Lawmakers in Colombia have advanced a bill that would legalize cannabis for all adults. It has one more hurdle to pass before it can be sent to the president for approval. If the effort succeeds, Colombia would become the fourth country in the Americas—after Uruguay, Canada and Mexico—to legalize. And it would represent a remarkable shift for a country that for several decades has been a major focus of the global drug war.
On May 9, the Colombian Chamber of Representatives—the lower house of Congress—approved the bill by 98-57. Representative Juan Carlos Losada Vargas (of the center-left Liberal Party) sponsored the bill in his chamber, while Senator María José Pizarro Rodríguez (of the left-wing Historic Pact coalition) is sponsoring the Senate version.
On June 6, a Senate committee advanced the bill by a 15-4 vote, meaning a full Senate vote will be the final step before it can go to the president.
The bill would amend the nation’s constitution, and rules require that it pass both chambers twice in consecutive years. It passed both chambers for the first time in December. But this time, it needs to pass the Senate with at least a two-thirds majority. At least three Senators who previously voted no will need to flip their votes for this to happen.
President Gustavo Petro, elected last year on a progressive platform, has been clear that he wants his administration to end drug war.
The bill would “allow the regularization of the use of cannabis by adults;” “recognize and guarantee the fundamental rights to equality and the free development of personality;” and “propose a different strategy to combat illegal cannabis trafficking, as a tactic to reduce violence in the country.”
The legislation focuses on simply repealing prohibition, without setting up a regulatory structure for sales, but allows for the government to later develop rules for retail and taxes. Cannabis use in public places would still be banned. Within six months, the federal government would also be required to implement a policy focused on cannabis use prevention, including a national education campaign. Within 12 months it must create a plan to prevent and treat any illnesses caused by chronic cannabis use.
If the bill does achieve the required majority in the Senate, presidential approval is likely to follow. President Gustavo Petro of the left-wing Humane Colombia party, elected last year on a progressive platform, has been clear that he wants his administration to end drug war, although he has yet to take a public stance on this specific bill.
“It is time for a new international convention that accepts that the drug war has failed, which has left a million murdered Latin Americans during these 40 years,” Petro said during his inaugural speech. “The War on Drugs strengthened the mafias and weakened the states.” He asked, “Will we exchange failure for a success that allows Colombia and Latin America to live in peace?”
He has explicitly supported legalizing cannabis nationwide, even without issuing business licenses—musing that it would be “like sowing corn, or sowing potatoes.”
“This reform can decrease those interactions which cause so much tension and conflict.”
“The main impact of this reform is to have peace of mind for residents, especially between young people and the police,” Julián Quintero, founder and director of Bogotá-based harm reduction group Échele Cabeza, told Filter. “One of the main motives for police is the dispute over personal possession. They are always looking for ways to punish, harass or blackmail many young people, especially urban and poor youth. This reform can decrease those interactions which cause so much tension and conflict.”
The country has already taken steps to roll back criminalization of cannabis and other drugs. In 1986, lawmakers decriminalized personal possession of up to 1 gram of cocaine and up to 20 grams of cannabis—but left it illegal to carry any quantity of drugs for distribution or sales. And in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that cultivation of up to 20 cannabis plants for personal use is legal, after a man appealed a five-year prison sentence for possession of plants. Then in December that year, former President Juan Manuel Santos signed legislation legalizing medical use of cannabis.
The cannabis trade has played an important role in Colombia since before coca and cocaine surged in the 1970s and ’80s. As researcher Lina Britto explains in her book Marijuana Boom, cannabis cultivation first took hold among impoverished farmers in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a mountainous region along the country’s Caribbean coast.
Farmers who made a poor living growing cotton, bananas and coffee switched to cannabis, which was a more lucrative crop. It fueled a growing but relatively peaceful illicit economy. As Britto describes, violence only ramped up after the Colombian and United States governments launched a militarized crackdown on cannabis growers in 1978—followed by retaliation from trafficking groups. Some of these same farmers would later switch to illicit coca cultivation and production of refined cocaine, as Colombia became the world’s leading producer.
It was then that Colombia became one of the most notorious battlegrounds in the global drug war, with devastating impacts. Militarized interdiction efforts targeted trafficking organizations led by the likes of Pablo Escobar. By 1993, Escobar was shot dead by Colombian police, but the counter-narcotic offensives continued—and were ramped up in 2000 by “Plan Colombia,” a bilateral deal with the United States.
“This can decrease some of our rural violence, including between the government and armed groups.”
By any metric, drug prohibition has been a disaster in the country—resulting in four million people internally displaced; hundreds of thousands of people being subjected to sexual violence; drug profits fueling and prolonging the 50-year civil war between the state and various rebel groups; thousands of civilians killed by military forces; and environmental and health harms caused by aerial chemical spraying of coca crops. Colombia’s drug-related conflicts have also contributed to destabalizing other governments—in neighboring countries like Bolivia and Peru, and more distant ones like Mexico and Honduras.
While Quintero doesn’t think legalization will end the violence in Colombia, he thinks it can help.
“It can impact large cultivators and narcotraffickers who may choose to be legally regulated, or seek amnesty or some other type of transition,” he said. “This can decrease some of our rural violence, including between the government and armed groups and narcotraffickers, but also the violence between themselves to control the market.”
Photograph of Representative Losada Vargas and Senator Pizarro Rodríguez with legalization supporters via Twitter