Congress of Colombia Advances Two Bills to Regulate Adult-Use Cannabis
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Congress of Colombia Advances Two Bills to Regulate Adult-Use Cannabis

"Colombia has advanced strongly on defending the rights of individuals," Luis Fernando Velasco tells CBT.

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October 13, 2020

Colombia’s legislature is discussing several initiatives that seek to regulate production and consumption of cannabis for recreational purposes among adults.

On Sept. 16, the first committee of the Lower House approved the first debate with a narrow vote of 18-17, allowing the first bill to move forward to the plenary of the Lower House.

Separately, a group of 38 lawmakers of the opposition and the center-right parties led by Sens. Gustavo Bolivar and Luis Fernando Velasco submitted a second congressional bill that aims to regulate marijuana production and consumption, a move that proves Colombia more than ever before is ready to debate initiatives that would end the so-called war on drugs and seek effective solutions to drug trafficking.

“There is a high chance that the bill could be approved in Congress because Colombia has advanced strongly on defending the rights of individuals, which explain why during the first debate even lawmakers of right-wing fractions voted in favor,” Velasco, a member of the liberal party who is leading the second initiative at the Senate, told Cannabis Business Times.

The first initiative at the Lower House led by opposition lawmaker Juan Carlos Lozada seeks to amend article 49 of the Colombian Constitution, which states “the carrying and consumption of narcotic or psychotropic substances is prohibited unless prescribed by a doctor.” If the bill gets approved, it would allow cannabis and its derivatives use for recreational purposes. It would also allow consumers to acquire cannabis at stores and lift a ban that today forces consumers to go to illegal outlets.

In other words, the initiative will support earlier rulings from the country’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, which recognizes the fundamental rights to equality and  free development of the personality.

The bill at the Lower House, which requires eight congressional debates to become a law —four at the Lower House and four at the Senate—will face heated opposition among right-wing fractions that support Colombian President Ivan Duque, according to Jota Nicolas Vergara, adviser to lawmaker Lozada.

“Before Dec. 20, when the current legislature ends, the bill must receive the second debate in the Lower House plenary so that it can move forward into the next legislature that begins in March. The eight debates must be fully approved by the end of 2021,” Vergara explained.

In the Senate, pro-government parties control the majority with 70 of the total 120 seats. In the Lower House, 90 pro-government members of the 140 lawmakers control this chamber, explained Vergara.

In spite of staunch opposition for upcoming debates, lawmakers in favor believe some pro-government delegates may approve the initiative as it happened during the first debate when Gabriel Santos, a lawmaker from the pro-government Democratic Center party, voted in favor. This is a sign that Colombia is willing to regulate marijuana consumption as the West has seen in Uruguay and in some U.S. states, Velasco said.

The second initiative led by Sens. Bolivar and Velasco aims to regulate cannabis by creating a legal framework for production, commercialization and consumption for recreational purposes among adults. This initiative also prohibits cannabis access to minors, bans advertising or promotion of cannabis and establishes regulated sites for adult consumption. This initiative should receive its first debate by the end of October, Gloria Miranda, adviser to Bolivar, said. The bill must be fully approved by the end of next year to become a law.

Unlike the Lower House initiative, this bill will only require four debates in Congress as it will not amend the Constitution. It seeks to take advantage of previous rulings from the Constitutional Court, which lessened the scope of article 49 of the Constitution.

In 1986, the Constitutional Court allowed Colombians to carry a small dose of 20 grams of cannabis in what is called the personal dose. Then, the Supreme Court of Justice  said people have the right to carry the minimum dose and to stock up on that amount. Later, the president tried to prohibit the carrying and consumption of the minimum dose, but the Constitutional Court said the move was unconstitutional last year.

The senators argue that official figures show that prohibiting cannabis consumption has not prevented consumers from not having access to this substance.

A survey carried out by the country’s statistics department in 2019 found that 8% of people aged between 12 to 65 reported having consumed marijuana at some time in their lives. A smaller percentage, 2.68% of people in that age group, said they had consumed marijuana in the past 12 months. Other findings showed that of the different illegal psychoactive substances, the earliest consumption is that of marijuana with 18.1 years on average.

The 38 lawmakers who support the initiative said changes to regulation are needed because consumption will happen with or without regulation—“but with regulation, the state will have the control of the business and it will establish a larger control on the sale of marijuana,” Velasco said. Legalization will dismantle illegal markets, according to the 74-page bill.

“The prohibition itself made the large drug traffickers fragment into retail drug organizations. We no longer have the Medellin or the Cali cartel, they mutated into retail drug organizations and that has been more difficult to control,” Miranda said.

In Uruguay, the legalization of production, commercialization and consumption of cannabis allowed the government to take up to 40% of the marijuana business from cartels, noting that the illegal market stopped receiving around 20 million euros in recent years, Miranda said.

Pro-government lawmaker Alejandro Corrales from the Center Democratic party said endorsing consumption of marijuana would bring counterproductive effects on public health as is a stepping stone to allow addiction to stronger drugs.

“Recreational cannabis has a negative effect on human health as it increases working accidents by 55% and work absenteeism by 75%. Marijuana is the gateway to reaching stronger substances,” he said.