Colombia’s President Ivan Duque is taking a step backward on drug policy. The newly elected hard-right conservative president, following through on anti-drug campaign pledges, plans to sign a decree that will allow police to confiscate small amounts of drugs from consumers.
“In the next few days, I will be signing the decree that will allow the police to confiscate any dose of drugs that is on the streets of Colombia,” said Duque from New York, in a workshop known as Building Country in which he met with hundreds of Colombians in Queens.
Since 1994, Colombia has decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana meant for personal consumption. The president’s decree would enable police to confiscate any drug consumed in public. The decree would not allow police to fine or arrest people caught with small doses of drugs — although Duque’s Defense Minister has floated the unconstitutional idea.
Taking a stand against progress
Countries such as Mexico are rewriting drug laws while they step back from repressive policies in favor of measures such as regulating marijuana and poppy cultivation. Duque, on the other hand, wants to defy this global trend and return to repressive drug policies.
According to Colombia’s Constitutional Court, the possession of drugs like marijuana and cocaine is permitted as long as the drugs are for personal consumption. It is unclear whether the court will ratify the presidential decree or declare the order unconstitutional.
Earlier this month, riot police violently disrupted a "smoke-a-thon" in the nation’s capital, Bogota, that was organized to defend recreational marijuana use. According to Reuters, minutes after the marijuana cigarettes were lit, the riot police descended upon the crowd to disperse them with force.
The ban on the possession of marijuana will take effect immediately upon the president’s signature.
Trump approves of new anti-drug measures
Speaking earlier this week to the United Nations at the “Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem” event, President Donald Trump praised Duque for winning his election based on his anti-drug platform. The US president pledged to work with Duque to “eradicate coca” (the plant-based precursor to cocaine) at the global event.
“Today, we commit to fighting the drug epidemic together,” Trump said. “All of us must work together to dismantle drug production and defeat drug addiction.”
In 2017, Trump blasted Colombia’s former President Juan Manuel Santos as cocaine production had reached all-time record levels. Colombia is the world’s top producer of cocaine, which is primarily consumed in the United States and Europe.
With Duque, Trump can count on more Colombian support for a hard-line approach on drug traffickers, including the forced eradication of coca, and the aerial spraying of Monsanto glyphosate over coca-growing regions.
The Colombian government suspended controversial aerial spraying program, supported by the U.S.’s $10 billion program Plan Colombia, due to concerns after The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined that glyphosate, which a widely used chemical in industrial agriculture, is “probably carcinogenic.”
The forced eradication and aerial spraying programs carried out by the government authorities and U.S. private contractors destroyed food crops and livelihoods in remote, underdeveloped regions of the country where illicit crops like coca, poppy, and marijuana are the only economically viable crops.
Under pressure from the United States to lower cocaine production, the Colombian government announced in June that security forces would begin using remote-controlled aircraft, popularly known as drones, to resume the aerial spraying of herbicides to destroy coca cultivations.
The problem with Duque’s anti-drug platform is that there is strong evidence that his top political patron, former President Alvaro Uribe, owes his wealth and political fortunes in large part to his country’s involvement in illicit drug trafficking.
Uribe, who is arguably Colombia’s most powerful politician, handpicked Duque to run in the last election on the ballot for the far-right political party Centro Democratico. However, declassified U.S. cables released in May strongly suggest that Uribe was an associate of the now-defunct Medellin Cartel, who operated under the infamous drug-trafficker Pablo Escobar and allegedly funded Uribe’s early political career.
Criminal investigations against Uribe have been hampered by violence targeting police, journalists, prosecutors and judges alike. A witness connected to a criminal investigation of Uribe was murdered on April 14, 2018, and other witnesses have been threatened, according to Human Rights Watch.
In addition to investigations into witness tampering, conspiracy and murder, the Supreme Court is investigating Uribe for his alleged involvement in the formation of paramilitary groups while governor of the Antioquia province. Alvaro Uribe's brother Santiago Uribe is also under investigation for his role in leading a death squad known as the “Twelve Apostles”.
The death squad, or paramilitary group, was put together to engage in so-called “social cleansing,” where they threatened, displaced and executed alleged criminals, drug users, and Communist rebel collaborators in a rural area outside of the country’s second-largest city Medellin.
Paramilitary groups, in collusion with the military, corrupt politicians and large landowners have played a prominent role in Colombia’s armed conflict. The paramilitaries are the country’s top drug trafficking organizations and human right abusers.
Colombian paramilitary organizations have benefited from extensive ties to Colombia’s political powerhouses, commonly known as “parapolitics,” and businesses, a practice called “para-economics.”
Colombian Medical Marijuana on the Horizon
While Colombia’s president aims to stigmatize recreational marijuana users, the country’s business leaders are eying a potentially multi-billion-dollar opportunity with the increasing worldwide acceptance of medical marijuana.
According to US News & World Report, Colombia has already issued 33 medical marijuana growing licenses and hopes to grow as much as 40.5 tons a year of medical marijuana - accounting for roughly 44 percent of licenses issued globally.
Due to favorable year-long growing climate combined with rich soils and ample rainfall, Colombian growers estimate that the Andean nation could capture as much as one-fifth of a global market for legal marijuana, which some estimate could be worth up to $40 billion a year.
"We're just realizing marijuana's potential. It could be the next economic bonanza - like coffee was," said Romairo Aguirre to US News.