On July 9, the Colombian Supreme Court threw a wrench into President Alvaro Uribe's effort to recriminalize simple drug possession through a referendum set for later this year. Drug use and possession have been legal in Colombia since 1994, when the Supreme Court ruled that laws punishing them violate the rights to privacy and personal development of Colombians. The court ruled last week that a referendum on the drug question is unconstitutional.
Taking the question of recriminalizing drug possession to the voters was part of a broader, 19-point referendum dealing with electoral and financial changes desired by the Uribe administration. The Supreme Court also declared three other sections of the referendum unconstitutional, but gave its okay for a vote on the remaining 15 points.
In a televised address, an unhappy Uribe told his constituents he would heed the court's ruling, but continue to seek to change the law. "As president of the republic, is it my job to comply," he said, before proceeding to say how he would attempt to get around the ruling. "Some people ask me what is going to happen with the important questions that were declared unconstitutional," he said. "Penalizing personal use was declared unconstitutional in this country, which has suffered so much because of drugs. It is a country that has seen two generations killed because of drugs. A country that has extradited so many citizens because of drugs. A country with a peasantry that has suffered so much because of drugs, with its ecological resources martyred by drugs. Such a country must insist on eliminating not only the production and the traffic in drug, but also their use," Uribe said.
To do so, Uribe said, "on July 20 we will present this article which has been declared unconstitutional to congress. We will propose to the congress a bill that permits the punishment of personal drug use."
That statement drew a harsh response from Guaviare congressman Pedro Arenas. In a statement made public by the Colombian Institute for Development and Peace (http://www.indepaz.org.co), Arenas said, "With this proposal, the country is taken back to a matter that was settled by the court in 1994, when it declared the personal use of drugs constitutional. [The drug provision] in the referendum was another demonstration of the prohibitionist, repressive and criminalizing character of the current government, which mixes in the same article peasants, whom it jails, fumigates and persecutes, as well as users," said the congressman.
"With those provisions, the government will carry off to jail thousands of peasants, coca leaf pickers and addicts, which would be unconstitutional in the light of the 1994 ruling," Arenas continued. "What I want to say is that although the court buried [the drug provision], the government still has the legal tools to continue with its policy of criminalization. For now, the government is losing the drug fight with the courts. The court has already said that to fumigate in indigenous territories, the government must first consult with them; the tribunal of Cundinamarca has ruled that the government is not complying with the plan for environmental and health management [regarding fumigation of proscribed crops]; a tribunal ordered the Department of the Environment to pay for not having complied with the plan for environmental management; and the reality is that they are also losing in that the crops are not being reduced at the rate they wanted. This all goes to show that the problem is a political one, of national dependence on a policy designed in the US in line with the prohibitionist dogmas of the Vienna Conventions," Arenas said.
"Best wishes to the Supreme Court, which has shown once again that it can be an uncomfortable pebble in the shoe of the government of the day."