Published on October 4, 2022
By Kyle Jaeger
As Colombia’s recently inaugurated president steps up his push for global drug policy reform, lawmakers approved a bill to legalize and regulate marijuana nationwide on Tuesday, advancing it through a committee with nearly unanimous support.
The legislation from Liberal Rep. Carlos Ardila and other lawmakers cleared the Chamber of Representatives First Committee in a 31-2 vote.
The proposal would create regulations and establish a tax structure for legal cannabis sales. Revenue would be distributed among local municipalities to support public health, education and agricultural initiatives.
A description of the purpose of the proposal states that it would “regulate the use of cannabis for people of legal age, thus guaranteeing the fundamental right to the free development of the personality.”
It would also promote “a different approach from the one used up to now in the fight against the harmful effects on health and society that this psychoactive substance may have, changing a purely criminal approach for one of harm reduction and public health.”
“Likewise, with this legislative act, strategies that benefit the countryside will be promoted and others will be implemented to combat the illegal traffic of this substance, betting on public health and social growth,” the translated description says.
Ardila said that this is the “first step that must be taken because the political prohibition is consigned” locally, according to a translation of a report from RCN Radio.
The bill is one of at least two marijuana legalization measures to advance in the legislature in recent weeks, with another proposal from Liberal Rep. Juan Carlos Losada having already passed in the First Committee last month.
That lawmaker recently sent a letter to seeking support for his bill from President Gustavo Petro, a progressive who has strongly criticized the failures of the drug war and called on global leaders to fundamentally rethink drug policy.
But as of yet, the president hasn’t endorsed any of the specific cannabis reform bills even though he has vocally criticized the overall prohibitionist approach of the war on drugs.
Petro told members of the United Nations (UN) last month that “democracy will die” if global powers don’t unite to end prohibition and adopt a different approach, with millions of lives on the line under the current regime.
The president said in a separate interview last month that the U.S. and other countries will enable a “genocide” of avoidable overdose deaths if leaders maintain the status quo of criminalization.
Petro also recently talked about the prospects of legalizing marijuana in Colombia as one means of reducing the influence of the illicit market. And he signaled that the policy change should be followed by releasing people who are currently in prison over cannabis.
He spoke about the economic potential of a legal cannabis industry, one where small towns in places like the Andes, Corinto and Miranda could stand to benefit from legal marijuana cultivation, possibly without any licensing requirements.
The president also signaled that he’d be interested in exploring the idea of exporting cannabis to other countries where the plant is legal.
Meanwhile, in the Colombian Senate, a lawmaker is championing another legalization bill.
Sen. Gustavo Bolívar introduced the measure in July, and he said that the reform is within reach now that the country’s Congress has a liberal majority of lawmakers who fit within a political coalition known as the Historic Pact.
U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), who chairs the House Rules Committee, cheered the official swearing in of Petro, saying that he looks forward to “working together to…rethink drug policy, and much more.”
President Joe Biden, on the other hand, seems intent on perpetuating the drug war in Colombia, with U.S. military support. He released a memorandum to the defense secretary in August that authorizes the “interdiction of aircraft reasonably suspected to be primarily engaged in illicit drug trafficking in that country’s airspace.”
He said that it’s “necessary because of the extraordinary threat posed by illicit drug trafficking to the national security of that country” and because “Colombia has appropriate procedures in place to protect against innocent loss of life in the air and on the ground in connection with such interdiction, which includes effective means to identify and warn an aircraft before the use of force is directed against the aircraft.”
That said, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a joint appearance with Petro on Monday that the U.S. generally backs his “holistic approach” to drugs. The Colombian president, for his part, said that countries need to “view the war on drugs differently.”
As a former member of Colombia’s M-19 guerrilla group, Petro has seen the violent conflict between guerrilla fighters, narcoparamilitary groups and drug cartels that has been exacerbated by the government’s aggressive approach to drug enforcement.
According to the United Nations Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Colombia remains a chief exporter of cocaine, despite “drug supply reduction activities in Colombia, such as eradication of coca bush and destruction of laboratories.”
In 2020, Colombian legislators introduced a bill that would have regulated coca, the plant that is processed to produce cocaine, in an acknowledgment that the government’s decades-long fight against the drug and its procedures have consistently failed. That legislation cleared a committee, but it was ultimately shelved by the overall conservative legislature.
Advocates are optimistic that such a proposal could advance under a Petro administration. The president hasn’t taken a clear stance on the legislation itself, but he campaigned on legalizing marijuana and promoted the idea of cannabis as an alternative to cocaine.
Former Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos has also been critical of the drug war and embraced reform. In an editorial published before he left office, he criticized the United Nations and U.S. President Richard Nixon for their role in setting a drug war standard that has proved ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.
“It is time we talk about responsible government regulation, look for ways to cut off the drug mafias’ air supply, and tackle the problems of drug use with greater resources for prevention, care and harm reduction with regard to public health and the social fabric,” he said.
“This reflection must be global in scope in order to be effective,” Santos, who is a member of the pro-reform Global Commission on Drug Policy, said. “It must also be broad, including participation not only of governments but also of academia and civil society. It must reach beyond law enforcement and judicial authorities and involve experts in public health, economists and educators, among other disciplines.”