening the curve” and that the increase rate was much lower than in 2021, the BBC reports. However, the UNODC’s Leonardo Correa warned of a sharp rise in potential coca production in 2022.

“The crops that were young last year have now reached maturity and are now productive. In other words, the rate of growth in hectares is decreasing. But the rate of cocaine production is increasing,” he said.

Colombian leftist President Gustavo Petro has previously called the war on drugs “irrational.” He likes to call out poor politics on the topic, such as during his first speech at the General Assembly in 2022. In it, Petro said that the world’s addiction to money, oil, and carbon is destroying the Colombian rainforest through what he described as a “hypocritical” war against drugs, the UN reports.

“The forest that should be saved is at the same time being destroyed. To destroy the coca plant, they throw poisons such as glyphosate that drips into our waters, they arrest their cultivators and then imprison them,” he said. “The jungle is burning, gentlemen, while you wage war and play with it. The jungle, the climatic pillar of the world, disappears with all its life. The great sponge that absorbs the planetary CO2 evaporates. The jungle is our savior, but it is seen in my country as the enemy to defeat, as a weed to be extinguished,” Petro continued.

He has proposed his own ideas to fight the cocaine problem, such as directing enforcement on the drug gang leadership rather than the farmers, increasing social funding in production areas, and expanding voluntary crop substitution programs in high-production areas. 

On Saturday, Petro asked for an alliance among Latin American nations to secure a united front in the fight against cocaine trafficking. Rather than continue confronting the problem with what he describes as a “failed” approach, he also proposed recognizing drug consumption as a public health problem. 

“What I propose is to have a different and unified voice that defends our society, our future and our history and stops repeating a failed discourse,” Petro said in a speech that concluded the Latin American and Caribbean Conference on Drugs, held in the Colombian city of Cali.

“It is time to rebuild hope and not repeat the bloody and ferocious wars, the ill-named ‘war on drugs’, viewing drugs as a military problem and not as a health problem for society,” Petro added. 

The recent UN report shares that almost two-thirds of Colombia’s coca farms are in the southern regions of Narino and Putumayo, which border Ecuador. There has been a 77% rise in coca cultivation in Putumayo, alone, the BBC reports. This area is currently engulfed in gang-related violence. Additionally, roughly half of the coca comes from indigenous reserves, forest reserves, and natural parks controlled by drug cartels or other armed groups such as leftist fighters and right-wing paramilitaries.

The Colombian government promises to adopt new drug policies soon directed at shutting down such criminal groups while protecting the farmers who grow the crop. 

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