Connect to share and comment

In Colombia, another sort of drug debate

Colombia's teetotaling president tries to tighten drug laws.

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.

Read more about recreational drugs:

The buzz in Japan

A real trip

Clash of the cartels: a guide