Colombia Officials Continue to Signal Major Changes in Drug Policy

Latin America and the Caribbean

On August 22, in the first of ten drug policy forums to be held around the country, Colombian Justice Minister Yesid Reyes expressed his belief that the nation must find "more efficient" policies than prohibition and imprisonment to deal with drug use. "The evaluation that should be made is how much has imprisonment affected the control of drug use and the answer seems to be that its impact is minimal," he said.

Reyes, the son of a Supreme Court judge who was killed in the 1985 rebel attack on the Palace of Justices, began his job as Justice Minister only a few days earlier, on August 11. Nevertheless, Reyes' statement was significant because his appointment by the recently re-inaugurated President Juan Manuel Santos serves as yet another indicator of the administration's commitment to drug policy reform.

President Santos and Justice Minister Reyes at Reyes' swearing in Santos spoke out publicly during his recent reelection campaign about his openness to changes in Colombia's drug policies. Though he has contradicted himself at times, this stance does not appear to be one born purely of political expediency. In 1998, before his career as a national politician really took off, he was one of hundreds of prominent signatories to an open letter addressed to then-Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, which read in part, "We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself."

Under Santos' first administration, Colombia decriminalized personal possession of up to 20 grams of cannabis and one gram of cocaine. A bill endorsed by Santos that would legalize medicinal cannabis is now under consideration in the national legislature and even has the backing of both the Liberal and Conservative parties. Santos, along with former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria, also belongs to a sizable group of Latin American leaders who have supported the idea of shifting away from punitive drug policies in both regional and international forums in recent years.

However, a significant popular movement or public sentiment in favor of ending drug prohibition does not really exist in Colombia. Gang violence, driven largely by the drug trade, is eclipsing the conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other paramilitary groups as the main source of instability in the country.

The FARC have participated in the ongoing peace process in good faith and seem willing to eventually put down their arms. The rebels have also agreed to cooperate with the Colombian government on the drug trade should a final settlement to the conflict be reached. Negotiating with widely-dispersed, sometimes transnational and often-feuding criminal organizations that are usually involved in far more nefarious crimes than drug trafficking simply is not feasible.

Nevertheless, it is important that Santos and his key ministers have openly questioned the efficacy of the "mano dura" ("hard hand") tactics that successive Colombian governments have pursued for decades, not only for Colombia, but for Latin America as a whole. When the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) offered to help Argentina with its growing problems related to the drug trade in May of this year, Security Minister Sergio Berni dismissed the gesture with a harsh comment: the United States "imports drugs and exports death," he said.

Bolivia kicked the DEA out of the country in 2008 and receives only a few thousand dollars annually in anti-narcotics assistance from the United States. Even Uruguay, another country that receives relatively minimal amounts of security assistance but maintains generally amicable relations with the United States, has moved ahead with cannabis legalization despite opposition from Washington and even from a majority of its own population.

By contrast, Colombia is and has long been the United States' biggest ally in the drug war, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance each year and spending 3.4 percent of gross domestic product on its military, more than any other country in the region, comparable to Iraq or the United States. Yet, Colombia still has very high rates of violence and continuing problems with corruption as well as an overflowing prison system.

Many nations - and even some U.S. cities and states - are exploring alternatives to the heavy-handed approach to drug policy pushed by the United States for so long. It's one thing for countries like Argentina and Bolivia to oppose long-standing U.S. policies, but Colombia turning its back on a prohibitive, criminalized approach to drug use would be highly symbolic. If the poster-country for the drug war in Latin America decides that prohibition has failed, will steadfast U.S. drug war partners like MexicoPeru and Honduras follow their lead?