Colombia Adds Voice to Discontent Over US Marijuana Legalization

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The fallout from the decision by two US states to legalize marijuana continued, with two top Colombian officials condemning the United States for having a contradictory approach to regional drug policy.

In a recent interview with El Tiempo, Colombia’s National Police chief, Jose Roberto Leon Riaño, took an unfavorable view of the November 6 passing of ballots in two US states — Colorado and Washington — to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

Leon stated that the issue was discussed during the recent visit of US Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough to Colombia, adding, “an explanation was requested (from the United States) as to why they had legalized [marijuana] in two states while we [Colombians] are still dying in the fight against drug trafficking. This is an issue that [the United States] should review.”

The police chief’s comments came just a few days after the Colombia president, Juan Manuel Santos, issued a stinging condemnation of US anti-narcotics policy. “There are enormous contradictions,” he declared, highlighting the hypocrisy in having to tell Colombian marijuana growers that they face prison while a user in Colorado can happily “smoke a joint” without any repercussions.

Colombia is one of South America’s largest producers of marijuana. In the first nine months of 2012, authorities seized some 208 tons of the drug, the majority of it coming from the southern province of Cauca. Though Colombia was once a major supplier to the US market, this has now changed, with much of the production for US consumption being based domestically, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2012 World Drug Report.

On December 6, the possession of one ounce (28.34 grams) of marijuana officially became legal in Washington state. Colorado followed by signing it into state law four days later. Though possession is legal in both states, smoking in public is not.

InSight Crime Analysis

Criticism from Colombia’s president and police chief add to a growing chorus of discontent in Latin America over the decision to legalize marijuana in two US states. The head of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s transition team stated before the new administration took office on December 1 that Mexico would have to review its anti-drug policies. “Obviously we can’t treat a product as illegal in Mexico and try to prevent it being trafficking to the United States when it has legal status there,” he said.

In mid-November, the leaders of Mexico, Belize and Honduras joined together to call for extensive analysis into the possible ramifications of the Colorado and Washington votes for the region, with then-Mexico President Felipe Calderon declaring the votes to be a “paradigm shift” in international drug policy.

Colombia itself has some of the regions more progressive laws when it comes to drug policy. The country’s Constitutional Court ruled in June that the personal possession of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine be decriminalized. Though people caught with the legally permitted amount, they can still be ordered to undergo treatment for drug addiction depending on their level of abuse, thus making it different from legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington. The director of Colombia’s tax agency, DIAN, recently stated that imposing a system of regulation on marijuana sales whereby the state can tax it would help fund such treatment programs.

President Santos has stated on a number of occasions that he would be open to drug legalization if it was an initiative enacted globally, and has called for debate on the issue of global drug policy. His decision to openly criticize the United States for its hypocrisy in propagating a punitive drug policy abroad while allowing leniency in certain areas at home will serve to up the pressure on the United States for their continued opposition to any kind of change in the existing paradigm.

[See InSight Crime’s map on regional drug policy positions]

Though criticism of the US is growing, the federal government there, for its part, has stated that it will continue to treat marijuana as an illegal substance, regardless of state laws. It has so far not been forthcoming about how it will respond to legalization, however. Among the options open to it are an increase in federal agents in Colorado and Washington, the closing down of marijuana dispensaries, or tackling the measure in the courts. 

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