A bill to legalize cannabis in Colombia passed in the Senate on Tuesday. The primary focus of ending the war on cannabis is directly tied to halting organized crime, and illicit activities and addressing overpopulated prisons. Sen. María José Pizarro, the Senator behind the legislation, wrote in an op-ed last month that current cannabis prohibition “has enriched criminal organizations that continue to expand and sow terror around the world.”
“In parallel, a significant percentage of the increase in the population deprived of liberty worldwide corresponds to people arrested or prosecuted for possession and consumption, which has led to overcrowding and a prison crisis,” she added.
The constitutional amendment made its way through the Chamber of Representatives last month before passing in the Senate First Committee in a 15-4 vote. This signifies the seventh of eight votes required before the bill reaches Columbia’s progressive President Gustavo Petro’s desk. After its latest success, the legislation goes to the Senate floor, where voting should occur on June 16.
While Petro hasn’t given a direct quote on his view of the legislation, proponents of the bill are hopeful, as Petro has supported the legalization of the legislation since his inauguration in August, historically speaking up against the horror that can arise from prohibition, particularly the power it gives dangerous illicit markets.
Last year he addressed the UN to urge fellow nations to change their drug policy approach. The president often discusses the need to release people in prison for cannabis charges. Petro also discussed how a legal cannabis market could nurture Columbia’s economy. He noted that smaller towns, such as the Andes, could potentially enjoy a legal cannabis industry without licensing requirements. Petro is also open to creating an exportation business so Columbia can sell to other legal nations.
Because the bill is a proposed constitutional amendment, under Columbia law, it must make it through the entire legislative process in each chamber twice, in different calendar years, to finally pass and come into effect. If it passes, the amendment will 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 reads. It also aims to reduce the “arbitrary discriminatory or unequal treatment in front of the population that consumes.” It would include treatment centers for those with substance use disorders and provide public education campaigns.
Another encouraging point Petro has brought up is the role cannabis could play in harm reduction by mitigating the demand for cocaine. The president, a former member of Colombia’s M-19 guerrilla group, has survived firsthand violent conflict between guerrilla soldiers, narco paramilitary groups, and drug cartels. So far, Columbia’s combative drug enforcement policies have only worsened the problem. Colombia continues to be a major cocaine exporter, according to the United Nations Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). As Justice Minister Néstor Osuna vocalized at a public hearing in the Senate panel in 2022, 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.” Back in 2020, Columbian lawmakers introduced legislation to regulate coca and, thus, cocaine production while admitting that the country’s historical attempts to address the problem failed. However, the bill died thanks to a conservative legislature.
These problems are not unique to Columbia, and the president knows it. Last year, Petro met with Mexico’s president (the country is also considering cannabis legalization), and they announced efforts to unite Latin American leaders at an international conference focused on “redesigning and rethinking drug policy” given the “failure” of prohibition.