August 26, 2001
Narco News 2001
Policy by Washington Has Meddled
to Censor Nation's Public Debate
Narco News Commentary: Juan Gabriel Tokatlián,
an longtime expert on drug policy in Colombia, reviews in today's
national daily El Tiempo the history of the drug legalization
movement in Colombia. Opinion leaders and the Colombian public
support reform, but the U.S. government keeps intervening - both
openly and covertly - to sabotage the democratic will of the
people, and even a full public discussion of the theme.
But the voices
grow louder and more numerous, and as we stated yesterday on
The Narco News Bulletin, U.S.-imposed prohibition policy
and its Plan Colombia is on a collision course with democracy
in the Andes.
And, as Tokatlián
makes clear, there is a synergy between the drug policy reform
movements in the United States and those in Colombia. To the
extent that United States citizens continue gaining ground (for
example, recent polls in the U.S. show public support for legalization
of marijuana at a 30-year high), room is created for democratic
decisions to be made throughout our América.
From the daily El
By Juan Gabriel Tokatlián
by The Narco News Bulletin
recent legislation in favor of drug legalization presented by Senator Viviane Morales must been
seen in historic and comparative perspective to understand it
In general, the issue of narcotics legalization
in Colombia that began in the seventies has had some principal
elements. In the first place, the debate was limited. It concentrated
among some observers, journalists, intellectuals and politicians
that with a certain regularity and with various and relatively
solid arguments, suggested the convenience for the country to
legalize drugs, generally in conjunction with foreign powers.
Secondly, the government officials maintained
an unfavorable position. Different authorities, in different
levels of power and in distinct moments, rejected the consideration
of this option, and particularly its promotion by the Colombian
In third place, the argument was circumstantial.
In difficult and particularly violent moments, voices were heard
in favor of legalization. This episodic character gave heat to
the proposals but impeded generating a social and politically
weighty coalition, that, for its part, could deepen the theme
in national territory and project the topic to foreign lands.
In fourth place, the idea of legalization
was connected, in part, to international phenomena. In the 70s,
proposals to legalize marijuana were supported, by example, in
the United States, as a relevant number of states had decriminalized
personal use. Between 1973 and 1979, eleven states - that included
one-third of the population - decriminalized the possession of
small amounts of marijuana. Among them, Alaska went even further
and legalized the cultivation as well as the use of small quantities
In United States legislation there was
also a less draconian spirit at work. For example, in August
of 1978, the Percy Amendment was adopted, prohibiting governmental
support for fumigation of foreign marijuana plantations with
herbicide if the practice generated risks for the consumers in
the United States. In the 80s, initiatives favorable to legalization
took as their point of reference some European experiences in
the less severe management of certain drugs. The few and limited
internal debates in Colombia followed the events in this area
that were occurring, especially, in the U.S. and Europe.
In the fifth place, the official United
States presence regarding this matter was repeated and inexorable.
Officials attended seminars, organized conferences, distributed
publications and organized meetings to stress the negativity
of Washington toward any hypothetical thesis in favor of legalizing
drugs. The governmental weight of the United States was used
to transmit a convincing message to Colombian government and
society: No to legalization.
Since the 70s, various Colombian voices
have been raised in favor of legalization. A central protagonist
was, for example, Ernesto Samper Pizano, who on March 16, 1979,
as the president of ANIF, proposed the legalization marijuana.
Aníbal Martínez Zuleta,
then controller general of the Republic, was a partisan of legalizing
marijuana. So was the president of the Bogotá stock exchange,
Eduardo Góez, and the former president of the Supreme
Court, Luis Sarmiento Buitrago. The former liberal mayor of Bogotá,
Bernardo Gaitán Mahecha, was inclined toward the theory
of legalization. So did the retired General José Joaquín
Matallana, and the recognized coffee magnate Leonidas Londoño,
and the then-president of the Colombian senate, Héctor
Echeverri Correa, among many others.
Former president Alfonso López
Michelson said in 1981: "What Ernesto Samper says is absolutely
correct, whether we agree with legalization or not. In any case,
it is necessary to have a position and not to take refuge in
moral concepts so to speak, with a sentiment of blaming the underground
economy of clandestine dollars on the emerging citizens. All
of that phraseology escapes economic pragmatism by stressing
moral qualifications that are very valuable, that are the norms
of individual conduct, but that can not be the material for analysis
nor scientific study of any problem, because science is one thing,
and morals is another, when it comes to investigating what social
laws are about."
During the early 1980s, the debates over
the issue were more and more sporadic. Bogotá began to
live the dilemma of whether to extradite nationals or not. This
eclipsed the forums in favor of legalization and was expanded
in others against extradition.
In the period between 1984 and 1986, the
selective and overwhelming level of narco-terrorism revived,
temporarily, the debate over legalization. In this case, it was
the journalist Antonio Caballero who articulated the most precise
thesis in favor of legalization: his initiative implied a significant
leap over the original proposal by Samper that already involved
the entire chain of narcotics business, was concentrated on coca
and cocaine, and not just marijuana, and unleashed a frontal
critique of United States prohibition policy.
In the early 1990s, the polemic had more
participants. A study by the University of the Andes, titled
"Narco-Trafficking in Colombia," proposed "exploring
the partial decriminalization of the problem." Various well-known
journalists, like Enrique Santos, Daniel Samper and Antonio Panesso,
reiterated the importance of considering the legalization of
drugs. Certain influential intellectuals like Gabriel García
Márquez, supported this thesis. Respected academics, like
Alvaro Camacho Guizado, Hernando Gómez B., Ricardo Vargas,
Ricardo Sánchez and Rodrigo Uprimny, analyzed the benefits
of the idea. Also, some politicians, particularly conservatives,
like Enrique Gómez Hurtado and Mario Laserna, opined in
support of this alternative.
the State Itself
But, in general, Colombia did not witness
a frequent discussion of this option and over how to surpass
the current prohibition policy. The politics of submission during
1990-91 and the ban on extradition of nationals consecrated in
the Constitution of 1991, occupied the major attention of the
country. Both means seemed to make the necessity of widening
the controversy over narcotics and its potential resolution through
a legalizing strategy more distant. Also, it was supposed that
these things - the politics of submission and the ban on extraditing
nationals - would "domesticate" or "pacify"
the most aggressive and violent traffickers.
The escape by Pablo Escobar from jail
in 1992, the rebound of narco-terrorism, the limits of the strategy
of submission, the development of assertive narco-organized crime
in the country and the growing failures of the anti-drug policy
of the United States and its effects in Colombia, contributed
to generate a space for a re-launch of the thesis in favor of
The contours and content of this new argument
were notably distinct from the previous ones. In 1993, the controversy
over legalization in Colombia was not limited to the appearance
of favorable proposals from sectors of society and the negative
responses from the government. It also acquired a new dimension:
Proposals from Congress, the Attorney General and the Supreme
Court - that is to say, from the State itself - from which support
for legalizing theses were presented.
Although it did not prosper, the representative
of the Aliance of National Retirees (ARENA), the retired military
official Guillermo Martinezguerra presented, in August 1993,
legislation for Colombia to convene a United Nations convention
to gradually decriminalize drugs. Although this did not have
any significant impact, a Senate Commission presented, on December
15, 1993, a report favorable to the progressive decriminalization
On his own part, the Attorney General
of the Nation, Gustavo de Greiff, declared himself a partisan
of evaluating legalization. Toward the end of 1993, in different
forums - one, in October, in Bogotá and the other in November
in Baltimore - the Attorney General announced his position. Then,
in a May 1994 decision, the Supreme Court decriminalized consumption
in small amounts. In effect, ruling on a lawsuit over Law 30
of 1986, the Court struck down Articles 51 and 87 of that law,
founded upon the legal concepts of human dignity, personal autonomy
and free development of the person.
Made Its Disgust Known
The three phenomena - the proposals by
Congress, the opinion of the Attorney General, and the ruling
by the Supreme Court - placed the argument over legalization
in a qualitatively new point. The opinions, reflections and criteria
in favor of the issue multiplied, at the same time as the postures
and expressions were more sophisticated than in the past.
However, the voices in favor of legalization
did not converge into a wider and more influential movement.
The government mounted a rapid offensive and decided against
the legalization theory. Washington made its disgust known: very
quickly, in private and also in public. United States officials
began to refer to the country as an inexorable narco-democracy.
The omnipresent ghosts of the narco-cassettes
(that revealed donations from narco-traffickers to the presidential
campaign of Ernesto Samper) and the reality of the coercive diplomacy
of the United States tore any expectation that Samper, president
of Colombia in 1994, would again take up his 1979 proposal in
favor of legalization to pieces. The desire and force of political
survival by Samper caused him to opt, anew, for criminalization
in place of legalization.
However, since the mid-90s, new voices
have appeared in the debate over legalization that, from a different
point of view, declared them selves to be in favor of this position.
These voices did not surge from the elite sectors nor from the
State, but from "below toward above" and from institutional
spaces previously unthinkable. For example, the mayor of Barranquilla,
the religious leader Bernardo Hoyos Montoya, supported legalization
of drugs. Monsignor Belarmino Correa Yepes, apostolic vicar of
San José del Guaviare, advocated the decriminalization
of coca crops and consumption of cocaine.
The governors of Meta, Tolima, César,
Arauca and Guaviare (all affected by the cultivation and processing
of drugs, for the violence generated by narco-trafficking, by
narco-paramilitary squads and by the local connections between
guerrilla groups and drug traffickers) proposed the legalization
On various occasions, Congresswoman Ingrid
Betandcourt, accompanied by then-representative Carlos Alonso
Lucio, supported studying the issue. Even the FARC declared itself
in favor: On March 29, 2000 - almost exactly 21 years from the
original announcement by Ernesto Samper - the secretary of the
Command of the FARC opined in favor of the legalization of drugs
"as the only alternative for eliminating narco-trafficking."
All of these events demonstrate the growing
social and governmental support for the theme, as well as the
enormous difficulty in seriously advancing on it. Effective legalization
of drugs will be come a reality only on the day that the major
poles of consumption of drugs and of dollar-laundering decide
to put an end to prohibition; the major source of the terrible
tragedy that Colombia has lived in the recent decades.
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the democracy, stupid"