Over past three years, Colombia — once a name practically synonymous with drug war dystopia — has retreated from the brink, de-escalating its generations-long crisis with more tolerant policies. A peace process was opened with the guerillas, and in December 2015 medical marijuana was legalized by presidential decree.
This opened a legal cannabis sector, with Canadian investors especially foreseeing massive exports from a tropical country with a year-round growing season and a legendary reputation for high-quality marijuana.
What had once meant violence and stigma for Colombia is now coming to mean prosperity and prestige. This agenda is moving apace.
Vancouver-based International Cannabis Corp announced in a Nov. 15 press release that its new cultivation facility outside Bogotá had successfully completed its Colombian Agricultural Institute inspection, and is ready to begin producing. The 13-hectare site of “optimal agricultural land” is located in Funza, the heart of the Bogotá savanna, and is operating under a pre-paid 10-year lease. International Cannabis Corp anticipates turning the site into a Colombian Cannabis Park, forecasted to produce between 25,000 and 40,000 kilograms of dried cannabis flower per year. Once “fully optimized,” ICC’s Colombian assets are projected to generate up to 500,000 kilograms of dried flower annually.
Yet all this is unfolding amid a sense of fast retrogression since the inauguration in August of President Iván Duque, who is reviving the hardline policies from before the period of de-escalation under two terms of his predecessor Juan Manuel Santos.
Adios to the ‘Personal Dose’
On Oct. 1, Duque followed through on his pledge to overturn Colombia’s decriminalization policy, which had been in place since 1994. That year, a ruling of the country’s Supreme Court established the right to a “personal dose” even of illegal substances. This was later quantified by the judiciary as 20 grams of cannabis or one gram of cocaine or coca paste. But Duque announced that penalties would be re-imposed and illegal drugs even in these small quantities confiscated.
Duque’s Decree 1844 instructs the National Police (which controls all police forces in Colombia) to begin confiscating and destroying the “personal dose,” and issuing fines of 208,000 pesos — about $65, a substantial sum for Colombia’s poor. Those suspected of holding the erstwhile “personal dose” for dealing purposes (a determination left entirely to the discretion of the officer) may be arrested. The Bogotá weekly Semana wrote that with the issuance of Decree 1844, Duque had declared a new “war” on drugs.
In just the nine days after issuance of the decree, police forces issued over 8,000 tickets, made over 700 arrests, and confiscated more than seven metric tons of illegal drugs (mostly cannabis). The official statistics released by Duque’s new Integral Strategy Against Narco-trafficking were reported by El Colombiano newspaper.
On just the first day of the new policy, police in Barranquilla issued 55 tickets, confiscating 126 grams of cannabis and 75 grams of coca paste, according to the local El Heraldo.
Judiciary Dissents, Trump Approves
Hearteningly, voices from within Colombia’s judiciary have dissented from Duque’s crackdown. The chief justice of the Supreme Court‘s penal chamber, Luis Antonio Hernández, told Semana that “judges are not going to start sending drug consumers to prison like criminals.” He added that “legalizing marijuana would solve half the problems with drug consumption.”
Duque immediately struck back, saying that his return to low-level street busts was “not a whim,” and that the judiciary should be “humble” when discussing his policies.
There was an unsettling sense of deja vu for the bad old days of Washington-directed drug war militarization in Colombia when, just days before issuing his decree, Duque met with Donald Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Duque, of course, approved of the “Global Call” to renew the drug war that Trump unveiled as the General Assembly convened.
And Trump returned the praise in his comments at their joint press conference, gushing that Duque is “very, very powerful against drugs and drug trafficking… [O]ne of the reasons I was so happy to see the president’s victory [was] because of his strong stance on drugs.” But Trump added: “Now, if he comes through, we think he’s the greatest. If he doesn’t come through, he’s just another president of Colombia.” Amid uneasy laughter, he quickly appended: “But I think he’s going to come through. I really do.”
Glyphosate Spraying Back On
Duque has also followed through on his pledge to resume spraying of the herbicide glyphosate on illegal crops, which had been suspended due to health concerns in 2015. This is overwhelmingly aimed at coca leaf, but cannabis is a target of the eradication campaigns as well. The new “fumigation” program (this time carried out by drone rather than bush-plane, which supposedly allows for more accurate targeting) commenced in mid-October in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia department.
Duque says he intends to reduce by 70 percent the 170,000 hectares of Colombian territory currently planted with illegal crops over the source of his four-year term. Noting the pressure from Washington for an aggressive eradication campaign, Semana commented that U.S.-Colombia relations have been “re-narco-tized.”
But the spraying is meeting with resistance from many of Colombia’s departmental governors. “To fumigate is not the solution,” Caquetá’s Gov. Álvaro Pacheco protested, calling instead for social investment to wean rural communities off illegal crops. Nariño’s Gov. Camilo Romero asserted that by failing to take adequate measures to protect the health of those on the ground, the new fumigation program violates last year’s ruling of the Constitutional Court that allowed spraying to resume.
Actual physical resistance to forced eradication by the impacted campesino communities is apparently being met with pre-emptive terror. Nov. 12 saw the latest mysterious slaying of a local leader of the National Coordinator of Coca, Opium and Marijuana Producers (COCCAM). Héctor Fabio Almairo was assassinated by unknown gunmen on a motorcycle (a standard method for Colombian sicarios) in his home pueblo of La Macarena, in Meta department. He had been leading protests to demand restitution from the government for eradicated coca and cannabis crops.
Late September also saw protests in San José del Fragua village, in Caquetá department, with hundreds of local campesinos, including women and children, blocking roads to keep out National Police eradication teams. The protesters charged that forced eradication violates the peace accords with the FARC rebels, which mandates that communities must be consulted and consent to all drug crop eradication.
Will Colombia follow Canada?
Some are holding out hope that the tide of history is against Duque, and his retrogression will prove temporary. The International Drug Policy Consortium‘s recent report assailing the global drug war as an expensive failure was co-authored by the Colombian human rights attorney Isabel Pereira Arana. Her organization Dejusticia has long documented rights abuses associated with drug enforcement in Colombia.
Discussing Duque’s new hardline posture in an interview with El Espectador, Pereira Arana said: “It is encouraging that a country like Canada… has started to undertake the regulation of recreational cannabis. I believe many nations will follow this example, because we are seeing that to waste so much money on prohibiting a consumption that is much less risky than alcohol makes no sense, and that this money can be invested in health or education.”
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