The end of the war on drugs?

A new bill on the table that seeks to liberalize Colombian drug policy is sure to fire up the decriminalization debate.

By: Mat Youkee

“It’s like making fine champagne and then using it to cook with,” says one Canadian cannabis

entrepreneur as he rolls a particularly potent and fragrant joint stuffed full of product from his Colombian operation. Since Congress passed Law 1787 in May 2016, the parameters of the industry have been clearly defined by the provision that cannabis flower cannot be commercialized. It must first be converted into a medicinal product or an intermediary state for local or international sale. Instagram photos of colorful, crystal- rich buds from Colombian projects have stoners salivating, but none can be sold on.

A roadmap to recreational decriminalization and the opening up of a domestic market is slowly taking shape, however, even if the process could take several years. On July 23, a coalition of congressmen from across the political spectrum and headed by Gustavo Bolívar of the Coalición Lista Decentes party announced a package of nine reforms targeted to liberalize Colombian drug policy. The content of the bill and its origins are key to understanding its chances of success and its possible impact on the Colombian cannabis sector.

A FAILED WAR: The proposals are a reflection of Colombia’s intractable struggle against illegal drugs and the high costs of prohibition. “I’m no marijuanero [stoner], this project was born from the necessity to end the war on drugs,” Bolívar told CCI from his office in Congress. “If we take the business away from narcos, we can invest those funds in prevention and development, and put an end to the violence and corruption drug money finances.” The US government has spent an estimated USD$1 trillion fighting the “War on Drugs” since the 1970s, including USD$10 billion for the 15-year “Plan Colombia” military aid program designed to cut Colombia’s cocaine production in half from 2000 to 2006. The human cost – in murders, kidnappings and displacement – has been even higher.

Yet in 2017 Colombia produced its largest ever crop of coca, the raw ingredient in cocaine. Attempts to control the supply of the drug are ineffective when demand – principally in North America and Europe – continues to soar. The philosophy of the reform package is that it is better to end drug prohibition and deal with the consequences of potential increased addiction issues as a health problem, rather than continue to treat it as a security issue, spending state resources, enriching criminals and destroying lives.

“If we take the business away from narcos, we can invest those funds in prevention and development, and put an end to the violence and corruption drug money finances.”

- Gustavo Bolívar

Bolívar points to the success of Portugal, where all drugs were decriminalized in 2001 and where drugs related deaths have fallen precipitously. The current bill does not propose legalization of cocaine, but Bolívar believes a flourishing legal marijuana industry could provide a true alternative to coca cultivation in the Colombian countryside.

“Maybe it’s a little Utopian, but the dream is to put an end to coca through a system where rural growers can grow legal marijuana safely and profitably,” he says. Taxes from the expanded legal cannabis industry could be used to pay for post-conflict rural development with a proportion siphoned towards addiction treatment. The reform project is not a “stoner’s charter”, nor is its primary motivation the extension of personal liberties. It is a pragmatic approach aimed at tackling violence and corruption in Colombia.

The reform project is not a “stoner’s charter”, nor is its primary motivation the extension of personal liberties. It is a pragmatic approach aimed at tackling violence and corruption in Colombia.

THE DEFINITIVE ARTICLE: The first step for Bolívar and his allies is to promote a change to Article 49 of the constitution. “It’s Article 49 which prohibits the recreational use of drugs. Once we lift it we can introduce a number of proposals that would have been unconstitutional previously,” says Bolívar. Those proposals include the creation of consumption centers for registered marijuana users, a full ban on glyphosate used in the spraying of coca crops, the immunization of small scale coca farmers from prosecution by the state and measures to provide medical and psychological assistance to addicts.

The proposals would open the door to the commercialization of recreational cannabis, but Bolívar is adamant that the benefits should flow to those most affected by the war on drugs: the campesinos (rural poor).

“We don’t want to repeat the situation in the medical marijuana space where the licenses often fell to rich landowners with close ties to the government. We want at least 50% of licenses to go to campesinos,” he says. “We need international expertise and investment.” Under current legislation companies with cannabis fabrication licenses are required to source 10% of their product from small growers. However, this process remains untested and many LPs are concerned that the rule – while well intentioned – could be difficult to implement in practice.

DIFFICULT PASSAGE: The obstacles to passing the bill into law are daunting. Bolívar is no stranger to unlikely successes – as a screenwriter he won international stardom for his soap opera Without Breasts There is no Paradise – and he has recruited support for the bill from across party divides. These include influential legislators in the Liberal Party, Cambio Radical, Alianza Verde, Partido de la U and even the FARC, the former guerrilla group turned political party. The bill has the support of 12 members of the 22-seat First Senate Commission which decides whether proposed constitutional amendments can be put to lawmakers.

“Once we make it past the Commission, this bill will become a national news story and the effect of public opinion will come into play,” says Bolívar. “That’s the stage when we show the positive statistics coming out of Portugal, Colorado and California, we provide our parliamentarians with the tools to defend the bill and the project begins to snowball.”

Nevertheless, a major swing in voting intentions would still be required. The ruling coalition, headed by the Democratic Centre party and the Conservative party, controls 83 seats of the 172-seat House of Representatives and 54 of the 108 seats in the Senate. Since coming to power, president Iván Duque has taken a tough stance on personal drug consumption, opening up prosecution for possession of small quantities of drugs.

“You’ll never get the Democratic Centre to agree, this bill is dead in the water,” says Sergio Gúzman, Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a consultancy firm. “Duque’s base are social conservatives and evangelical Christians and they want to do the exact opposite [of decriminalization].” In fact, public relations professionals told CCI that they were advising their medicinal cannabis clients not to comment on the current bill. To bring attention to themselves with relation to recreational marijuana could potentially lead to a backlash from a government that has been less than enthusiastic about the industry over the course of the last year.

A glimmer of hope remains. In October Colombia will hold regional elections for governors of the country’s 32 departments and mayors of 1,099 municipalities.

With voters frustrated by a lacklustre first year in power, a poor showing from the government could result in a change in tack, according to Gúzman. “If the Democratic Centre performs well in October, they will see it as a mandate to become even more conservative, but if they do badly they might open up to across-the- aisle projects. Decriminalization will remain a tough sell, but reforms to promote the medicinal industry, making the regulatory process less onerous, may be possible.”

HOLD ON: Amongst Colombia’s start- up cannabis firms there is a great deal of regulatory speculation. While five or six big players with foreign backers plow ahead to build world class medicinal marijuana facilities, the best hope for many smaller players may be for a change in the rules. One license holder told CCI that he hoped to keep his head above water for five years, long enough for his competitors to die off and for federal legalization of medicinal marijuana in the US to stoke a new wave of investment.

In Bogotá and Medellín (unsubstantiated) rumors that the government might loosen regulations to allow the export of dry flower continue to stoke entrepreneurial ambition.

Bolívar’s attempt to decriminalize recreational marijuana is highly unlikely to pass into law under the current government. But the debate – about the failure of the war on drugs, the true health benefits of cannabis and the economic benefits the industry could bring to the countryside – is set to truly begin.