Colombian Senators Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill, Setting Stage For Final Vote

Colombian Senators Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill, Setting Stage For Final Vote

A bill to legalize marijuana in Colombia was approved in its second-to-last vote in the Senate on Tuesday, bringing the country one step closer to ending prohibition. However, advocates are increasingly concerned that unrelated governmental controversies could derail the effort this year as deadlines for action quickly approach.

After advancing through a series of votes and clearing the full Chamber of Representatives last month, the Senate First Committee took up the proposal from Rep. Juan Carlos Losada Vargas and passed it in a 15-4 vote.

This marks the seventh of eight votes before the proposed constitutional amendment is sent to the president. Its next and final step is a Senate floor vote, which is expected to happen on June 16. If the bill is amended, however, that would leave lawmakers with less than a week for bicameral reconciliation before the session ends.

Sen. María José Pizarro, who is championing the legislation in the Senate, wrote in an op-ed last month that cannabis criminalization “has enriched criminal organizations that continue to expand and sow terror around the world.”

“In parallel, a significant percentage of the increase in the population deprived of liberty worldwide corresponds to people arrested or prosecuted for possession and consumption, which has led to overcrowding and a prison crisis,” she said.

As a proposed constitutional amendment, the proposal must go through the full legislative process in each chamber twice, in separate calendar years, in order to be enacted.

The Chamber and Senate had passed different versions of legalization legislation last year, and the bodies moved to make the bills identical in December. The Senate overwhelmingly approved its version of the bill that month after it received initial approval in the Chamber.

The legalization bill would support “the right of the free development of the personality, allowing citizens to decide on the consumption of cannabis in a regulated legal framework,” it says. And it would mitigate “arbitrary discriminatory or unequal treatment in front of the population that consumes.”

It also calls for public education campaigns and the promotion of substance misuse treatment services.

At a public hearing in the Senate panel last year, Justice Minister Néstor Osuna said that Colombia has been the victim of “a failed war that was designed 50 years ago and, due to absurd prohibitionism, has brought us a lot of blood, armed conflict, mafias and crime.”

The Chamber of Representatives gave initial approval to the legalization bill last year. The head of the Interior Ministry also spoke in favor of the reform proposal at the time. That vote came shortly after a congressional committee advanced this measure and a separate legalization bill.

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.

Last year, the president delivered a speech at a meeting of the United Nations (UN), urging member nations to fundamentally change their approaches to drug policy and disband with prohibition.

Petro has also 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.

Petro met with the president of Mexico last year, and the pair announced that they will be bringing together other Latin American leaders for an international conference focused on on “redesigning and rethinking drug policy” given the “failure” of prohibition. Mexican lawmakers are also pursuing national legalization.

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 op-ed 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 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.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. congressional delegation returned from a visit to Colombia last year, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who was part of the trip, told Marijuana Moment that one theme of his discussions with officials in the country was that the world has “lost the war on drugs.”

Image element courtesy of Bryan Pocius.

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