A congressional delegation returned from a visit to Colombia this week, and a congressman who was part of the trip said that one theme of his discussions with officials in the country was that the world has “lost the War on Drugs.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who chairs the House Ways & Means Subcommittee on Trade, said that drug policy was a “significant part” of his conversations during the trip to Colombia—where cannabis legalization legislation is actively advancing—and that there was a general “recognition” that the punitive approach to drugs that the US exported globally has “failed.”
Colombia’s new administration under President Gustavo Petro has been driving an international conversation about the need for collaboration to chart a different course when it comes to drugs, and Blumenauer, who also co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, took the opportunity to share a US perspective.
He’s encouraged by Colombia’s efforts to “try and do a U-turn on drug policy, moving away from a heavy-handed law enforcement approach.”
“The Petro administration is introducing the concept of a whole comprehensive approach to addressing the drug war and its consequences,” the congressman told Marijuana Moment on October 18. Decades of criminalization has only made it so illicit drugs are “more readily available” and cheaper.
“It’s had devastating consequences for poor farmers—and it has accomplished nothing,” the congressman said, adding that he’s encouraged by Colombia’s efforts to “try and do a U-turn on drug policy, moving away from a heavy-handed law enforcement approach.”
Part of that effort means working to “shift the activities of poor farmers into other other crops and activities,” he said, and doing so “in a way that recognizes the reality on the ground and the fact that American policies have been visited upon poor Colombians to no good effect.”
Blumenauer said that there was also discussion about marijuana legalization, and he shared with officials the experience of Oregon over the past several decades. The state became the first to decriminalize cannabis in 1973 and then legalized adult-use marijuana in 2014.
There was also interest in President Joe Biden’s recent move to issue a mass pardon for people with federal cannabis possession convictions. The congressman said he told Colombian officials that the action represented a symbolic “sea change,” even if the “direct impact” was limited to just a few thousand Americans.
“The fact that this is the first proposal by this administration, or any administration, dealing with pardons on this scale is very significant,” he said. “The Biden administration also called for a reappraisal of [marijuana scheduling], and I think if that is done anywhere near an objective fashion, it’s going to have cascading effects.”
“I think what the administration is doing is starting a process that’s going to accelerate the work we’ve been doing for years to get this out of the criminal justice system—to be able to legalize, tax, regulate and be able to take advantage [of reform], both of the therapeutic and the economic benefits of cannabis,” Blumenauer said. “And I think that’s certainly where Colombia is going.”
In a press release on the congressional delegation’s trip, Blumenauer said both countries “share a commitment to democratic values, which we emphasized in our trade policy discussions.”
“Now is the time to focus on policies that will right the wrongs of the past,” he said. “From the complicated War on Drugs to combatting climate change and protecting the Amazon, to full economic and social inclusion of women, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities, there’s much we can do together.”
A bill to legalize marijuana in Colombia earned initial approval by the country’s Chamber of Representatives this month, though it must still advance through additional debates before potentially being enacted.
The floor vote came shortly after a congressional committee passed the measure, as well as a separate legalization bill that includes provisions to distribute tax revenue from cannabis sales to individual government municipalities.
The president said that the US and other countries will enable a “genocide” of avoidable overdose deaths if leaders maintain the status quo of criminalization.
Colombia’s president, who was inaugurated in August, has discussed the possible benefits of cannabis legalization, though he hasn’t explicitly endorsed the reform proposals that are advancing yet. That said, cabinet officials, including the heads of the Justice Ministry and Interior Ministry, did speak in favor of the legalization proposal during the full chamber hearing this month.
For his part, Petro told members of the United Nations late last month that “democracy will die” if global powers don’t unite to end the drug war and pursue a different approach, with millions of lives on the line under the current regime.
The president said in a separate interview last month that the US and other countries will enable a “genocide” of avoidable overdose deaths if leaders maintain the status quo of criminalization.
He 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 cultivation, possibly without any licensing requirements.
The president additionally signaled that he’d be interested in exploring the idea of exporting cannabis to other countries where the plant is legal.
US 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.”
Biden, meanwhile, recently released a memorandum to the defense secretary 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 stated in a joint appearance with Petro earlier this month that the US 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 and narcoparamilitary groups 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 has consistently failed. That legislation cleared a committee, but it was ultimately shelved by the overall conservative legislature.
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 UN and US President Richard Nixon for their role in setting the drug-war standard.
“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.”