Colombia Eliminates Fine For Drug Possession As Lawmakers Push For Urgent Marijuana Legalization Vote Before End-Of-Year Deadline

As Colombia’s government moves to fully legalize drug possession by removing an existing fine and the ability for police to seize substances, lawmakers are urging immediate Senate action on a marijuana legalization and regulation bill before a deadline that would require them to start the legislative process over again next year.

The cannabis legislation has received three of eight required debates so far—moving through the full Chamber of Representatives before being approved by a Senate committee late last month. It needs to advance on the Senate floor before the end of the year in order to stay alive for the two-year process.

Sen. María José Pizarro, who is carrying the cannabis bill in her chamber, said she’s pushing for plenary consideration of the legislation on Tuesday. If lawmakers fail to act, the reform is at risk of “sinking” again, the senator said, according to a translation.

“The project that seeks to regularize cannabis for adult use faces a crucial moment, as it is at risk of sinking if it is not scheduled for debate in the Senate plenary before the legislative recess,” she said.

The last day of this year’s session is December 16, meaning the Senate only has until Saturday to approve the bill.

“The regulation of cannabis is the first step to building a much more reasonable policy, one that has prevention and public health at the center and that helps dismantle the enormous social conflict that the prohibition generated,” Rep. Juan Carlos Losada, who is championing legalization in the Chamber of Representatives, said.

“This debate needs more arguments and much less prejudice,” he said, responding to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez, who is criticizing the current government’s broader drug decriminalization reform. “With better information, better decisions are made. I am open to whenever I want to give the debate with dignity and face the country.”

Lawmakers nearly enacted a version of the legalization measure into law earlier this year, but it stalled out in the final stage in the Senate last session, meaning the two-year legislative process for constitutional amendments needed to start over again.

At a public hearing in the Senate panel last year, Justice Minister Néstor Osuna said that Colombia has been the victim of “a failed war that was designed 50 years ago and, due to absurd prohibitionism, has brought us a lot of blood, armed conflict, mafias and crime.”

Meanwhile, the administration of President Gustavo Petro issued an executive decree on Saturday that eliminates the $50 fine for possessing small amounts of drugs and removes the ability of police to seize them, building on a broader decriminalization policy enacted under an earlier Constitutional Court ruling.

“Be careful, do not be fooled by misinformers. The only thing the government has done is repeal the fine for carrying personal doses because the courts indicated so,” Petro said on Saturday. “Everything else remains the same. The prohibition of consumption in public places must be established by each municipality. This is also a mandate from the constitutional court that we abide by and with which we agree.”

Pizarro and Losado, the sponsors of the marijuana legalization bill, also weighed in on that drug policy reform development

Losado said that a 2018 decree that imposed fines for possession of certain amounts of drugs was already deemed unconstitutional because it “ignored jurisprudence and violated fundamental rights.”

Pizarro, meanwhile, called on people to stop spreading “misinformation” about the fine elimination, stating that court precedent has established the decriminalization of possession for years, but the government “will continue to hit, without delay, the drug traffickers and mafias that have control of narcotics.”

After a recent visit to the U.S., the Colombian president recalled smelling the odor of marijuana wafting through the streets of New York City, remarking on the “enormous hypocrisy” of legal cannabis sales now taking place in the nation that launched the global drug war decades ago.

Petro also took a lead role at the Latin American and Caribbean Conference on Drugs in September, noting Colombia and Mexico “are the biggest victims of this policy,” likening the drug war to “a genocide.”

Last year, Petro delivered a speech at a meeting of the United Nations (UN), urging member nations to fundamentally change their approaches to drug policy and disband with prohibition.

He’s also talked about the prospects of legalizing marijuana in Colombia as one means of reducing the influence of the illicit market. And he signaled that the policy change should be followed by releasing people who are currently in prison over cannabis.

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Image element courtesy of Bryan Pocius.

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