By Christian Plumb
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on Thursday that successful peace deals with the country's two largest guerrilla groups would make a big dent in the drug trade, boosting the country's effort to replace illicit crops with legal ones.
Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, Santos also slammed policies purely focused on "repression" which he said had often targeted poor, small farmers in Colombia - one of the world's top cocaine producers - instead of deep-pocketed drug traffickers.
"After so many lives that have been destroyed, after so much corruption and so much violence, after so many young people being marched off to jail, can we say that we have won the war (on drugs) or at least that we are winning it?" Santos asked. "Unfortunately the answer is 'no.'"
Santos is the latest Latin American leader to question the aggressive war on drugs during a special U.N. session called to rethink global strategy in the war on narcotics for the first time in two decades amid an international trend toward more liberal drug laws.
"How do you explain to a humble Colombian farmer that he's going to jail because he's growing marijuana when anybody in Colorado or Washington in the U.S., anybody at all, can grow marijuana, sell it and consume it freely?" Santos asked.
"It simply doesn't make sense."
Instead, Colombia has been going after major drug traffickers while also focusing on getting farmers to switch to legal crops, an effort Santos said would be helped greatly by a successful conclusion to continuing peace talks with the country's largest rebel group, the Marxist FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Negotiations are also slated with the second-largest guerrilla group, the leftist National Liberation Army.
"If we are able to do this, this will be a historical turnaround not only for Colombia but the entire world and a step in the right direction," he said.
Colombia, long a hub for narcotics production and trafficking, was once home to large marijuana cultivations. Much of the crop was smuggled to the United States before drug cartels began producing more profitable cocaine.
The push toward more liberal drug policies accelerated this week as Canada's government said it would seek to legalize recreational pot and Mexico's president said he was open to legalizing medical marijuana. The latter move follows a decision by Santos in December to allow the therapeutic use of pot.
(Reporting by Christian Plumb; Editing by Tom Brown and Sandra Maler)