Colombia Takes Step Towards Drug Decriminalization

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Colombia’s Supreme Court ruled against harsh punishments for small-time drug offenders, in a move towards easing up Colombia’s zero-tolerance drug laws, which have achieved little in the fight against organized crime.

The court ruling, issued Wednesday, goes against a legal decree which essentially prohibited drug possession and consumption in Colombia. After the Constitutional Court ruled in 1994 that users can keep small doses of drugs for personal consumption, the administration of President Alvaro Uribe tried five times to reverse the decision, finally succeeding with the passing of a constitutional amendment in December 2009.

This amendment nullified a previous law which allowed adults to legally possess 20 grams of marijuana, one gram of cocaine and two grams of synthetic drugs for consumption in their own homes. Under the terms of the reform, users arrested with less than 1,000 grams of marijuana and 100 grams of cocaine could face prison terms from 64 to 108 months. This essentially meant that anyone caught with drugs in Colombia could go to prison.

As El Tiempo reports, on August 24 the Supreme Court found that the 2009 amendment violated “personal freedoms,” while considering a case involving a man arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for possessing 80 grams of marijuana. The ruling essentially reaffirms the right of Colombians to carry the “minimum dose” of drugs, as laid out by the Constitutional Court in 1994.

However, it’s worth remembering that even if the 2009 reform is revoked, Colombia will still have some of the most repressive drug policies in the region. The number of people in prison for drug-related offenses grew from 16 percent to 19 percent between 2003 and 2009, meaning there were about 12,600 people incarcerated for drug-related crimes at the end of 2009.

According to a 2010 study by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI), few of these detainees can be considered high-level offenders: that is, the majority of them are small-scale distributors and cultivators, who occupy the bottom rung of the drug-trafficking hierarchy. Although data from Colombia’s main prison authority, known as INPEC, is limited, the report surmises that up to 98 percent of the detainees charged with drug crimes may be small-time offenders. This group includes petty criminals like the “mulas” who smuggle small amounts of ingested drugs across international borders, or the “raspachines” who pick coca leaves.

The Supreme Court’s ruling comes amid renewed debate over how to reform Colombia’s prison system, which is desperately overcrowded and staffed with corrupt guards. The rate of overcrowding in Colombia’s prisons reached nearly 39 percent in 2009, much of it due to the excess number of small-time drug offenders, according to the WOLA and TNI report. A less punitive drug policy — in which individuals are not harshly sentenced for possessing small quantities of drugs — would ease pressure on the prison system and could allow the security forces to prioritize the persecution of large-scale traffickers.

Other countries in the region have been inching towards a relaxation of their drug laws. In Argentina, even though the increased availability of crack cocaine derivatives is becoming a serious problem, the Supreme Court has moved towards more relaxed possession laws, most notably in an August 2009 ruling. Around the same time, Mexico passed the Law Against Small-Scale Drug Dealing (Ley de Narcomenudeo), which mandated drug treatment programs for those caught carrying small quantities of drugs. The most progressive legislation is found in Uruguay, where drug use and possession is not a criminal offense under law.

With their most recent ruling, the Colombian Supreme Court has proved its commitment to upholding the “minimum dose” law — hardly legislation which can be considered progressive, but is still an improvement over the zero-tolerance legislation pushed by the Uribe administration. It is a small step, but an encouraging one, towards a drug policy more similar to the one laid out this year by an international panel, known as the Global Commission, which demanded an end to the criminalization of drug users who “do no harm to others.”

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