The seizure of more than 7 metric tons of drugs from users in nine days in Colombia after a decree effectively banning personal drug use has been heralded a success by authorities. However, questions remain as to whether targeting drug users will prove effective in tackling the root causes of Colombia’s drug problems.
An October 1 decree by Colombian President Iván Duque authorized police to confiscate and destroy any quantity of drugs found on a person, abolishing the Constitutional Court given right for users to carry small doses of drugs for personal use.
Under the decree, people found with less than 20 grams of marijuana, 1 gram of cocaine or 2 grams of synthetic drugs can be fined 208,000 Colombian pesos (almost $70), the equivalent of around one week’s minimum wage in Colombia.
Those found with more than the minimum dose can be detained and referred to judicial authorities. A court hearing would determine whether confiscated supplies correspond to personal possession or intent to sell.
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In the nine days after the decree was signed, authorities confiscated 7.2 metric tons of narcotics across Colombia, El Colombiano reported. Police also levied fines against 8,012 citizens and arrested 718 people.
“We are going to go after dealers on the street, and we are going to prosecute them,” President Duque announced at a press conference last week, stating that the decree would form an integral part of his new drug policy.
However, the decree has proved controversial. The Council of State will now decide whether to nullify the decree, after members of Congress launched an initiative to request the removal of the article allowing police to confiscate drug quantities below minimum dose. Congress members state the decree violates various aspects of the constitution and puts consumers at risk, El Tiempo reported.
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The effective ban on drug consumption indicates the beginning of President Duque’s move towards a more hardline, repressive drug policy of the kind that has traditionally had little success in Colombia. The decree is more likely to affect low-level users than combat rising consumption and microtrafficking.
Duque’s approach, which goes against growing international consensus towards more regulatory or preventative policies that focus on users' safety and lessen the dominance of criminal organizations, is likely to do little less than criminalize users.
His approach presents a number of practical problems.
Firstly, Colombia can hardly afford to increase its prison population.
Prisons across the country are operating at almost 50 percent overcapacity, with 36,452 more people currently awaiting sentence, according to El Espectador. Such figures indicate that neither the penitentiary nor the judicial systems have the capacity or resources to handle the increase in inmates that will result from President Duque’s new decree.
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Secondly, this punitive approach does not take into consideration the root causes of consumption and trafficking, without which tackling the problem is close to impossible.
“The decree will not help to reduce consumption, and could have the adverse effect with regards to distribution,” Professor Yesid Reyes Alvarado of the Externado University of Colombia told Semana. “Consumers are going to buy back every gram that is confiscated from them.”
According to the Colombian Drug Observatory (Observatorio de Drogas de Colombia - ODC), the focus must be on improving the living conditions and social integration of those affected by the local illicit drug market. The imprisonment of low-level offenders, recreational users and addicts can further isolate the subject and increase their susceptibility to involvement in criminal behavior.
At a time when Colombian criminal groups are increasingly stimulating drug markets within the local population, finding social solutions is perhaps more important than ever.