A bill to legalize marijuana in Colombia has officially passed the Chamber of Representatives and now heads to the Senate for the its final two hurdles before it’s potentially sent to the president.
Following a narrow, procedural vote last month, lawmakers took up the legislation again on Tuesday, approving it in the sixth of eight required debates in a 98-57 vote. Now it must go to a Senate committee and then pass on the floor of that chamber to be enacted.
Colombia is “ready to take a step towards a new drug policy that abandons the failed paradigm of prohibition and opens the field for a policy guided by the guidelines of public health, the prevention of consumption and the guarantee of citizens’ rights,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Juan Carlos Losada Vargas of the Liberal party, said in an op-ed last month.
Por ser Acto Legislativo requiere de 8 debates, vamos en el sexto.
Nos quedan 2 debates en @SenadoGovCo que deben darse antes del 20 de junio.
— Juan Carlos Losada (@JuanKarloslos) May 9, 2023
“We are very little away from starting to write a new history in the fight against drugs, at this point it is a matter of political will,” he said. “Every vote is decisive.”
The Chamber and Senate passed different versions of legalization legislation last year, and the bodies moved to make the bills identical in December. The Senate overwhelmingly approved its version of the bill that month after it received initial approval in the Chamber.
As a proposed constitutional amendment, the proposal must go through the full legislative process in each chamber twice, in separate calendar years, in order to be enacted.
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.”
— Juan Carlos Losada (@JuanKarloslos) May 9, 2023
It also calls for public education campaigns and the promotion of substance misuse treatment services.
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. 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.
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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.
Last year, 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 has 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.
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.
En #PlenariaCámara ha sido aprobado en sexto debate el “Proyecto de Acto Legislativo por medio del cual se modifica el artículo 49 de la Constitución Política de Colombia, se regulariza el Cannabis de uso adulto”, con 98 votos por el SI pic.twitter.com/JCEjxOUZGR
— Cámara de Representantes de Colombia (@CamaraColombia) May 9, 2023
Petro met with the president of Mexico last year, and the pair announced that they will be bringing together other Latin American leaders for an international conference focused on on “redesigning and rethinking drug policy” given the “failure” of prohibition. Mexican lawmakers are also pursuing national legalization.
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 op-ed 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 year, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), 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.”
Image element courtesy of Bryan Pocius.