A bill to legalize marijuana in Colombia has stalled out for the year after the Senate failed to advance it with enough support during a final vote on Tuesday—even though a simple majority of senators who were present voted in favor.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Juan Carlos Losada, was previously approved in the both chambers last year as part of the two-year process that constitutional amendments must undergo. It then passed the Chamber of Deputies again in May and advanced through a Senate committee this month. But while it received a majority of the votes on the floor on Tuesday, 47-43, it needed 54 in order to be enacted.
Now lawmakers will need to start the two-year legislative process all over again if they want to end prohibition. Losada said following the vote that supporters “are sad, but convinced that we gave it our all to the end.”
Estamos tristes, pero convencidos de que la dimos toda hasta el final. Nunca pensamos llegar tan lejos. Hoy tenemos mayorías, faltaron 7 votos.
Llevamos 4 años en esta lucha y no desfalleceremos para escribir una nueva historia en la lucha contra las drogas.
— Juan Carlos Losada (@JuanKarloslos) June 21, 2023
“We never thought it would go that far,” he said, according to a translation. “We have been in this fight for four years and we will not give up to write a new history in the war on drugs.”
“We are not going to give up. We are going to try as many times as we can to create a regulated cannabis market,” he added. “We will continue in this fight.”
Interior Minister Luis Fernando Velasco also reacted to the bill’s defeat which he was present in the Senate chamber to witness, saying the “government will insist on this issue, because basically the prohibition only benefits the mafias.”
#PlenariaSenado | Respecto al rechazo de la regulación de venta de #cannabis a adultos, el @MinInterior, @velascoluisf, expuso: “Desde el Gobierno vamos a insistir en este tema, porque en el fondo la prohibición solo beneficia a las mafias”.
— Senado de la República (@SenadoGovCo) June 21, 2023
However, as La Silla Vacía reported, the type of party polarization that contributed to this latest legislative outcome is expected to continue in the coming years.
Action on the measure was repeatedly delayed in committee and on the floor in the lead-up to the full chamber vote, which took place on the last day of the legislative session. Issues with quorum and unrelated government priorities caused many to question whether lawmakers would even get to the final Senate vote.
A number of key absences from senators who could’ve helped push the bill across the finish line was another major complication that resulted in the measure’s falling short on Tuesday.
As a proposed constitutional amendment, the legislation needed to go through the full legislative process in each chamber twice, in separate calendar years, to be enacted. It reached the final of eight votes, but failed to reach the desk of President Gustavo Petro.
Sen. María José Pizarro, who has championed the legislation in the Senate, delivered an impassioned speech on the floor last week when the measure initially came up.
“The prohibitionist policy has increased the cost of a product that, without state control, has enriched and strengthened criminal organizations that continue to expand and sow terror around the world,” she said.
Hicimos todo lo posible por garantizar libertades, superar el caos jurídico de decadas, quisimos quitarle vidas y recursos a la ilegalidad. Quisimos para las comunidades, juventudes y mujeres una cotidianidad sin mafias y violencia.
A lo largo de todo el trámite por la… pic.twitter.com/mMb5DZfoVm
— María José Pizarro Rodríguez (@PizarroMariaJo) June 21, 2023
“We have come to the debate feeling exhausted, but with the peace of mind that comes with knowing that we have done everything possible for this country to imagine different paths to face a problem that deeply afflicts it,” the senator said following Tuesday’s vote, as EL PAÍS reported.
The Chamber and Senate had passed different versions of legalization legislation last year, and the bodies moved to make the bills identical in December. The Senate overwhelmingly approved its version of the bill that month after it received initial approval in the Chamber.
The legalization bill would support “the right of the free development of the personality, allowing citizens to decide on the consumption of cannabis in a regulated legal framework,” it says. And it would mitigate “arbitrary discriminatory or unequal treatment in front of the population that consumes.”
It also called for public education campaigns and the promotion of substance misuse treatment services.
At a public hearing in the Senate panel last year, Justice Minister Néstor Osuna said that Colombia has been the victim of “a failed war that was designed 50 years ago and, due to absurd prohibitionism, has brought us a lot of blood, armed conflict, mafias and crime.”
The Chamber of Representatives gave initial approval to the legalization bill last year. The head of the Interior Ministry also spoke in favor of the reform proposal at the time. That vote came shortly after a congressional committee advanced this measure and a separate legalization bill.
Petro, a progressive who has been strongly advocating for an international end to drug criminalization since being inaugurated last year, has discussed the possible benefits of cannabis legalization.
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Last year, the president delivered a speech at a meeting of the United Nations (UN), urging member nations to fundamentally change their approaches to drug policy and disband with prohibition.
Petro has also talked about the prospects of legalizing marijuana in Colombia as one means of reducing the influence of the illicit market. And he signaled that the policy change should be followed by releasing people who are currently in prison over cannabis.
He spoke about the economic potential of a legal cannabis industry, one where small towns in places like the Andes, Corinto and Miranda could stand to benefit from legal marijuana cultivation, possibly without any licensing requirements.
The president also signaled that he’d be interested in exploring the idea of exporting cannabis to other countries where the plant is legal.
Petro met with the president of Mexico last year, and the pair announced that they will be bringing together other Latin American leaders for an international conference focused on on “redesigning and rethinking drug policy” given the “failure” of prohibition. Mexican lawmakers are also pursuing national legalization.
As a former member of Colombia’s M-19 guerrilla group, Petro has seen the violent conflict between guerrilla fighters, narcoparamilitary groups and drug cartels that has been exacerbated by the government’s aggressive approach to drug enforcement.
According to the United Nations Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Colombia remains a chief exporter of cocaine, despite “drug supply reduction activities in Colombia, such as eradication of coca bush and destruction of laboratories.”
In 2020, Colombian legislators introduced a bill that would have regulated coca, the plant that is processed to produce cocaine, in an acknowledgment that the government’s decades-long fight against the drug and its procedures have consistently failed. That legislation cleared a committee, but it was ultimately shelved by the overall conservative legislature.
Advocates had been optimistic that such a proposal could advance under the Petro administration. The president hasn’t taken a clear stance on the legislation itself, but he campaigned on legalizing marijuana and promoted the idea of cannabis as an alternative to cocaine.
Former Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos has also been critical of the drug war and embraced reform. In an op-ed published before he left office, he criticized the United Nations and U.S. President Richard Nixon for their role in setting a drug war standard that has proven ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.
“It is time we talk about responsible government regulation, look for ways to cut off the drug mafias’ air supply, and tackle the problems of drug use with greater resources for prevention, care and harm reduction with regard to public health and the social fabric,” he said.
“This reflection must be global in scope in order to be effective,” Santos, who is a member of the pro-reform Global Commission on Drug Policy, said. “It must also be broad, including participation not only of governments but also of academia and civil society. It must reach beyond law enforcement and judicial authorities and involve experts in public health, economists and educators, among other disciplines.”
Meanwhile, a U.S. congressional delegation returned from a visit to Colombia last year, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who was part of the trip, told Marijuana Moment that one theme of his discussions with officials in the country was that the world has “lost the war on drugs.”
Image element courtesy of Bryan Pocius.