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Top Colombian Official Reaffirms Government’s Support For Marijuana Legalization Bill Scheduled For Senate Vote This Week

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A top Colombian official reiterated on Monday that the government supports a bill to amend the country’s Constitution to legalize marijuana—a proposal that’s been advancing in the legislature and is expected to receive a Senate vote on Tuesday.

At a public hearing on Monday, Justice Minister Néstor Osuna said that the country has been the victim of “a failed war that was designed 50 years ago and, due to absurd prohibitionism, has brought us a lot of blood, armed conflict, mafias and crime,” according to a translation.

“The national government supports this draft legislative act for the adult use of cannabis,” he said. “We believe that it is very important that this step be taken towards a responsible market—a responsible regulation that allows us to overcome this prohibitionist atmosphere.”

The proposed constitutional amendment contemplates the public health and economic impacts of legalization, as well as the ideological principle of individual autonomy. If enacted, officials would have six months to promulgate rules for the adult-use market.

A supplementary legislative analysis provides background on the history of cannabis policy in Colombia, while also describing reform developments in other countries such as Mexico and the United States.

The legalization bill would support “the right of the free development of the personality, allowing citizens to decide on the consumption of cannabis in a regulated legal framework,” it says. And it would mitigate “arbitrary discriminatory or unequal treatment in front of the population that consumes.”

The bill will restrict possession and public consumption at schools and certain public spaces. It also calls for public education campaigns and the promotion of substance misuse treatment services.

The Colombian Chamber of Representatives gave initial approval to a legalization bill from Rep. Juan Carlos Losada last month. In addition to Osuna, the head of the Interior Ministry also spoke in favor of the reform proposal at the time. That vote came shortly after a congressional committee advanced this measure and a separate legalization bill.

Now the First Committee of the Senate is taking up its version of the reform proposal, including at Monday’s hearing.

There have been several debates on the measure in the committee, including last week.

A vote on the legalization bill is expected to happen in the Senate panel on Tuesday.

“The fight against drugs has been an absolute failure,” Sen. María José Pizarro Rodríguez said last week. “After 50 years, consumption has not diminished and, on the contrary, the mafias have strengthened, democracy has been distorted and we have lost thousands of lives in the midst of this war.”

The justice minister also discussed legislative legalization efforts at an event focused on cannabis reform on Saturday, emphasizing the need to enact a policy change the promotes economic growth and public health.

As lawmakers move to approve the reform bill, Osuna said that government agencies will be working to facilitate a “faster, less difficult” licensure process.

President Gustavo Petro, a progressive who has been strongly advocating for an international end to drug criminalization since being inaugurated in August, has discussed the possible benefits of cannabis legalization.

In September, the president delivered a speech at a meeting of the United Nations (UN), urging member nations to fundamentally change their approaches to drug policy and disband with prohibition.

Petro also recently talked about the prospects of legalizing marijuana in Colombia  as one means of reducing the influence of the illicit market. And he signaled that the policy change should be followed by releasing people who are currently in prison over cannabis.

He spoke about the economic potential of a legal cannabis industry, one where small towns in places like the Andes, Corinto and Miranda could stand to benefit from legal marijuana cultivation, possibly without any licensing requirements.

The president also signaled that he’d be interested in exploring the idea of ​​exporting cannabis to other countries where the plant is legal.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), who chairs the House Rules Committee, cheered the official swearing in of Petro , saying that he looks forward to “working together to…rethink drug policy, and much more.”

President Joe Biden, on the other hand, seems intent on perpetuating the drug war in Colombia, with U.S. military support. He released a  memorandum to the defense secretary in August that authorizes the “interdiction of aircraft reasonably suspected to be primarily engaged in illicit drug trafficking in that country’s airspace.”

He said that it’s “necessary because of the extraordinary threat posed by illicit drug trafficking to the national security of that country” and because “Colombia has appropriate procedures in place to protect against innocent loss of life in the air and on the ground in connection with such interdiction, which includes effective means to identify and warn an aircraft before the use of force is directed against the aircraft.”

That said, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a joint appearance with Petro last month that the U.S. generally backs his “holistic approach” to drugs. The Colombian president, for his part, said that countries need to “view the war on drugs differently.”

As a former member of Colombia’s M-19 guerrilla group, Petro has seen the violent conflict between guerrilla fighters, narcoparamilitary groups and drug cartels that has been exacerbated by the government’s aggressive approach to drug enforcement.

According to the United Nations Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Colombia remains a chief exporter of cocaine,  despite  “drug supply reduction activities in Colombia, such as eradication of coca bush and destruction of laboratories.”

In 2020, Colombian legislators introduced a bill that would have regulated coca, the plant that is processed to produce cocaine, in an acknowledgment that the government’s decades-long fight against the drug and its procedures have consistently failed. That legislation cleared a committee, but it was ultimately shelved by the overall conservative legislature.

Advocates are optimistic that such a proposal could advance under the Petro administration. The president hasn’t taken a clear stance on the legislation itself, but he campaigned on legalizing marijuana and promoted the idea of ​​cannabis as an alternative to cocaine.

Former Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos has also been critical of the drug war and embraced reform. In an editorial published before he left office, he criticized the United Nations and U.S. President Richard Nixon for their role in setting a drug war standard that has proven ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

“It is time we talk about responsible government regulation, look for ways to cut off the drug mafias’ air supply, and tackle the problems of drug use with greater resources for prevention, care and harm reduction with regard to public health and the social fabric,” he said.

“This reflection must be global in scope in order to be effective,” Santos, who is a member of the pro-reform Global Commission on Drug Policy, said. “It must also be broad, including participation not only of governments but also of academia and civil society. It must reach beyond law enforcement and judicial authorities and involve experts in public health, economists and educators, among other disciplines.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. congressional delegation returned from a visit to Colombia last month, and a congressman who was part of the trip told Marijuana Moment that one theme of his discussions with officials in the country was that the world has “lost the war on drugs.”

Read the translated text of the proposed marijuana legalization constitutional amendment below:

Congressional Researchers Lay Out Six Key Limitations Of Biden’s Marijuana Pardons

Image element courtesy of Bryan Pocius.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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