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.
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 (www.narconews.com),
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,"
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
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.