Colombia’s New Drug Policy: A Return to the Past

The international community has known about Colombia's drug problem for decades. In southern Colombia, swathes of land and mild weather make growing marijuana and coca leaves easy and profitable. This has been a public policy problem since the second part of the 20th century, following the end of the civil war between the liberals and the conservatives.

Colombia copied America’s ‘war on drugs,’ making the illegal drug business profitable for cartels and unlawfully armed forces. Several cartels developed in the southern part of the country – most notably, the Medellin and Cali cartels. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC in Spanish), Colombia’s longest lasting guerrilla, also controlled a large portion of the southern region. Retaliating against FARC’s control, the main paramilitary group, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC in Spanish), also entered the illegal drug market. Using force and violence, they were able to overtake some of the territories.

It is worth mentioning that Colombia’s public policy on drugs has always been security-oriented; rarely has it had a health-focussed or libertarian approach. The standard policy was to confiscate and destroy any amount of drugs and arrest consumers. Nonetheless, in 1994, a ruling from Colombia’s Constitutional Court (the highest-ranking court in terms of constitutional issues) decriminalized drug possession and consumption, introducing the concept of a minimum dosage. In the ruling, the Court stated that people can carry and/or consume 20 grams of marijuana and 5 grams of cocaine as their personal minimum dosage. The argument here, is that the State is in no position to intervene in the ‘free development of personality,’ as long as public health programs exist to treat addicts.  What the ‘free development of personality’ policy means, is that people are free and autonomous to choose their way of life, so long as this does not interfere with the autonomy of others; the idea is that individuality serves as an indicator for the well-being of a society. In terms of Colombian drug policy, the introduction of a minimum dosage was a 180° change from previous policies, and received backlash from social conservatives across the country.

This backlash was spearheaded by Colombia’s far-right former President, Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), who made countless attempts at undermining the Court’s ruling. During his two four-year terms, he was strongly against recreational consumption, and disagreed with the Court’s ‘free development of personality’ justification. Following this logic, in 2009, he introduced a constitutional reform designed to prohibit, but not to criminalize, the possession and consumption of illicit substances in any amount. Colombia’s Constitutional Court overturned this decision in a 2012 ruling, which stipulated that the personal minimum dosage should be legal throughout the country.

This policy existed until October 1st of this year. Colombia’s new right-wing President, Ivan Duque, inaugurated on August 7th, fulfilled one of the campaign promises he made to his social conservative base: enacting an executive order that prohibits the possession and consumption of any amount of drugs.

This policy backtracks on progress made by the twenty-four-year-old ruling. It is useless to focus State resources on persecuting recreational consumers. With this decision, the government will only contribute to the drug problem, which is already out of control. According to a study conducted by members of a Colombian law think tank and a drug-policy-related NGO, between 2005 and 2014, nine people were captured every hour for drug-related crimes in Colombia.

This has led to prison overcrowding across the country, which is at roughly 150% capacity. The study concludes that, during the last fifteen years, the number of people imprisoned for drug-possession-related crimes increased by 289.2%. This is the highest growth rate for drug imprisonment in Latin America.

The new government should mobilize their resources to dismantle criminal organizations, prosecute drug lords, and, above all, reclaim money from cartels. Seizing tons of cocaine and detecting mobsters’ or cartel leaders’ bank accounts will more effectively diminish drug trafficking; retracting twenty-four years’ worth of policy and banning the personal minimum dosage is unlikely to do so.

The President’s argument is that there is a causal relationship between increased drug consumption, and possession and use without sanction. This thesis is fundamentally wrong. A study by the University of the Andes found that the rate of drug consumption in Colombia between 1996 and 2008 was similar to that of Mexico – a country that, during that period, did not decriminalize personal consumption. The report points out that there is no confirming evidence that drug usage has increased from decriminalizing the personal minimum dosage.

Another one of the President’s arguments is that drug dealers began abusing the personal minimum dosage to sell small amounts of drugs in the streets. Police forces continued to arrest and release dealers, despite the fact that these drugs were not used for recreational purposes. Attacking the recreational consumer is not an effective means of keeping drugs away from schools. All of these measures will remain ineffective if they do not tackle the main issue: the decriminalization of the entire supply chain: from production to distribution, from distribution to selling, and from selling to consumption. Only by attacking the entire supply chain will the government render drug selling unprofitable for criminal groups. Hopefully, President Duque’s new executive order will be overturned by Colombia’s Constitutional Court.

A recent Colombian NGO study shows that, out of 1,903 people surveyed, 97.1% are still consuming illegal substances despite the new executive order. Further, 93.8% of those, whose personal dosage were seized and destroyed, stated that they found other drug dealers and continued to buy and consume drugs. These numbers demonstrate that the new policy does not fulfil its goal of reducing consumption.

Countries like Uruguay and Canada are legalizing marijuana; nine states in the USA have already done so. Colombia, with its extensive drug history, should lead the way for the legalization of marijuana in Latin America. It is time to replace the drug kingpins and cartels with entrepreneurs, innovators, and legally authorized companies. Colombia has extensive knowledge of the drug business, and enough land to harvest it. When taxed, marijuana will also become a source of revenue for the government; this will mitigate the fiscal problems from the 2014 oil crash, which spurred the government to increase taxes for the middle class. In 2015 alone, for instance, the US state of Colorado raised approximately $135 million in revenue from marijuana sales. The government of Colombia can use marijuana revenue to provide healthcare and psychological treatment for drug addicts, offsetting public health issues. Additionally, a legal marijuana industry will create hundreds, or even thousands, of high-paying jobs – something that this country needs, considering that its unemployment rate ranges between 9 – 11%. It is the 21st century: Colombia needs to scrap outdated drug policies, and pave the way for marijuana legalization.