Colombia's legalization movement

Enthusiasm for US war plans for Columbia increasingly appears to be directly related to distance from the conflict. While Washington is beating the war drums in preparation for a formal announcement that it is prepared to extend its counter-drug mission to include counterinsurgency activities - which would be the first official acknowledgment that US policy in Colombia is to defeat not only the drug trade but also the leftist guerrillas - in Colombia the legalization chorus grows louder by the day.

As DRCNet reported last August, senators in the Colombian congress introduced bills calling for the legalization of drug use and the drug trade, an end to aerial fumigation of drug crops, and the decriminalization of subsistence-size drug plots. But the legalization brush fires have spread beyond the dissident senators. As first reported in English by Al Giordano's Narco News (, both the assembly of Colombian governors and the Andean Parliament, which consists of representatives from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela, have moved to put legalization squarely on the table. Colombian presidential candidates and other leading political figures are picking up on the same theme.

Colombian governors meeting at the 31st General Assembly of Governors in Paipa, Boyaca, on August 23 passed a resolution calling on the Colombian government to lead an international great debate on legalizing drugs.

"We cannot keep our heads between our legs and continue with the same strategies of 30 years ago," said Guillermo Gaviria, governor of Antioquia and president of the National Assembly of States. "Colombia must lead the discussion of the issue on the international stage to commit all the countries of the world without hypocrisy or double standards," El Espectador (Bogota) reported. "There are no magic solutions, and legalization is not necessarily the solution, but I believe in controlled legalization," he said.

Amazona's Governor Hernando Emilio Zambrano agreed. "The entire world is asking for this solution [the legalization of drugs] because we know this is the only way to end the high price," he said.

Further pressure to consider legalizing the drug trade emerged a week earlier from the Andean Parliament, ending its 28th conference in Bogota on August 17. The parliament called on its members to open debate on the regulation of the drug trade in the congresses of their respective countries.

"We have to stop speaking in whispers and confront the issue frankly," said Peruvian congressman Carlos Infanta, who headed the parliamentary commission concerned with drugs. "There are authoritative opinions, including in the United States, that are proposing legalization, and it is not possible that we in the Andes would be more Catholic than the Pope."

Venezuelan congressman Mario Arias, vice-chair of the parliament's drug commission, said that while he did not personally favor legalization, he did support a debate on the topic, and that the debate should be extended to the US. Members of the parliament should take advantage of the presence of US congressmen at the Andean Summit on Drug Trafficking in Caracas at the end of September to press the US politicians to "propose the discussion in their country," El Tiempo (Bogota) reported.

Colombian presidential candidate Luis Eduardo Garzon of the Social and Political Front came out for legalization in an address to the Colombian chamber of commerce, meeting in Cartagena. He told the assembled businessmen that "the best way to end this problem and the war it has brought us is to legalize drugs," according to El Colombiano (Medellin).

While Garzon's chances of winning the presidency next May are slight, former Interior Minister Horacio Serpa of the Liberal Party is leading the early polls. In late August, Serpa slammed Plan Colombia as a failure. "There is more cocaine being produced, more trafficking, and larger areas under cultivation," he wrote in an editorial in Cambio magazine. "New and alternative formulas are needed, along with a recognition that the counter-drug policies applied to date have been a failure."

Former President Ernesto Samper also joined the legalization chorus in an interview with the Dallas Morning News in August. "The problem is the law of the marketplace is overtaking the law of the state," he said. "We have to ask, is legalization the way out of this? We cannot continue to fight this war alone. If the consuming nations do nothing to curb demand, to control money-laundering, to halt the flow of chemicals that supply the drug-production labs, then in a few short years the world is going to see legalization as the answer."

And, in what must have felt like a sucker punch to the beleaguered government of President Andres Pastrana, the head of his own Conservative Party, Carlos Holguien Sardi, revealed that he had been a closet legalizer for years. He told El Tiempo a national agreement must be reached so that Colombia can begin diplomatic efforts with the international community to arrive at workable formulas for legalization of the drug trade. This would be "a very large task," he said. "The world believes that repression is the better way to fight against this plague," but a more realistic policy would treat it as a public health problem, he added.

The Pastrana government has attempted to fend off the rising clamor, but has not succeeded. Interior Minister Armando Estrada Villa told the governors that "the government is radically opposed to the legalization of drugs, considering it an inopportune and noxious project for the national interest," El Pais (Cali) reported. But even Estrada Villa conceded that the government does not reject a possible debate on the topic, provided that it comes in the context of "interdiction, fumigation, and institutional strengthening, which are issues of high concern to the executive branch."

Yet even as more and more sectors of the Colombian political class come to reject drug prohibition and the role it has played in fueling the country's decades-long guerrilla war, the US appears on the verge of formally expanding what it has described as solely a counter-drug effort into an explicit military intervention against the leftist rebels of the FARC and the smaller ELN. While the US has long complained that the guerrillas benefit from the drug trade, such a policy shift would put the US in a direct confrontation with the rebels and likely spell the end of the slow-moving peace negotiations between President Pastrana and the FARC.

A delegation of officials including Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, commander of US military forces in the region General Peter Pace, and various other officials from the State Department, Justice Department, and the Pentagon, arrived in Colombia as part of a review of US/Colombia policy and to pave the way for a visit by Secretary of State Powell in September. Colin Powell was forced to return to the US following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.