Colombia High Court Okays Drug Decriminalization

Colombia's Constitutional Court has approved the government's proposal to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. The opinion (scroll down to item three, Expediente D-8842) issued last Sunday re-decriminalizes drug possession in Colombia, which had decriminalized by the courts in the 1990s, only to be recriminalized under former President Alvaro Uribe.

In Colombia, you can possess a gram of coke with no fear of arrest. (wikimedia.org)
The country's Supreme Court last year held that Uribe's recriminalization was unconstitutional. The government of President Juan Manuel Santos then moved to fill the legislative void by introducing decriminalization as part of a broad public safety bill, Law 1453. The Constitutional Court's ruling upholds the decriminalization portion of Law 1453.

Under the law, people caught with less than 22 grams of marijuana or one gram of cocaine for personal use may not be arrested or prosecuted, but could be referred to treatment. The law also decriminalizes the possession of other drugs, but it is unclear in what amounts.

The ruling was welcomed by Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

"Today's judicial ruling in Colombia represents yet another important step in the growing political and judicial movement in Latin America and Europe to stop treating people who consume drugs as criminals worthy of incarceration," he said. "It is consistent with prior rulings by Colombian courts before former president Álvaro Uribe sought to undermine them, and also with rulings by the Supreme Court of Argentina in 2009 and other courts in the region. The Colombian Constitutional Court's decision is obviously most important in Colombia, where it represents both a powerful repudiation of former president Uribe's push to criminalize people who use drugs and a victory for President Juan Manuel Santos’ call for a new direction in drug policy."

"Most decriminalization initiatives in Latin America, however, are being proposed and enacted not by courts but by presidents and national legislatures," Nadelmann continued. "In addition to President Santos, Guatemala's new president, Otto Pérez Molina, is an advocate of decriminalization as are -- in various ways and to different degrees -- the presidents of Costa Rica, Uruguay, Ecuador and Argentina. Some Latin American countries, it should be pointed out, never criminalized drug possession in the first place. This trend follows in the footsteps of European reforms since the 1990s. Portugal, which decriminalized drug possession in 2001, stands out as a model."

"Decriminalizing drug possession appears to have little impact on levels of illicit drug use," Nadelmann argued. "Its principal impacts are reducing arrests of drug users, especially those who are young and/or members of minority groups; reducing opportunities for low level police corruption; allowing police to focus on more serious crimes; reducing criminal justice system costs; and better enabling individuals, families, communities and local governments to deal with addiction as a health rather than criminal issue."

"The United States clearly lags far behind Europe and Latin America in ending the criminalization of drug possession," Nadelmann noted. "Momentum for reform is growing with respect to decriminalization of marijuana possession, with Massachusetts reducing penalties in 2008, California in 2010, Connecticut in 2011 and Rhode Island earlier this year. All states, however, treat possession of other illegal drugs as a crime. Thirteen states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government currently treat possession of drugs for personal use as a misdemeanor, with penalties of up to a year in jail. The remaining thirty-seven states treat possession of cocaine, heroin and other drugs as a felony, with penalties than can include many years in prison."

Bogota
Colombia
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Gart's picture

The Worst of Both Worlds

I would like to start by saying that I reject Prohibition and the War on Drugs policies wholeheartedly. Thus, I applaud and support Colombia's decision to tide up its legislation on decriminalisation of personal consumption of drugs. As it is the case with other Latin American countries that have done it already, such a move represents a significant step towards recognising drug use for what it is: a medical issue, not a criminal one.


Having said that, the fact that such changes are taking place in the midst of a world environment where supply remains illegal, and therefore, will continue to be enforced by the War on Drugs policies, worries me a lot.

As a European citizen, I find it abominable the schizophrenic, hypocritical and self-serving attitude we, the major drug consuming countries in the world, have regarding the demand and supply of drugs: decriminalisation of consumption on the one hand, and criminalisation of the production and distribution on the other.

In my opinion, this attitude shows a blatant lack of empathy and solidarity of our countries with those that have been most affected by the Prohibition and the War on Drugs: producing and transit countries. Equally, and perhaps more importantly, since we are the major consumers of drugs in the world, it also shows how convenient and cynical our position is.

Firstly, we can afford to criminalise the supply because we do not live day in and day out with the disastrous consequences the enforcement of prohibitionist policies has had and continues to have in producing and transit countries.

Secondly, we relieve ourselves of any responsibility for supporting, implementing and enforcing Prohibition and the War on Drugs by arguing that the international conventions governing the drugs market allow us to “legalise” the demand, but not the supply.

Finally, by addressing the demand for drugs as it should be, i.e. as a health issue rather than a criminal one, we manage to present ourselves to the world as progressive societies that care about the welfare of our citizens.

The contrast with conditions in producing and transit countries, in this case Latin America, could not be more dramatic. For these countries, the legalisation of the demand and criminalisation of the supply is the worst of both worlds: not only do they have to pay the economic and social costs of consumption, but also deal with the enormous costs the illegality of both production and distribution creates.

On the one hand, it will strengthen the criminal organisations that have controlled and will continue to control the drugs market—which remains illegal. On the other hand, in trying to satisfy the domestic demand—which is now "quasi legal"—it will also introduce new incentives for criminal organisations to resort to violence to resolve the unavoidable disputes the race to control the distribution channels—which remain illegal—will bring about.

The thing to understand is that the problem is not the use of drugs per se, but the Prohibition & the War on Drugs; to understand that by making illegal the production and consumption of drugs, all we have done is to convert a public health issue into a criminal activity.

We must not forget that it is its illegality which has given criminal organisations total control of the drugs market; that it is its illegality what makes possible the enormous profits of drug trafficking; and that it is its illegality which creates and promotes violence, corruption and destruction of civil, legal and democratic institutions.

The only alternative to managing rationally the so-called drug problem is to Legalise & Regulate the whole chain of the drugs market, i.e. production, distribution and consumption. Manage, not solve, because there is no “magic bullet”: whatever the regime or the policies chosen, there will always be a price to pay.

While the legalisation of consumption is an important step in reducing the disastrous consequences of the prohibition regime, it is insufficient, and little will be achieved while supply remains illegal.

The thing to understand is that no matter how difficult it is for producing and transit countries to reject Prohibition and the War on Drugs policies, the price for rejecting them may never be as high as the one they have paid and will continue to pay for supporting them.

Gart Valenc
Twitter: @ gartvalenc.

A reply to Gart. More than little will be achieved from this.

Gart,

Your post was very well thought out and insightful, to put it mildly.  Your post is article worthy by itself. I would however like to dispute one point a little.

"While the legalization of consumption is an important step in reducing the disastrous consequences of the prohibition regime, it is insufficient, and little will be achieved while supply remains illegal."

I think it's more than an important step.  I think it's a major and crucial step.  This will really help to shift the public's and lawmakers' perceptions that drugs, and all the steps requiring them, (manufacture/cultivation, distribution, sales) are crimes in and of themselves.  It significantly helps to re-frame the whole concept, not just the use of drugs, as social, psychological, and medical, rather than purely criminal.

In the meantime, it does free up resources like the money and time not spent on prosecutions and incarcerations, the space in prison and jail facilities, and the time and effort of law enforcement.  Plus it allows what are generally productive members of society to retain their jobs, and continue to pay taxes, instead of losing their jobs and prospects of future non-menial work.

It at least helps end the war on the users. As far as a full end to the war, by a licensed, regulated, and taxed system goes, this is a classic "foot in the door technique."  To end a war we have been so wrong minded and entrenched in for so long, it's going to take small but very significant steps.  A change of perception is first. It is, as you say, an insufficient step.  But it's a very important one by changing the world's mindset, the rest of the steps can eventually unfold.
Gart's picture

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

@ Anonymous For Obvious Privacy Reasons,

Thanks for your encouraging words. Needless to say, you are invited to visit my website where your comments and feedback are most welcome.

I totally agree with the content of your comment. I have not much to add, except that I was not trying to belittle the significance of decriminalising the demand for drugs—on the contrary, I do believe I made it clear from the very beginning that I support and value it unreservedly. My observation on its "relative" importance has to be seen in the context of the unbearable and heinous consequences drug producing and transit countries face day in and day out because the supply remains illegal thanks to Prohibition and the War On Drugs policies.

Gart Valenc

Twitter: @gartvalenc

biggest

Decriminalization is great and all, but there are still severe penalties for being caught with marijuana in decriminalized states. The biggest risk for young people is that a conviction for a 'drug offense' can render you ineligible for federal student financial aid for up to one year, by federal law. This means that unless you're paying for college out of pocket, you might have to take a year off from school if you get caught with weed. daniela

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