Sadly, Colombia is infamous for its drug exporting industry. Colombian stories of blood, death and displacement related to illegal narcotrafficking have no parallel in the Western Hemisphere. Recently, I read an article in Nexos, a Mexican magazine, in which the author vehemently denied that a “Colombianization” of Mexico has taken place. The Mexican drug war, the article argued, has not reached the horrendous levels of violence seen in Colombia. After reading that, I shuddered, furious. That happens every time I see the name of Colombia turned into a noun used to describe a situation of corruption, terrorism and conflict over drugs. Colombia surely has a painful (but hopeful) history, but it hurts too much when other people take my country as the anti-example, as the black sheep, as if they pointed and said “Thank God we are not like them!”
Indeed, it is tough to be the world’s top cocaine producer. But today I will not write about Plan Colombia, the eradication of drugs, FARC, cocaine seizures worldwide or Colombian drug mules being jailed abroad. Instead, I want to write about one side of the Colombian drug business that hardly gets any attention outside my country. And given that most Colombia Reports readers live outside Colombia, I thought it would be both interesting and educational for those of you who bear with me until the end of this column.
Today I will write about drug consumption inside Colombia. I am sure that many of you wonder what drug consumption patterns are in a country that produces over 500 tons of pure cocaine every year. Does everyone get high all the time? Are drugs out of control in Colombia? Are they part of normal daily life, like coffee, for example? With this column, I intend to destroy some preconceptions you may have about this issue and draw attention to some telling statistics that even many Colombians are not aware of.
There are a number of reports on drug consumption in Colombia. The government has taken interest in the issue, and the minister of social welfare has named a “coordinator for the reduction of the consumption of psychoactive substances.” In 2008, several government agencies and ministries joined forces to create a comprehensive national study on drug consumption in Colombia, which based on a survey of over 29,000 people across the nation between the ages of 12 and 65.
The study outlines the dimensions and social characteristics of drug consumption in the country. The results show that 9.1% of Colombians have used illegal drugs at least once in their life, while 2.7% said they had done so in the past year (2007-2008, following the study). This means that there are 541,000-odd Colombians who had consumed illegal drugs recently. For those of you knowledgeable in statistics, the 95% confidence interval for total number of Colombian drug consumers was 468,000 to 614,000. Marijuana is the preferred drug by Colombians (2.3% of them smoke it), followed by cocaine (0.72% of Colombians sniff it).
Of these half a million Colombians who are drug consumers, the national study found that 55% (297,000) were drug addicts. This means that every year there are around 270,000 Colombians who are recreational drug users. These are those who do drugs occasionally, and just for fun. Perhaps unsurprisingly, men and young people are overrepresented among drug consumers: while the percentage of women who use drugs is a mere 1.2%, around 4.5% of men consume marijuana, cocaine, crack, heroine, or a number of other substances. People aged between 18-24 are the age group in which drug use is more prevalent: around 6% of them do drugs. In contrast, only 3.8% of those aged between 25-34 years-old are drug consumers, while that number is a mere 1.04% for those in the 35-44 age cohort.
The study also found some differences in drug consumption according to social class and geographical location inside Colombia. The upper middle class (estrato 4, for those familiar with the Colombian system) has a higher prevalence of drug use than any other social class. Around 4.2% of those in the upper middle class do drugs, compared with 2.4% in the lower classes (estratos 1 and 2), 2.8% in the lower middle class (estrato 3), and 2.9% in the upper classes (estratos 5 and 6). I guess my dad is mistaken when he tells me that the wealthy do more drugs than anybody else. And now that I think of it, it is really a mystery to me why there are so many more drug users in the upper middle class than in the other classes.
Regional differences in consumption patterns are also very interesting: Medellin has more drug consumers as a percentage of the population than any other Colombian city. By far. 6.3% of those living in Medellin do drugs, while the number is 4.9% for those living in Cali and 2.9% for Bogotans. This difference is so large that it means that with less than half the population, Medellin has about the same number of drug users than the capital city. In number of drug addicts, Medellin surpasses Bogota by around 20,000. No doubt, its place at the heart of a big part of Colombia’s drug industry is at the root of Medellin’s drug consumption problems. The departments where drug use is the least prevalent are Huila (0.06%), Norte de Santander (0.38%), and Boyaca (0.59%).
The main conclusions you should take from these numbers is that Colombia is not the drug consumer haven that some might think. Colombia’s annual prevalence rate of cocaine use (0.7%) is much lower than in the US (2.8%), Canada (2.3%), Spain (3.0%) and some Latin American countries like Argentina (2.7%) or Chile (1.3% – for these numbers read the UN’s World Drug Report). Yet, the situation in Colombia’s big cities, especially Medellin, demands swift government action. Perhaps we could talk about the “Americanization” or “Spanization” of drug consumption patterns in Colombian cities. This is very worrying. Drug consumers are at greater risk of suffering from depression, anxiety, panic disorders, respiratory illnesses, and some heart conditions. A 2008 study among Colombian patients found that there is a statistically significant difference in the rates of these illnesses between drug consumers and non-consumers, underscoring the relation between drugs and disease.
The government should put some serious money into campaigns for drug demand reduction now. In 2006, the budget for this purpose was a mere US$19 million. Whoever the “coordinator for the reduction of the consumption of psychoactive substances” is, he has a lot of work to do.