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August 26, 2001

Narco News 2001

Colombia's History of

Drug Reform Efforts

Colonial Policy by Washington Has Meddled

Repeatedly 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 Tiempo
Bogotá, Colombia

August 26, 2001

The debate reopens over

Legalization of Drugs

By Juan Gabriel Tokatlián

Translated by The Narco News Bulletin

The recent legislation in favor of drug legalization presented by Senator Viviane Morales must been seen in historic and comparative perspective to understand it better.

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 government.

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 of marijuana.

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.

Samper, the First

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."

Partial Decriminalization

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.

From 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 legalization.

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 of narcotics.

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.

Washington 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 of drugs.

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.

Is History Repeating Itself?

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