A Colombian Senate committee has approved a bill to legalize marijuana, sending it the full chamber for consideration.
The legislation—which has already moved through committee and on the floor in the Chamber of Representatives in recent months—cleared the First Committee of the Senate on Wednesday. This marks the third of eight planned debates before the measure is potentially sent to the president next year.
Lawmakers nearly enacted a version of the reform into law earlier this year, but it stalled out in the final stage in the Senate last session, meaning the two-year legislative process needed to start over again. Rep. Juan Carlos Losada and Sen. María José Pizarro reintroduced the legislation in July.
“The war strategy on drugs has failed,” Pizarro said during Wednesday’s debate, according to a translation. “It has not been effective and consumption has not decreased.”
Losada said ahead of the vote on Wednesday that lawmakers are pursuing “regulation with a public health focus that protects minors and provides economic opportunities.”
Regulating marijuana “is the first step to move forward in changing the failed drug prohibition policy,” he said.
The legislation was previously approved in both chambers last year as part of the two-year process that constitutional amendments must undergo. It then passed the Chamber of Deputies again in May and advanced through a Senate committee in July. But while it received a majority of the votes on the Senate floor, it fell short of the 54-vote threshold it needed for passage.
At a public hearing in the Senate panel last year, Justice Minister Néstor Osuna said that Colombia 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.”
The Chamber of Representatives gave initial approval to the legalization bill last year, and the head of the Interior Ministry similarly spoke in favor of the reform proposal at the time.
President Gustavo Petro—a progressive who recently unveiled a new national drug policy focused on loosening criminal penalties and instead working to transition Colombians to legal sectors of the economy—has strongly advocated for an international end to drug criminalization since being inaugurated last year.
After a recent visit to the U.S., the president recalled smelling the odor of marijuana wafting through the streets of New York City, remarking on the “enormous hypocrisy” of legal cannabis sales now taking place in the nation that launched the global drug war decades ago.
Petro also took a lead role at the Latin American and Caribbean Conference on Drugs in September, noting Colombia and Mexico “are the biggest victims of this policy,” likening the drug war to “a genocide.”
At that event, 19 countries jointly issued a statement asserting that “the expected results have not been obtained when combating the world drug problem, leaving in many cases the underlying problems to be solved and exploiting and exacerbating vulnerabilities of our territories and societies.”
Petro said at the closing of that conference that “what I propose is to have a different and unified voice that defends our society, our future and our history and stops repeating a failed discourse.” He argued that it was wrong to look at drug control “as a military problem and not as a health problem in society.”
In a separate speech, Petro acknowledged that by criminalizing cannabis and other drugs, Colombia and the international community have victimized peasant families as well as Indigenous and Black communities.
“Drug trafficking was not born in Colombian blood. They built it for us,” he said, noting that the low cost of producing drugs makes Colombia an appealing area to grow illicit crops like marijuana and coca, which are processed and then smuggled to sell at higher prices in wealthier countries.
Those countries “never wanted to develop a policy of prevention or regulation or mitigation of harm among consumers,” Petro said, instead preferring to blame poorer, less white countries like Colombia. “That’s an easy policy,” he added, accusing the U.S. and other developed nations of “xenophobic and racist complexes.”
Last year, Petro 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.
He’s also 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.
Former Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos has also been critical of the drug war and embraced reform. In an op-ed published before he left office, he criticized the UN 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.” (Full Story)