Colombia's president wants to ban the personal use of cocaine, marijuana, and ecstasy

Uribe's sixth attempt may succeed. Congress is now debating a constitutional amendment that would prohibit personal use and possession of small amounts of 'recreational' drugs.

John Vizcaino/Reuters
Colombia's President Álvaro Uribe says it's a contradiction to be fighting the export of illegal cocaine - such as this shipment seized on April 25 in Buenaventura, Colombia – while allowing domestic use.

As a regular marijuana user, Alicia Fajardo freely exercises her right to light up a joint whenever she pleases. But if a new push from Colombia's conservative President Álvaro Uribe succeeds, her habit would become illegal.

Colombia's Congress last week began debating a constitutional amendment introduced by the government that would prohibit possession and use of recreational drugs, overturning a 1994 Constitutional Court ruling that said the prohibition of drug use violated the right to the "free development of personality" set forth in Colombia's Constitution.

Since then, adults have been able to legally possess up to 20 grams of marijuana, one gram of cocaine, and two grams of synthetic drugs such as ecstasy for consumption in the privacy of their homes.

But Mr. Uribe says it is a contradiction for Colombia as the world's largest cocaine producer and exporter to claim to be waging a war on drugs – funded with billions of dollars of US aid – while allowing domestic use.

"It's not ethical to make that effort against production, against trafficking, against the criminals and simultaneously be permissive at the source, which is consumption," Uribe said in a recent speech.

Uribe's crusade

For Uribe, outlawing drug use has become something of a crusade.

Since he first began campaigning for president, Uribe vowed to outlaw possession of drugs, but in more than six years as president he has failed to see the measure pass.

He included the issue in a broad referendum in 2003 that was not approved. On four other occasions he has tried to push legislation through Congress outlawing possession and imposing mandatory jail sentences on repeat users.

Sen. Armando Benedetti, although a fervent supporter of Uribe, has opposed every one of the president's attempts to penalize drug use. "The state can't try to be a father, regulating the personal lives of Colombians," he says.

Ms. Fajardo agrees and says she does no harm with her habit. "Why should the government interfere in my private life?" she says.

Hundreds of defenders of personal drug use laws recently gathered in public squares of three cities, waving unlit joints in the air to reaffirm their right to possess what has come to be known here as the "minimum dose."

Despite the laxity in drug laws and the easy availability of recreational drugs in Colombia, use is relatively low. The latest drug use survey for Colombia, released in February, showed 2.3 percent of Colombians admitted using marijuana at least once in the past year, while 0.7 percent admitted to using cocaine in the previous 12 months. In the United States, according to the National Survey in Drug Use and Health, 5.8 percent used marijuana and 0.8 percent used cocaine during the same period.

But Mr. Benedetti says that despite previous failures to outlaw drug use, this time around Uribe may just get enough votes in the Congress since the government has backed off its original stance of trying to penalize possession.

A less punitive bill

The latest bill, as introduced by the government, would make possession and use a misdemeanor rather than a felony, and focuses on treatment by setting up "therapeutic courts" comprised of judges, physicians, and psychologists. Rep. Nicolas Uribe, a member of the ruling coalition but not a relative of the president, says the government made a "substantial change in its position" from previous attempts where it focused on punishment.

But even the treatment aspect became controversial. "If they are going to force treatment on drug users they would have to do the same for users of tobacco, alcohol, and even chicharrónes (pork rinds) because the fat content in them is a public health issue," says Benedetti.

Taking up those concerns, lawmakers changed the text of the amendment to simply prohibit possession and use, leaving the details of prosecution and treatment to be decided later as a regular law.

"What's important is making it clear that drug use is wrong and that it is fueling terrorism in our own country," says Rep. Uribe, referring to the fact that leftist rebels and right-wing warlords fund themselves largely with the drug trade.

But Fajardo rejects the notion that through her drug use, she is feeding Colombia's decades-old conflict. "The big consumers are in the US and Europe. All we get here are the leftovers," she says.

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