Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A New Drug Law For Colombia?

Smoking on a streetcorner: soon to be banned in Colombia?
Colombian legislators have presented a new proposed drug policy law - and then withdrawn it for modification - probably because they realized that it wouldn't work.

The proposed law did not, however, propose courageous changes which might contribute to a shift in drug control strategies.

The proposed law had positives: for example, it would cover both legal and illegal drugs, instead of insisting on the lie that there are two categories of psychoactive substances: those that are legal and good and others which are bad and deserve prohibition.

Just don't breath if you're behind me. 
The law's prohibition against smoking on public streets, plazas and parques would be great - I hate walking down a sidewalk and choking on the second-hand smoke of someone in front of me (who often isn't even smoking his own cigarrette). Holding your breath in Bogotá's thin air, you rush past them - only to have to swallow the smoke of someone else ten feet ahead. But if the legislators really believe that this law's enforceable, they must have been smoking something lots stronger than tobacco.

The proposed law would also have banned alcohol advertising at cultural and sporting events. Inebriation certainly causes lots of damage in Colombia, including sports-related violence - but alcohol also funds lots of activities and plays an important role in Colombian culture. Lots of people enjoy drinking without harming others. Where is the best balance between puritanism, prohibitionism and healthy recreation?

A giant Aguila beer shirt at a football game. Some Colombian teams are in bankruptcy. Would the sport survive without alcohol money?

Fans fight at a football game: much of it is fueled by alcohol. 
On the positive side, the proposal would require coca leaf erradicators to ask for permission before working in indigenous territories. The law would also designate areas for cultivating drug crops for legal consumption - does this mean that Colombia's going to enter into medical marijuana production? Or would it further regulate the legal production of products from coca leaf?

Coca tea and leaves: headed toward more regulation?
Regarding illegal drugs, the law would provide more treatment for drug addicts and create a task force charged with reducing drug use. That's a step forward, since reducing demand has been shown to be much more cost-effective, as well as more humane. But the law also appears to increase regulation on the cultivation of drug crops on indigenous territories. That may be a step backward, if it prevents indigenous people from producing healthy products such as coca tea, crackers and soft drinks, which provide these peoples with alternatives to the illegal drug economy.

But the proposed law did not take even baby steps toward decriminalizing illegal drugs, even tho criminal groups financed by illegal drugs have done more damage to Colombia than perhaps any other nation. Legislators might consider decriminalizing personal use of marijuana or even restate the old personal dosis of drugs. This would surely bring complaints from Republicans in Washington - but would also assert Colombia's independence from U.S. drug policy.

Colombian ex-president Cesar Gaviria has been campaigning for drug decriminalization for a while, and participated in the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which also recommended alternatives to prohibitionism. And Pres. Juan Manuel Santos has said that he'd be open to changes on drug policy - if other nations take the lead. He's right. If Colombia did the unthinkable and legalized drugs it could deprive the guerrillas, paramilitaries and cartels of the bulk of their incomes - but would also turn this country into an international pariah.

Colombia has no choice but to wait for Washington to take the lead. But expecting Washington to endorse decriminalization anytime soon is unfortunately reefer madness.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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