As it attempts to prosecute the US-led war against drug production and trafficking in Colombia, the government of President Andres Pastrana is faced with a new political brushfire in the Colombian congress. Inspired by rising protests against the fumigation of coca and opium crops as a key part of Plan Colombia, Colombian legislators this week introduced bills calling for an end to fumigation, the normalization of small drug crops, and the outright legalization of the Colombian drug trade under a state monopoly.
While the chances of a legalization or decriminalization bill becoming law are low, in part because of the dominant role of the US in shaping Colombian drug policy, the introduction of such bills is a clear signal of eroding support for Plan Colombia within the Colombian political class.
Opposition Senator Vivianne Morales on Monday introduced two bills. The most far-reaching bill would legalize the production, distribution and consumption of drugs within a state monopoly. According to Morales, her bill would provide restrictions on the advertising, public use, and distribution of drugs to minors.
The bill would "prohibit the advertising of these types of drugs," she told El Tiempo (Bogota), "and neither would it permit the sale to minors, and it would establish a distinction between addicts and occasional users," she said.
"For consumers, the bill would prohibit certain activities, such as driving under the influence of drugs. Persons who involve minors would be sentenced to prison," Morales noted. "The bill asks that resources that today are invested in prohibition and repression be instead invested in prevention, education, and medical treatment."
The second bill introduced by Morales would decriminalize the cultivation of drug crops by small producers. Under the bill, fields of less than 3 hectares (7.4 acres) would be considered legal. "As happened in Peru and Bolivia," said Morales, "small illicit crops would be destined only for scientific, therapeutic and medical uses."
The bill would also prohibit aerial spraying of drug crops, a practice that has generated loud protests across Colombia and among environmentalists worldwide.
Morales' small cultivation bill is paralleled by one introduced by Senators Rafael Orduz and Juan Manuel Ospina, which also calls for decriminalization of small drug plots, but places a great emphasis on alternative crop development.
"We believe that the small cultivator is the link that the government must assist, and not treat them like criminals," Orduz told El Tiempo. "Success is not the number of hectares fumigated, but the number of families who escape poverty," he said.
Senator Ospina added that alternative development is indispensable but will not come in a short time. "We must learn from experience," he told El Tiempo, "and it is important to recognize that we cannot change the conditions for alternative crops in a day. We must not forget that to fumigate is not to eradicate."
The government must create an alternative development fund, the senators said. Such a fund could buy drug crops from peasants and bring them into an alternative crop scheme, they added. "With this fund, we are looking to provide a sense of decriminalization, without taking into account the size of the crop," Ospina said.
In explaining her legalization bill, Morales told El Tiempo "prohibitionist policies" feed the drug trade. "I think that prohibition is the grand ally of the traffickers," she said, "and behind this scourge is a bureaucratic business. For example, 14 US government entities survive by the war on drugs." But Morales did not stop there. "It is calculated that the drug business in the United States produces $400 billion, of which 87.5% stays in US banks," she said. "That indicates that the drug economy is the locomotive of the legal economy," she concluded.
Such comments did not sit well with Interior Minister Armando Estrada, who told El Tiempo the government already opposed such an initiative.
Senators Orduz and Ospina are also preparing a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, which will ask him to create a commission to evaluate global anti-drug policies. The two senators have traveled to other Andean nations seeking broader support for their initiative, El Tiempo reported.