Colombian lawmakers have approved a bill to legalize marijuana—advancing the legislation through the first of eight needed debates as legislators restart the two-year process of enacting the reform over again after a prior version stalled at the last stage in the Senate last session.
The new measure cleared the First Committee of the Chamber of Deputies on Tuesday. Rep. Juan Carlos Losada, who is again championing the legislation, said that the vote is a “reflection of a Congress that is aware of the progress that drug policy needs from prohibition to regulation,” according to a translation.
Aprobado por unanimidad en 1er debate nuestro PAL de #CannabisDeUsoAdulto.
Nos quedan 7 debates y estamos seguros que la votación de hoy, es el reflejo de un Congreso consciente del avance que necesita la política de drogas de la prohibición a la regulación.#RegularCannabisYA pic.twitter.com/dKm3DrDlPf
— Juan Carlos Losada (@JuanKarloslos) August 29, 2023
Losada and Sen. María José Pizarro announced the reintroduction of the bill late last month, emphasizing that while the proposal came up short last session, the stage is set for Colombia to pass legalization this round.
“We started the race to achieve the regularization of cannabis for adult use positively,” Pizarro said in a tweet on Tuesday, noting that there are still seven votes to go.
Empezamos positivamente la carrera por lograr la regularización del cannabis de uso adulto.
— María José Pizarro Rodríguez (@PizarroMariaJo) August 29, 2023
The legislation was previously approved in both chambers last year as part of the two-year process that constitutional amendments must undergo. It then passed the Chamber of Deputies again in May and advanced through a Senate committee last month. But while it received a majority of the votes on the floor, it fell short of the 54-vote threshold it needed for passage.
With Tuesday’s vote, the current bill is now making its way down “a path full of challenges to start writing a new story in the fight against drugs,” Losada said.
Hoy en @ComisionPrimera iniciamos de nuevo un camino lleno de retos para empezar a escribir una nueva historia en la lucha contra las drogas. Necesitamos avanzar en un cambio en la política de drogas y nuestro proyecto de #CannabisDeUsoAduto es el primer paso.#RegularCannabisYA pic.twitter.com/qMYquqMsBW
— Juan Carlos Losada (@JuanKarloslos) August 29, 2023
At a public hearing in the Senate panel last year, Justice Minister Néstor Osuna similarly said that 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.”
The Chamber of Representatives gave initial approval to the legalization bill last year. The head of the Interior Ministry also spoke in favor of the reform proposal at the time. That vote came shortly after a congressional committee advanced this measure and a separate legalization bill.
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President Gustavo Petro, a progressive who has been strongly advocating for an international end to drug criminalization since being inaugurated last year, has discussed the possible benefits of cannabis legalization.
Last year, the president delivered a speech at a meeting of the United Nations (UN), urging member nations to fundamentally change their approaches to drug policy and disband with prohibition.
Petro has also talked about the prospects of legalizing marijuana in Colombia as one means of reducing the influence of the illicit market. And he signaled that the policy change should be followed by releasing people who are currently in prison over cannabis.
He spoke about the economic potential of a legal cannabis industry, one where small towns in places like the Andes, Corinto and Miranda could stand to benefit from legal marijuana cultivation, possibly without any licensing requirements.
The president also signaled that he’d be interested in exploring the idea of exporting cannabis to other countries where the plant is legal.
Petro met with the president of Mexico last year, and the pair announced that they will be bringing together other Latin American leaders for an international conference focused on on “redesigning and rethinking drug policy” given the “failure” of prohibition. Mexican lawmakers are also pursuing national legalization.
According to the United Nations Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Colombia remains a chief exporter of cocaine, despite “drug supply reduction activities in Colombia, such as eradication of coca bush and destruction of laboratories.”
In 2020, Colombian legislators introduced a bill that would have regulated coca, the plant that is processed to produce cocaine, in an acknowledgment that the government’s decades-long fight against the drug and its procedures have consistently failed. That legislation cleared a committee, but it was ultimately shelved by the overall conservative legislature.
Advocates had been optimistic that such a proposal could advance under the Petro administration. The president hasn’t taken a clear stance on the legislation itself, but he campaigned on legalizing marijuana and promoted the idea of cannabis as an alternative to cocaine.
Former Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos has also been critical of the drug war and embraced reform. In an op-ed published before he left office, he criticized the United Nations and U.S. President Richard Nixon for their role in setting a drug war standard that has proven ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.
“It is time we talk about responsible government regulation, look for ways to cut off the drug mafias’ air supply, and tackle the problems of drug use with greater resources for prevention, care and harm reduction with regard to public health and the social fabric,” he said.
“This reflection must be global in scope in order to be effective,” Santos, who is a member of the pro-reform Global Commission on Drug Policy, said. “It must also be broad, including participation not only of governments but also of academia and civil society. It must reach beyond law enforcement and judicial authorities and involve experts in public health, economists and educators, among other disciplines.”
Meanwhile, a U.S. congressional delegation returned from a visit to Colombia last year, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who was part of the trip, told Marijuana Moment that one theme of his discussions with officials in the country was that the world has “lost the war on drugs.”
Image element courtesy of Bryan Pocius.