Colombian lawmakers have said no to legal cannabis.
On November 3, the lower house of Congress rejected a bill to regulate the adult use of cannabis in the country. The legislation, which was filed by Reps. Juan Fernando Reyes Kuri and Juan Carlos Losada of the Liberal Party, sought to end prohibition in order to cut back on crime and support a public health-focused approach to drug policy.
The measure that failed in a 102 to 52 vote at the plenary of the House of Representatives amended article 49 of Colombia’s Constitution, which states that carrying and consuming narcotic or psychotropic substances is prohibited, except under a doctor’s prescription. The bill would have allowed non-medical consumers to acquire cannabis and its derivatives at stores instead of getting it illegally.
“This draft bill would open our country to a number of opportunities that we haven’t taken advantage of,” Reyes Kuri told Cannabis Wire. “While other countries like the United States are legalizing it and using it to receive income via taxes and generate employment, we are not taking advantage of the economic opportunity associated with cannabis, especially after the COVID-19 crisis.”
The House debate revealed a sharp split between left and right lawmakers around regulating cannabis for adult use.
Supporters of the draft bill focused on the measures that Colombia has taken to curb illegal drug production and consumption, which, they say, have cost lives and dollars and have still failed to stop production and use.
Reyes Kuri said the bill would begin to end the drug war and would pursue effective solutions to the demand for cannabis. “The fight against cannabis has not been successful, and if we accept that, we have to dare to regulate,” he said at the congressional debate.
Colombia’s cannabis industry could generate tax revenue of 1.2 to 3 billion pesos (between 350 and 800 million US dollars) annually, according to Reyes Kuri. He also highlighted that a study by Fedesarrollo, an economic and social policy research institute, indicates that cultivating 470 hectares (about 1,161 acres) of cannabis by 2025 could generate 7,700 jobs for the country.
“We could become the first world producer,” he said, noting Colombia´s equatorial climate, which, with 12 hours of daylight all year round, is ideal for cannabis cultivation, as well as the country’s skilled agricultural workforce and cheap land.
During the hearing, Juan Carlos Losada, who also promoted the bill, also pointed out that the legislation would be a step toward ending drug trafficking in Colombia.
“If there is one nation that has been stigmatized throughout this planet it has been ours because of drug trafficking, and drug trafficking exists only as a consequence of that policy called prohibition,” he said.
Meanwhile, opponents of the proposed cannabis legislation appealed to the protection of children and argued that cannabis can have negative health effects.
Jose Jaime Uscátegui, Representative of the right-wing Democratic Center Party, celebrated that the initiative lacked enough support to pass.
“We want to start an experiment that, in my opinion, is dangerous,” said Uscátegui during the debate in Congress. “We’re speaking of recreational consumption as if marijuana was something good, but it’s poison like every other drug.”
After six hours of debate, the draft cannabis bill was ultimately voted down by right-wing legislators, most of them belonging to the Democratic Center, the government’s ruling party, which has been a major roadblock for cannabis legalization.
On Sept. 16, the first committee of the Lower House approved the first debate of the bill with a narrow vote of 19-17, allowing it to move forward to the plenary. Still seven congressional debates away from becoming law, as eight are required for constitutional amendments, its prospects were very slim.
“The number of lawmakers willing to give this debate with an open mind, has been growing,” Reyes Kuri told Cannabis Wire. “But it is still not enough.”
Even though Colombia has a comprehensive law regulating the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes, its non-medical use faces resistance from President Ivan Duque’s political fractions and other conservative forces in Congress.
And, regulation of drugs, including cannabis, is not popular among Colombians, which polling reflects.
According to a Gallup survey, 72 percent of Colombians are against “legalizing drug trafficking and consumption.”
Another bill that regulates cannabis for adult use that was introduced a year ago is being processed in the Senate. Although it has the support of several lawmakers, including some that belong to center-right parties, it does not promise much success either.
Reyes Kuri says that even though the recent cannabis debate has laid a strong foundation to build on, it will be a while before cannabis for adult use is regulated in the country.
“I think that this is not going to be the legislative period when the regulation will be approved,” he said. “It will possibly be the next Congress that elects younger, more liberal lawmakers who are more willing to put up these fights.”