Colombian President Álvaro Uribe clashed with the country’s prosecutor general over the head of state’s proposal to re-criminalize possession of personal quantities of drugs. Prosecutor General Mario Iguarán expressed his support for a recent statement by a number of former Latin American presidents, including Colombia’s César Gaviria, that drug addiction should be treated not as a criminal issue, but a healthcare issue. Uribe said Iguarán should have consulted with him before speaking publicly on the issue. Uribe also accused: “It seems to me he is misleading the public opinion when he says the government will take the addicts to jail. This can not happen like that.” (Colombia Reports, Feb. 23)
A recent study which queried nearly 30,000 Colombians—jointly carried out by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission—found that 8% have smoked marijuana at least once in their life, and extrapolated that 450,000 have within the last year. According to the study, approximately 494,000 Colombians have used cocaine at least once, and 140,000 within the last year. (Colombia’s population is approximately 45 million.)
The number of drug users in Colombia is significantly lower than in the US. According to the US Department of Health, 46% of US citizens older than 12 have used illicit drugs at least once in their life; 14% admit having used drugs the past year.
Among those 8% of Colombians who have smoked marijuana is apparently Vice President Francisco Santos. According to a 1997 report in the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland, Santos, then director of Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo, smoked pot during a visit to Amsterdam and admitted to having celebrated his 1990 release after being kidnapped by the Medellín Cartel “with a few friends and a lot of joints.” (Colombia Reports, Feb. 24)
In 1994, Colombia’s then-Prosecutor General Gustavo de Greiff—who had vigorously prosecuted the cocaine cartels and received numerous death threats for his efforts—first came out in favor of decriminalization. Later that year, Colombia’s top court ruled that small quantities of illegal drugs were not criminal offenses. Colombia joined Germany, Italy and Spain in decriminalizing. Then-President César Gaviria pledged to overturn the decision, and did succeed in re-imposing restrictions on public use by presidential decree—an undemocratic measure increasingly used under “emergency rules” imposed to combat drugs and terrorism. However, to recriminalize completely required changing Colombia’s constitution, which could only be done by popular referendum. Despite initial bluster, Gaviria failed to get the referendum on the ballot before his term ended—perhaps due to fear that it would be defeated. His successor, Ernesto Samper, did not pursued the crusade. Small quantities remain de facto legal in Colombia. (The Shadow, NYC, Spring 1997)
Gaviria has since come around on the issue, and joined with two other Latin American ex-presidents—Brazil’s Fernando Cardoso and Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo—in issuing a public statement that the Washington-led Drug War has failed and that a new approach is needed. Issued by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, the report is entitled “Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift.” It states: “Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results. We are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs.” (Semana, Bogotá, Feb. 17; Americas MexicoBlog, Feb. 12)
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