For decades, Colombia's rural poverty rate was so high that it provided the main fuel for Latin America's longest-running civil war. The nation's exploding drug trade pumped billions of dollars into the insurgency and blocked efforts to bring relief to the poor. Today, help is arriving from the unlikeliest of sources: legalized marijuana.
Colombia's experience suggests creative ways that American leaders might address our own rural poverty issues, provided politicians in Washington can overcome their lingering misgivings about expanded legalization of marijuana.
Marijuana has created massive new job sources and multibillion-dollar markets in states like Colorado, California and Washington where the weed has been fully legalized. In total, 26 states and the District of Columbia have legalized pot in some form. Three others are on the verge of legalizing. Despite the doomsayers' worst forecasts about the evils conjured by easy access to pot, even die-hard skeptics are acknowledging the benefits of legalization.
Before 2015, Colombia's leadership had been equally fearful. Since the late 1990s, Colombia has partnered with the United States on a $10 billion military effort to bring down major cartels and halt the drug trade that was keeping guerrilla and right-wing insurgencies alive. Millions of acres of Colombian farmland were denuded by U.S.-funded spraying of herbicides to kill coca, opium and marijuana crops.
Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the Clinton administration's drug czar and original mastermind of Plan Colombia, envisioned a rural job-creation program that would encourage peasant farmers to grow specialty crops, like baby corn and hearts of palm, whose market price could compete with the high incomes farmers earned from drug crops. The program was a complete bust, mainly because the farmers had too few ways to get fresh produce to market, and the payout didn't compare with what drug crops yielded.
The New York Times reports that a 2015 Colombian law allowing cultivation of medical marijuana, combined with a peace settlement, has vastly boosted hopes for rural employment. In the war-torn town of Corinto, the mayor estimates that two-thirds of the 32,000 inhabitants now depend on the legal cannabis industry for their living. Residents are even paying taxes, which used to be unheard of in the chaotic drug-war days.
For all of Trump's complaints about all the U.S. trade dollars heading south to Mexico, he should focus on the billions flowing to Mexico's cartels that could be diverted to legal cultivators here. Embracing a legalization model like Colombia's would do more to grow jobs in struggling rural areas, increase tax revenues and stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit that Trump championed.