Answers to war

We have been fighting the war on drugs for 40 years at great cost. Yet sometimes we all feel that we have been aimlessly pedalling a stationary bicycle. You look to your right, you look to your left, and yet you always see the same landscape – demand for

Colombian anti-drug police officer walk amid seized packages of cocaine. Photograph: Getty Images

More than 40 years ago, President Nixon declared a war on drugs. Since then, we have been fighting this global problem at great cost. Yet sometimes we all feel that we have been aimlessly pedalling a stationary bicycle. You look to your right, you look to your left, and yet you always see the same landscape – demand for drugs keeps rising and supply follows.

That is why we, in the Colombian government, have said that the time has come for an in-depth discussion about the situation. We must look at all possible alternatives to face this huge challenge more effectively. The options should be considered through a nonideological, evidence-based discussion that weighs the costs and benefits of each alternative. Scientists and experts must be the ones who analyse and lead the discussion, in which – I hope – all concerned nations would participate, especially the largest consuming and producing countries.

We believe that now is the moment for this debate because after years of this war on drugs there is frustration everywhere. In Colombia, we have made great progress in reducing coca cultivation and trafficking, and we have dismantled the cartels that once seemed undefeatable.

But we have also paid a high price. We have lost some of our best judges, journalists, politicians and many of our best soldiers and policemen in this difficult battle. In spite of their sacrifice, the problem has not disappeared and our success has meant that the drugs trade has now moved to seek safer havens elsewhere.

That’s why we believe the time has come to do something new. It is our responsibility to determine whether we are doing the best we can, or whether there are better options. It’s time to think the unthinkable, if necessary.

We all need to find better ways to stop the terrible drug-related violence that has done so much harm in my country and in many other nations around the world. We need to address the root causes of drug consumption, so as to start finally seeing a reduction – as fast as possible – in the demand for drugs.

I have said that Colombia cannot act unilaterally. We are aware of the need for a new international consensus.

In the meantime, Colombia will stay fully committed to continue fighting the war against drug trafficking – but we hope that soon we may find a new approach which should be best for all the citizens of my country, of Latin America and the rest of the world. With this idea in mind, I brought this matter to the attention of the presidents and heads of state gathered at the Summit of the Americas, which took place in Cartagena, Colombia, last year.

I’d say we got exactly what we wanted from a topic that no one else had dared to address before in formal meetings. For the first time ever, governments of American countries agreed to undertake an analysis and discussion – led by experts – on the balance of the war on drugs, its effectiveness and prospects, and the various alternatives to it.

We gave a mandate to the Organisation of American States to start this discussion, inviting other entities, including the UN. This was only a first step but it has marked the beginning of a discussion the world has avoided for too many years. I have no doubts about it: the time has come to hop off the stationary bicycle and start riding a real one.

Juan Manuel Santos is the president of the Republic of Colombia