A bill to legalize marijuana in Colombia earned initial approval by the country’s Chamber of Representatives on Tuesday, though it must still advance through additional debates before potentially being enacted into law.
The legislation from Rep. Juan Carlos Losada, which would legalize cannabis for adults 18 and older, passed in the second debate in a 105-33 vote. It needs to go through a total of eight debates in order to be sent to the Senate and then the president’s desk.
Es #HoraDeRegular Inicia en Plenaria @CamaraColombia la discusión y votación de nuestro proyecto que regula el #CannabisDeUsoAdulto.
Confiamos que este Congreso más progresista y liberal lo aprobará para así avanzar hacia un cambio en la política de drogas. pic.twitter.com/hEJNO7FrRP
— Juan Carlos Losada (@JuanKarloslos) October 11, 2022
President Gustavo Petro, a progressive who has been strongly advocating for an international end to drug criminalization since being inaugurated in August, has discussed the possible benefits of cannabis legalization.
On Tuesday, administration officials including the heads of the Justice Ministry and Interior Ministry spoke in favor of the legalization proposal before lawmakers.
Justice Minister Néstor Osuna said that what the current policy of prohibition “ensures is that the income goes to the mafias and does not go through the public treasury,” according to a translation. It also “does not solve the problems of problematic consumption.”
La prohibición del uso del cannabis nunca ha impedido su consumo. En todos los países del mundo en los que esta prohibido el consumo, el porte, la fabricación y la compra del cannabis de todas maneras existe, así que se trata de una prohibición inútil: @osunanestor @MinjusticiaCo pic.twitter.com/T3B03JfvQa
— MinJusticia Colombia (@MinjusticiaCo) October 11, 2022
“This is a government of change—and that change [includes] a new drug policy that eliminates the drug gangs [and] the penalization of the cultivation,” the official said.
Losada referenced recent comments that the president delivered at a meeting of the United Nations (UN), urging member nations to fundamentally change their approaches to drug policy and disband with prohibition.
“If there is a country that has been a victim of this failed war on drugs, it is Colombia,” the lawmaker said.
The floor vote comes shortly after a congressional committee advanced this measure and a separate legalization bill from Rep. Carlos Ardila that includes provisions to distribute tax revenue from cannabis sales to individual government municipalities.
#EsHoraDeRegular | Gracias a @JuanKarloslos por promover la regulación del #CannabisDeUsoAdulto y apoyar nuestra propuesta para que los municipios y departamentos se beneficien con los recursos que se recauden por el uso de #marihuana . pic.twitter.com/5V9LM5nXvM
— CARLOS ARDILA (@CARLOSARDILA10) October 11, 2022
Ardila, who is also cosponsoring Losada’s bill, said that it’s “not unreasonable that what is collected from cannabis for adult use is destined solely and exclusively to municipalities, districts and departments because they are the ones that address” issues like public health and safety.
Losada, for his part, said that he supports Ardila’s proposal.
Another lawmaker got some attention at the debate on Tuesday by admitting that he’s personally used cannabis for 25 years.
“Lo que mata es la estigmatización, la ilegalidad y la falta de información”, aseguró.
— RTVC Noticias (@RTVCnoticias) October 11, 2022
“What kills is stigmatization, illegality and lack of information,” Rep. Daniel Carvalho said.
It doesn’t appear that the president has explicitly endorsed either legalization bill that’s advanced in recent weeks, but the statements from Cabinet officials indicates that the reform has the administration’s support.
As the sponsor pointed out, Petro told members of the 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 US 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.
En plenaria de @CamaraColombia se aprueba en segundo debate el proyecto que regula el cannabis de uso adulto.
— MinInterior Colombia (@MinInterior) October 12, 2022
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.”
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President Joe Biden, on the other hand, seems intent on perpetuating the drug war in Colombia, with US 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 earlier this month that the US 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 the 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 US President Richard Nixon for their role in setting a drug war standard that has proven 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.”
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.