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In Colombia, another sort of drug debate

Colombia's teetotaling president tries to tighten drug laws.

A demonstrator smokes marijuana during a protest in Medellin against a proposed penalty for the consumption of small amounts of drugs in Colombia March 26, 2009. (Albeiro Lopera/Reuters)

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.