November 1992, European Drugs Week: BBC's Panorama opened with seven minutes of Kenneth Clarke, the then home secretary, jumping out of helicopters to look at coca growing in the jungle and opium poppy being sprayed in the High Andes. Behind him there hovered, to the embarrassment of my children, a white-haired ambassador with a stick.
Thus started what the Colombians came to call "narcotourism". The chatter of the Colombian anti-narcotics police helicopters, with their machine guns at the ready and columns of smoke from burning mountains of cocaine, were used to show that the war on drugs was no metaphor.
When I accompanied Clarke that day, I believed there was a point to that war. In the years since, I have come to realize that the war is unwinnable, costly and counter-productive.
I was appointed ambassador to Colombia in 1990 knowing I had much to learn about the drugs trade. The Colombia I returned to 20 years after my first posting there had changed greatly, mostly for the better, with steady growth and substantial spending on education and health. Along with the end of the cold war, this should have helped bring about a negotiated end to the low intensity communist insurgency that had plagued the country from the mid-60s.
But instead of peace, Colombia saw a dramatic increase in violence and corruption as prohibition made cocaine a profitable commodity. Slumbering Marxist guerrillas prospered on the money the drug traffickers paid them to protect the cocaine laboratories. The traffickers also hired assassins to kill and intimidate, and paramilitaries to defend their ranches from the very guerrillas to whom they were paying protection money.
Under US pressure, the Colombians extradited drug traffickers to the US. In retaliation Pablo Escobar, then the world's seventh-richest man according to Forbes, launched a campaign of narcoterrorism. In one year, from August 1989, his assassins killed three presidential candidates, blew up an airliner with more than 100 passengers, set off dozens of car bombs and killed 200 policemen in Medellin alone.
So as I arrived in Colombia, the war on drugs seemed like self-defense. The US, the UK and other Europeans had just started to give help in training and equipment to the Colombians to counter the direct threat to the state that Escobar represented. It was meant to be part of a deal: as well as helping tackle supply we - the consumer countries - would crack down on the supply of precursor chemicals, check money laundering and reduce demand at home. At the time, we really believed that the war was winnable.
Some progress was made. The Colombian police responded well to help and advice. Escobar gave himself up when the threat of extradition was dropped. He escaped a year later but his organization was demolished and in December 1993 he was killed. But the Americans immediately started briefing that Escobar had long been a sideshow and that the real problem was the Cali cartel. After so much effort and many lives lost, the trade was still as great as ever. I began to wonder about the chances of success and also about the obsessive attitudes of our leading ally.
My concerns were justified. US policy on Colombia came to be dominated by drugs. Two days after President Samper was elected in 1994, he was accused of having accepted $5m from the Cali cartel to finance his campaign. US agencies had allegedly been involved in taping conversations. The American line when I left Colombia in late 1994 was that Samper would be judged on his performance against the traffickers. The Cali cartel was dismembered by mid-1995, but when members of Samper's own campaign, who were under investigation, implicated him in the drugs scandal, the US administration imposed sanctions, undermining confidence in what had been South America's most stable economy.
Morale in Colombia's overstretched armed forces was undermined as they saw their president attacked by their great ally. The only beneficiaries were the Marxist guerrillas and their rightwing mirror image, the paramilitaries. Ironically, it is only recently that the US has started to take the threat of communism in Colombia seriously again, and has taken steps to strengthen the army. But it isn't ideology that fuels Colombia's violence: it is the money from the illegal drugs trade.
Colombia has now been involved in anti-narcotics efforts under US pressure for 30 years: against marijuana in the 70s, cocaine in the 80s and 90s, and heroin in the 90s. And for the past 12 years there has been intense international cooperation. But as General Serrano, the highly respected former commander of the Colombian police told me in March, in spite of all that the flow of drugs has increased. The cost: tens of thousands dead, more than a million displaced people, political and economic stability undermined and the country's image ruined.
The attack on the supply side of the drugs trade was always bound to fail if the other elements - precursor chemicals, money laundering and demand - were not tackled too. But there seems to be no shortage of chemicals reaching the traffickers; there have been no striking results on stopping money flows; and demand has grown, with the habit now spreading to the producer countries too. There has been a cultural change which has led to the recreational use of drugs being seen by the younger generation as normal. It is now part of a global consumer society that demands instant gratification. Laws cannot change that. All they can do is create a $500bn criminal industry with devastating effects worldwide. It must be time to start discussing how drugs could be controlled more effectively within a legal framework.
Decriminalization, which is often mentioned, would be an unsatisfactory halfway house, because it would leave the trade in criminal hands, giving no help at all to the producer countries, and would not guarantee consumers a safe product or free them from the pressure of pushers. It has been difficult for me to advocate legalization because it means saying to those with whom I worked, and to the relatives of those who died, that this was an unnecessary war. But the imperative must be to try to stop the damage.
Some politicians have religious objections to any attempt at legalization Others still believe that if we persevere the war can be won; and there are many who will tell you in private that we are getting nowhere but believe that the electorate and certainly Washington would never buy radical change. I am not so sure. The younger generation views things differently and what is politically impossible today can become politically imperative tomorrow. I hope this government will at least agree to a serious debate on the subject. It deserves it.
Sir Keith Morris was UK's Ambassador to Colombia from 1990-94.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001