Second thoughts: Colombians consider decriminalizing drug trade

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Long dismissed as the stuff of dope smokers' fantasies, the idea of decriminalizing the production and use of drugs appears to be winning support across Colombia, prompted in part by a U.S.-backed attack on the nation's illicit drug crops.

The movement favoring a reduction or elimination of criminal penalties for people involved in the drug trade is rapidly gaining support from mainstream opinion makers and high-powered Colombian politicians, although few are willing to predict whether it will produce any marked change in the war on drugs.

"The problem is that the law of the marketplace is overtaking the law of the state. We have to ask, is legalization a way out of this?" former President Ernesto Samper said in an interview.

"We cannot continue to fight this war alone. If the consuming nations do nothing to curb demand, to control money laundering, to halt the flow of chemicals that supply the drug-production labs, then in a few short years, the world is going to see legalization as the answer."

A bipartisan group of legislators introduced bills in Colombia's congress this month on the themes of legalization and decriminalization. The legislators said part of their motivation is the harsh public reaction in Colombia to an intensified herbicide-spraying campaign, funded by the United States, to eradicate hundreds of thousands of acres of drug crops.

The fumigation of drug plants by U.S.-provided crop-dusters is the linchpin of Washington's $1.3 billion counternarcotics policy in Colombia. But the spraying has come under fire amid allegations that it endangers both health and the environment, and that it hurts peasant farmers who grow coca to eke out a living.

U.S. officials have made clear they oppose any move to decriminalize drug production. The legislation, however, coincides with a Bush administration decision to review its approach to combating drugs.

Powell's visit

A U.S. delegation arrived in Bogotá on Aug. 29, headed by Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, to begin a review of the counternarcotics program known as Plan Colombia. Secretary of State Colin Powell is to begin a two-day visit tomorrow.

President Andres Pastrana, one of Washington's closest allies in the global war on drugs, also called Thursday for a review of that struggle, saying it has produced few victories.

The 47-year-old president gave no indication that he would backtrack on the spraying during his last year in office but said he wanted to focus on large-scale coca plantations.

Pastrana urged President Bush to organize an international narcotics conference. "Clearly we must also make an evaluation — and not only of the policies of fumigation and interdiction," Pastrana said.

Pastrana said the United States and Europe should stem the laundering of drug money and control the export of chemicals used in Colombia to process cocaine. He also urged the United States to re-establish intelligence-sharing with Colombia's air force about suspected drug flights.

He described a global narcotics industry worth $500 billion. Drug use is on the rise in the United States, and drug lords are seeking out new markets in Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Guerrilla profits

The rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the rebels' enemies, the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, earn huge profits by guarding and taxing coca and poppy plantations that provide much of the world's cocaine and most of the heroin used in the United States.

The millions of dollars in drug revenue has allowed the FARC and the paramilitaries to expand their forces and better arm themselves, further destabilizing Colombia.

Under existing Colombian law, individuals legally can possess a "personal dosage" of cocaine, hashish and marijuana. But some legislators want to expand the law to halt the criminal prosecution of peasant farmers who cultivate fewer than seven acres of coca and opium plants.

"We are now a full year into Plan Colombia, and we can see the results. Peasant farmers are wiped out economically, people are being displaced, suffering is on the increase," said Sen. Rafael Orduz, co-sponsor of one bill that would remove criminal penalties for small landholders involved in illicit-crop production.

"Just because we support decriminalization does not mean we support guerrillas or drug traffickers. We are tired of all of them. We want to get rid of them," he said. "Attacking our poorest peasant farmers is not the solution. The idea should not be to treat them as criminals, because they are not. All they are trying to do is survive."

Sen. Viviane Morales, of the opposition Liberal Party, has introduced a separate bill to legalize the production, distribution and consumption of recreational drugs and place the industry under government supervision. Political analysts give the bill little chance of success, but they say Morales clearly has sparked a serious debate over the issue.

"Colombia needs a national consensus to turn this theme into a diplomatic initiative," said Carlos Holguin Sardi, leader of Pastrana's Conservative Party. "We must start the ball rolling so that the international community can reach formulas for legalization as quickly as possible."

Enrique Santos Calderon, publisher of Colombia's largest daily newspaper, El Tiempo, has joined the call for decriminalization. "I believe the U.S. strategy to combat drugs is wrong-headed and inefficient. Alternate legalization and decriminalization tactics should be considered because the 'war against drugs' strategies have failed miserably," he wrote last March in a Los Angeles Times commentary.

U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson has said she opposes any such action "because I believe it could cause many problems for the international community." However, she acknowledged recently that the amount of acreage under illicit cultivation in Colombia has grown despite the eradication effort.

Hundreds of prominent international business and political leaders, led by billionaire businessman George Soros, published an open letter in 1998 calling for an international review of the drug war.

"What is the result? U.N. agencies estimate the annual revenue generated by the illegal-drug industry at $400 billion, or the equivalent of roughly 8 percent of total international trade," the letter said. "This industry has empowered organized criminals, corrupted governments at all levels, eroded internal security, stimulated violence, and distorted both economic markets and moral values. These are the consequences not of drug use per se, but of decades of failed and futile drug-war policies."

Barry McCaffrey, former White House director of national drug-control policy, responded angrily. "Through a slick misinformation campaign, these individuals perpetuate a fraud on the American people," he said in congressional testimony.

International debate

Nevertheless, the international debate has intensified. Earlier this month, The Economist magazine in Britain published a lengthy report titled "The case for legalizing drugs," citing how Prohibition not only failed to control alcohol consumption in the United States but also inadvertently strengthened criminal trafficking organizations.

Last month, Sir Keith Morris, who served as British ambassador to Colombia from 1990-1994, called for his nation to legalize drug consumption, declaring that the war on drugs "is unwinnable, costly and counterproductive."

In Colombia, proponents of plans to remove criminal penalties for drug producers say their biggest fear is international isolation.

When Samper was president from 1994 to 1998, they note, the United States led a movement to punish Colombia diplomatically because of Samper's alleged links to drug cartels. His presidential campaign accepted $6 million from leaders of the Cali drug cartel, although Samper said he had been unaware of the source.

"We are all, at the same time, victims as well as perpetrators of this problem. All we're asking is that the international community look at this situation seriously and approach it with an attitude of co-responsibility," said Guillermo Gaviria, the governor of northern Antioquia province.

"We've been fighting this drug war for almost 40 years now, and all the formulas for attacking the producers and traffickers have not produced the results we sought. We have not reduced the flow of drugs. We have not reduced the amount of land under illicit cultivation. And we certainly have not reduced the amount of suffering our country is experiencing."