Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Is Duque Pursuing the Right Anti-Drug Policies?

Colombian President Iván Duque is cracking down on possession of illegal drugs in public. // File Photo: Colombian Government. Colombian President Iván Duque is cracking down on possession of illegal drugs in public. // File Photo: Colombian Government.

Colombian President Iván Duque this month signed a decree that outlaws the possession of even small amounts of marijuana and cocaine in public, allowing authorities to confiscate the drugs and impose fines. Duque’s order followed statements that Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo made in September at the Inter-American Dialogue in which he said the Duque administration would work very closely with the United States on anti-drug efforts, such as eradication of coca plants. Is Colombia’s government pursuing the right anti-drug policies? What will such policies mean for drug consumption trends in Colombia? Will Duque’s latest order lead to abuses by police, as his critics have argued?

Hannah Hetzer, senior international policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance:“President Duque’s decree that allows for Colombian police to search individuals and confiscate their drugs outright ignores the 1994 Constitutional Court case that deemed it impermissible for the government to imprison people for drug use and allowed for the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. Duque’s decree is an infringement on personal liberty, gives police leeway to engage in unnecessary searches, thereby increasing the potential for police abuse, and does nothing to stop the drug trade or the violence associated with it. Stigmatization and criminalization of drug use does not work to decrease drug consumption, nor does it provide people who are struggling with the treatment or support they need. Instead, criminalization is an unnecessary use of police resources and increases prison overcrowding, which is already an issue in Colombia and throughout much of Latin America. Duque is clearly trying to return to a more hardline, repressive stance on drugs, including punishing people who use drugs and emphasizing the eradication of coca plants. These approaches have been tried before, and they do not work to reduce drug use or cultivation. Instead of aligning himself with the Trump administration, Duque should learn from other countries that are moving away from drug policies based on punishment and repression, and embrace approaches that focus on health, human rights and development. The Constitutional Court declared that Colombians have a right to possess small amounts of drugs for personal use, and Duque and the Colombian police should respect that right.”

Barry R. McCaffrey, president of BR McCaffrey Associates, a retired U.S. Army four-star general and former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy: “Colombian President Iván Duque’s Oct. 1 decree that outlaws public possession of pot and cocaine is a sensible and small measure that will have some modest benefit, adding to social disapproval of a drugged lifestyle. Colombians should be confident that it will attract endless yowls of outrage from the drug legalization community, which they should ignore. There is a clever global drug legalization movement to make acceptable the consumption of illegal drugs. Medical pot from a scientific sense is a health care fraud, but politically, it is brilliant. Who wants to deprive a ‘sick person’ of their smoked pot ‘medicine?’ This legalization effort will help produce a disaster of growing adolescent use, stoned driving and work conditions and increases in polydrug use. The legalization community is well organized and funded and winning. The Colombian people fortunately have enormous collective courage. The peace accord with the FARC is unraveling and must be recast. Violence cannot be suppressed without jobs and economic renewal. Cocaine production is skyrocketing. Colombia is being buried in desperate Venezuelan refugees fleeing the misery of the Maduro government. In the midst of all these challenges, the Colombian government deserves the political and economic support of its allies in the OAS and specifically the U.S. government. We should not be drawn into a nonsense discussion of Colombia’s sensible efforts to minimize the social acceptance of drug possession.”

Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution:“The Duque government’s drug policy in Colombia is taking on a progressively ominous and counterproductive direction. It threatens to undermine the incomplete and struggling peace process, misdirect law enforcement resources, augment the alienation of coca farmers from the state and undermine human rights and drug users’ access to health services in Colombia. With their emphasis on criminalization of even drug possession for personal use and forced eradication, the announced policies clearly cater to the Trump administration’s doctrinaire and discredited drug policy preferences that harken back to the 1980s. But without sustainable livelihoods already in place, forced eradication will not sustainably reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production. The dominance of zero-coca thinking in Colombia whereby a community has to eradicate all coca first before it starts receiving even meager assistance from the state never produced positive results in Colombia. At a time when the peace process is fragile, the Colombian government should work hard to strengthen the bond between the state and rural populations, not push them further away. The institutional reshuffle regarding land titling and local development programs the Duque administration is also planning equally signals a deeply concerning weakening of equitable rural livelihood efforts. Spraying coca with drones may achieve greater logistical access to coca fields, but it won’t resolve matters of legitimacy and sustainability of the drug strategy. Criminalizing marijuana and personal drug possession flies in the face of decades of lessons of drug policy and global trends to decriminalize marijuana and stop punishing users. Critically, it misdirects Colombia’s law enforcement forces from the fundamental focus on Colombia’s violent ‘bandas criminales’ and drug trafficking groups. It threatens to undermine the hard-won increase in the effectiveness and legitimacy of Colombia’s police forces.”

Maria Velez de Berliner, managing director of RTG-Red Team Group, Inc.:“Duque is under pressure from the Trump administration, which insists on the elimination of coca plantings and cocaine processing, and he faces increasing levels of addiction and growing micro-trafficking with its attendant high levels of violence. The recriminalization of the personal dose is like putting a bandage over a metastasizing tumor because drug use is so endemic that police have confiscated more than six tons of personal doses since recriminalization. Recriminalization does little to curtail the ‘narcotized economy’ upon which many Colombians depend for daily subsistence. Criminalizing the use of the personal dose will incentivize ingrained police abuse and corruption. No matter how many ‘comparendos’ (legal citations) police issue and fines they levy, drugs will continue to be used publicly until the government can implement dependable, viable and reliable alternatives to the drug economy. Colombia’s history of marijuana, cocaine and heroin is a case study in the economic, social, political and cultural costs associated with prohibition and criminalization, not to mention the violence and economic distortions drugs cause. Colombia needs to establish and implement, nationwide and across all social strata, improvements in the skills pool. This includes fostering entrepreneurship and learning to tolerate, not malign, entrepreneurial failure. The country also must raise productivity and competitiveness in the agricultural, services, commercial and industrial sectors, while building dependable infrastructure and offering healthier opportunities for recreation, employment and effective professional advancement than it does today. However, Colombia does not have the resources to do so. The Trump administration, which could help financially, is focused on supply-side remedies whose history of failure is well documented.”

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