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Article posted Jul 02 2012, 2:03 AM Category: Geopolitics Source: Print

Colombia High Court Okays Drug Decriminalization

by Phillip Smith

Colombia's Constitutional Court has approved the government's proposal to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. The opinion (scroll down to item three, Expediente D-8842) issued last Sunday re-decriminalizes drug possession in Colombia, which had decriminalized by the courts in the 1990s, only to have possession recriminalized under former President Alvaro Uribe.

In Colombia, you can possess a gram of coke with no fear of arrest ( country's Supreme Court last year held that Uribe's recriminalization was unconstitutional. The government of President Juan Manuel Santos then moved to fill the legislative void by introducing decriminalization as part of a broad public safety bill, Law 1453. The Constitutional Court's ruling upholds the decriminalization portion of Law 1453.

Under the law, people caught with less than 22 grams of marijuana or one gram of cocaine for personal use may not be arrested or prosecuted, but could be referred to treatment. The law also decriminalizes the possession of other drugs, but it is unclear in what amounts.

The ruling was welcomed by Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

"Todayís judicial ruling in Colombia represents yet another important step in the growing political and judicial movement in Latin America and Europe to stop treating people who consume drugs as criminals worthy of incarceration," he said. "It is consistent with prior rulings by Colombian courts before former president √Ālvaro Uribe sought to undermine them, and also with rulings by the Supreme Court of Argentina in 2009 and other courts in the region. The Colombian Constitutional Courtís decision is obviously most important in Colombia, where it represents both a powerful repudiation of former president Uribeís push to criminalize people who use drugs and a victory for President Juan Manuel Santosí call for a new direction in drug policy.

"Most decriminalization initiatives in Latin America, however, are being proposed and enacted not by courts but by presidents and national legislatures," Nadelmann continued. " In addition to President Santos, Guatemalaís new president, Otto P√©rez Molina, is an advocate of decriminalization as are Ė in various ways and to different degrees Ė the presidents of Costa Rica, Uruguay, Ecuador and Argentina. Some Latin American countries, it should be pointed out, never criminalized drug possession in the first place. This trend follows in the footsteps of European reforms since the 1990s. Portugal, which decriminalized drug possession in 2001, stands out as a model.

"Decriminalizing drug possession appears to have little impact on levels of illicit drug use," Nadelmann argued. "Its principal impacts are reducing arrests of drug users, especially those who are young and/or members of minority groups; reducing opportunities for low level police corruption; allowing police to focus on more serious crimes; reducing criminal justice system costs; and better enabling individuals, families, communities and local governments to deal with addiction as a health rather than criminal issue.

"The United States clearly lags far behind Europe and Latin America in ending the criminalization of drug possession," Nadelmann noted. "Momentum for reform is growing with respect to decriminalization of marijuana possession, with Massachusetts reducing penalties in 2008, California in 2010, Connecticut in 2011 and Rhode Island earlier this year. All states, however, treat possession of other illegal drugs as a crime. Thirteen states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government currently treat possession of drugs for personal use as a misdemeanor, with penalties of up to a year in jail. The remaining thirty-seven states treat possession of cocaine, heroin and other drugs as a felony, with penalties than can include many years in prison."

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