Is Colombia Close to Overturning Cannabis Prohibition? A Bill Inches Ahead

Tue, Nov 29

The once distant possibility of legalizing cannabis in Colombia might be within reach.  

A bill that seeks to amend article 49 of Colombia’s Constitution—which forbids “the carrying and consumption of narcotic or psychotropic substances unless prescribed by a doctor”—was approved by a Senate committee on November 22, with eleven votes in favor and four against. The bill had already passed in October in the Lower House of Congress with 105 votes in favor and and 33 against. 

The bill would allow adults in Colombia to purchase regulated and quality-controlled cannabis from licensed operators. Although it could still face strong opposition as it moves through the Senate, where it will be discussed again in the coming days, that the bill passed with an overwhelming majority in the lower house “shows a real possibility for this initiative to become a reality,” Juan Carlos Losada, the liberal lawmaker who introduced the bill, told Cannabis Wire. “In fact, we are gaining support from historically conservative political sectors, whom we are convincing that regulation is the way to go.” 

Since 2016, Colombia has developed a legal framework that now allows the cultivation, manufacture, domestic sales, and export of cannabis and cannabis-based products for medical use. But as recently as 2020, it would have been unthinkable that Congress could pass a bill to regulate the consumption of cannabis for recreational purposes in a country considered part of the conservative tradition in Latin America. 

This is the fourth time that adult use legislation has been introduced in Congress. A bill was first presented in 2020 but it was defeated in a committee of the Lower House. The following two times—in 2020 and 2021—it failed to advance after a vote of the full Lower House. 

This time, however, it appears that a newly-elected Congress is ready to approve  legislation that would begin to put an end to the so-called war on drugs. “Conservative political forces were the majority in Congress and that prevented any change in drug policy,” Losada said. “However, with the new Congress, the progressive forces are in the majority and everything is in place for us to move forward with regulation.”

That includes the executive branch. Although the bill was not introduced by the government, it has the support of the new Colombian president, Gustavo Petro, the country’s first leftist president, who was elected last year and who has repeatedly criticized the “failed war on drugs” and called on world leaders for a new strategy to target illegal drug trafficking. 

“From my wounded Latin America, I demand that you end the irrational war on drugs,” Petro said during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.

At the recent Senate committee hearing during which the bill was discussed, Justice Minister Néstor Osuna said that Colombia has been the victim of “a failed war” that, “due to absurd prohibitionism, has brought us a lot of blood, armed conflict, mafias, and crime.”

According to Losada, the prohibitionist war on drugs is to blame for Colombia´s 60-year violent conflict between the government and criminal groups that are financed with illegal drug trade money.  

“The fight against drugs was a fight against people and Colombia paid the most expensive price,” he said. “Thousands of lives were taken and billions of dollars were spent in a fight that failed to reduce production and consumption.” 

Legalizing cannabis would also give a boost to the economy by creating wealth and generating jobs for the country, the lawmaker said.

“It is estimated that the local cannabis market moves between $500 and $900 million a year,” he said. “Also, the market, if legal, could be a generator of tax revenues for the country and formalization of rural work.

“So, eventually, when a licit global market exists, Colombia can become a key player in the global cannabis trade,” Losada added. 

Right-wing parties led by former president Alvaro Uribe have opposed the measure, arguing that cannabis is “the gateway to consuming stronger substances.” 

Uribe, who represents the views of an important part of the population that opposes the measure, has said that Congress would be harming youth if they pass the bill.

“We have two options, to remain still and let our young people create more drug addiction conditions every day,” Uribe said. “The second option is for them to study, to be involved in culture, sports, to build families, to be citizens with values, tolerance, and builders of social cohesion.” 

One of Uribe’s most powerful supporters in Congress, Senator Paloma Valencia, who voted to shelve the bill, is determined to prevent the bill from being approved. “Ten percent of marijuana users become addicted,” she said during the Senate committee debate. “And what is more serious, when a minor consumes marijuana, it can alter their brain in a definitive way and develop mental illnesses.” 

Daniel Carvalho, a Representative in the Lower House, offered up his own example as a counterargument. Carvalho said during the debate that he has “been smoking marijuana for 25 years,” and that “has not prevented me from graduating as a civil engineer with the best grades.”

For Carvalho, it is “anachronistic” that Colombians have the right to consume and carry cannabis, but it is illegal to buy and sell it. Back in 1986, Colombia´s Constitutional Court decriminalized the possession of up to 20 cannabis plants, an amount that is commonly referred to as the “personal dose.” However, the high court did not get involved with the purchasing and selling of cannabis, which has many consumers turning to illegal markets to stock. 

Despite its progress, the bill still has a long way to go. It needs five more debates in the Senate and Lower House before it can become law with Petro’s signature, and conservative senators are determined to achieve majorities to block the bill.

And, since the bill is a constitutional amendment, it must clear all five debates in Parliament before June, 2023.