Saturday, July 23, 2011

Un-Decision On the Minimum Drug Dosage

A minimum dose?
Colombia's Constitutional Court has decided to not decide on the legality of carrying a 'minimum dosage' of drugs.  It ruled the other day that a lawsuit aiming to legalize possession of small amounts of drugs was incorrectly written, and must be rewritten and resubmitted.

Carrying a 'minimum dosage' of drugs was legalized in 1994 by the Supreme Court, which ruled that personal drug use was part of the "free development of the personality" guaranteed by Colombia's 1991 Constitution. But opponents of the minimum dose, led by then-Pres. Alvaro Uribe, argued that it promoted drug use and made it hard to arrest drug dealers, who kept only the minimum dose amount on their persons. In Dec. 2009, Congress prohibited the minimum dose, altho it didn't specify punishments for violators and decreed only medical attention for addicts.

The law had depenalized the possession of 20 grams of marijuana or 2 grams of bazuco - a cheap form of crack cocaine - among other drugs.

As a result, today it's common to see police patting down and taking away young men for carrying a bit of pot. But how illegal drug consumption has changed is unclear - I can't find any up-to-date statistics on trends in Colombian drug consumption. According to this 2010 story, Colombian young people consume drugs at a higher rate than the youths neighboring nations. For example, the survey also found that 2.5% of Colombian university students acknowledged using cocaine, compared to a half percent or less in the other countries.  But this applies to both illegal drugs and to alcohol and could reflect economic and cultural differences: Bolivia and Ecuador are substantially poorer than Colombia and those two nations and Peru are much more indigenous. And some of the numbers look doubtful to me: can it really be true that only 11.5% of Colombian university students had used marijuana during the past year - but 90% had consumed alcohol? Or could it be that, because pot was then illegal, many students feared admitting using it?

A 'free development of the personality' strikes me as a rotten way to justify the use of hard drugs such as cocaine and crack. Some people can handle them, but the brilliant singer Amy Winehouse freely developed her personality to death at age 27, and every day I see the wreckage of alcohol and drug addiction wandering Bogotá's streets. Legalizing and regulating drugs is the least-bad policy not because drugs are good, but because users tend to obtain them anyway. And prohibition just turns people with problems, like Winehouse, into criminals. If Winehouse's vices were legal ones, perhaps she would have been more open about her problems and obtained help sooner - perhaps. We just don't know.

If prohibitionism places some barriers against drug consumption, they aren't many, and studies have shown that treatment and education are much more cost effective and humane ways to discourage use. And imprisoning people for using drugs can ruin lots of lives and cost society lots of money, whereas its effect on dissuading users is questionable. However, the legal status of the minimum dosage is really marginal to the broader  impacts of prohibition, which drives the drug trade's huge profits into the coffers of outlaw organizations, such as Colombia's guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug cartels.

Leaders ought to try not only depenalizing the minimum dosage, but legalizing drugs generally, to take them out of the hands of criminals.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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