In Colombia, another sort of drug debate

BOGOTA — Instead of shouting, the marchers at a recent protest outside the presidential palace here simply pulled out their paraphernalia. Soon, the air filled with the pungent aroma of marijuana.

These smoky demonstrators were laying plain their dismay over the Colombian government’s campaign to roll back the most liberal rules in Latin America regarding the personal use of recreational drugs.

“Taking drugs is a private matter,” said Daniel Pacheco, 27, a Colombian journalist who helped organize the march. “There are a lot more important things that the government should be concerned about.”

Under a 1994 ruling by Colombia’s Constitutional Court, adults may possess up to 20 grams of marijuana, two grams of ecstasy, and one gram of heroin, cocaine or crack for consumption in the privacy of their homes.

But now President Alvaro Uribe — a close U.S. ally, fervent drug warrior and longtime teetotaler — wants to repeal the measure. If successful, his government plans to levy fines on drug users or else send them to treatment centers or jail if they continue to smoke, snort or shoot narcotics.

Uribe’s efforts appeal to both politicians and parents in a nation where the Roman Catholic Church remains influential, and where many blame the booming illegal drug industry for the country's woes.

It’s also a matter of consistency.

Colombia is ground zero in the U.S.-backed war on drugs and the source of 90 percent of the world’s cocaine. Washington has sent more than $5 billion in mostly military and anti-narcotics assistance to the Bogota government over the past decade, and thousands of police officers and soldiers have lost their lives battling the drug cartels.

“It’s not right for the country to have this ethical contradiction of being severe when it comes to drug production and smuggling, but totally lax and permissive when it comes to consumption,” Uribe said in a speech in February.

Uribe claims that the so-called “personal dose” rule has made it harder for the police to arrest dealers because they often carry only small amounts of narcotics and, when detained, argue that the drugs were for their own use.

Yet even members of the Uribe government are at odds over the drug issue. Attorney General Mario Igauran recently stated that rather than worrying about how private citizens find pleasure in their own homes, the government should focus on cracking down on high-level traffickers.

Health experts, meanwhile, question whether the proposal will be effective when it comes to forcing drug users into treatment. They say that state-mandated efforts to get people off drugs usually fail.

The debate comes as more critics are questioning the effectiveness of traditional anti-drug policies. Despite two decades of fighting the drug cartels — a battle that has largely shifted to Mexico — illegal drugs remain relatively cheap, potent and widely available.

Pacheco, who helped organize the protest march, said that home delivery of a half pound of marijuana costs about $10 in Bogota, while a gram of cocaine costs from $5 to $8 depending on the quality. In the United States a gram of cocaine costs anywhere from $50 to $200.

In February, a high-level commission led by three former Latin American presidents — Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil — recommended studying alternatives to drug prohibition and suggested that the use of marijuana should be decriminalized.

“The available evidence indicates that the war on drugs is a failed war,” Cardoso told reporters in a conference call.

Supporters of Uribe’s proposal point out that drug consumption in Latin America appears to be on the rise. Brazil now ranks as the second-highest consumer of cocaine, after the United States, and in recent studies more Colombians have admitted to using that drug as well as heroin, crack and ecstasy.

But Carlos Gaviria, the former Constitutional Court magistrate who wrote the majority opinion that decriminalized the personal use of drugs, questioned those numbers. Now that Colombians can use small amounts without fear of prosecution, he said, they are more likely to admit their behavior to pollsters.

Following the 1994 ruling, critics predicted that Bogota would turn into the Amsterdam of the Andes. But unlike the Dutch city that draws thousands of tourists to smoke marijuana and hashish in its famed coffee houses, Bogota attracts relatively few recreational drug users.

For one thing, Colombia’s tourism industry is still struggling to overcome the nation’s reputation for war, kidnappings and drug-related violence. And even though people can use small amounts of drugs, purchasing them remains illegal.

Many analysts believe that Uribe’s motives are more rooted in politics than public health.

He first tried to roll back the “personal dose” provision during his 2006 reelection campaign when he ran against Carlos Gaviria, the author of the controversial court ruling. Both Gaviria, who leads a left-wing political party, and Uribe may attempt another run for presidency in the 2010 elections.

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