LATIN AMERICA : Ruling Legalizing Drugs Leaves Many Colombians in a Tizzy


While Colombian artists and students fired up joints to celebrate, a decision by the country's highest court to legalize consumption of marijuana and cocaine has thrown officials into a tailspin.

Government, business and Roman Catholic Church leaders in this drug-producing country have attacked the May 5 ruling as dangerous to youth and the family. And almost everyone has expressed alarm at the likely international repercussions.

While nations such as the Netherlands, Spain and Germany have passed measures to decriminalize some drugs, the ruling puts Colombia on the spot. Colombia is one of the world's biggest producers of drugs, supplying more than 80% of the world's cocaine and exporting an increasing amount of marijuana and heroin.

"With what authority can we ask the international community to try to reduce drug consumption when we are beginning to tolerate it ourselves?" asked Atty. Gen. Carlos Gustavo Arrieta in an interview with the newspaper El Tiempo.

In its 5-4 ruling, Colombia's Constitutional Court overturned a 1986 law that imposed fines and jail terms for possession or consumption of small amounts of drugs--up to 20 grams of marijuana, five grams of hashish, one gram of cocaine and two grams of Mandrax, a barbiturate.

Ruling on an appeal by a private citizen, the court held that punishing drug use violates the right to privacy, an individual's autonomy and "the free development of personality."

An angry four-member minority called the decision "deplorable." The U.S. State Department condemned the ruling, and polls here have been largely negative, with one showing 69.9% of Colombians opposed.

"This decision," said Rodrigo Losada, an expert on drug trafficking at Javeriana University in Bogota, "though open-minded and liberal, will damage Colombia's reputation in the short run and feed its image as a narco-democracy."

The ruling was a major setback for Colombia's government, which has been trying desperately to ease tensions with U.S. authorities already furious at the nation's top law enforcement officer, Gustavo de Greiff. A highly popular figure here, De Greiff has repeatedly angered American officials with his support for the legalization of drugs and his public comments that the drug war has failed.

De Greiff maintains that the war can never be won as long as demand in consumer countries is high, profits for smugglers astronomical, and evidence against many traffickers weak.

Those positions and his aggressive pursuit of plea-bargaining agreements with Colombia's biggest cocaine dealers, the Cali cartel, so outraged U.S. officials that Washington suspended a longstanding U.S. policy of evidence-sharing with the Colombian prosecutor's office.

Drug use is widespread here, with recent studies showing that 31.1% of the population has tried marijuana and 11.5% basuco , a highly addictive and dangerous form of unrefined cocaine. University students and artists openly smoke marijuana on major boulevards of the capital. Poor children wander the streets smoking basuco to take their minds off hunger and cold.

Many writers and intellectuals, including Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, argue that legalizing the drug trade could eliminate the corruption and violence that have claimed thousands of Colombian lives. And human rights activists argue that it could curb police abuses and shakedowns.

But the fear of an international backlash and the deeply conservative attitudes of mainstream Colombians make the legalization issue an emotional and divisive one. With the national reputation at stake, President Cesar Gaviria said Wednesday that he would launch a petition to gather signatures for a national referendum to change the constitution.

In the meantime, he said, he will issue a decree banning drug use in public places and offices; and banning drug use by minors, pregnant women, operators of cars, planes or boats, and doctors and dentists.

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