The South American country of Colombia has been gradually easing their drug laws over the past few decades. Colombian citizens have long been able to possess small amounts of virtually any narcotic without the threat of criminal prosecution after their Congress passed initiatives that protected “free development of one’s personality.” However, the laws left plenty of room for interpretation, creating a legal void that was troublesome and confusing for many.
Late last year Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a staunch supporter of loosening drug prohibition laws in pursuit of a more effective approach, made significant changes. Santos signed a decree explicitly spelling out the decriminalization of recreational marijuana, in addition to Congress passing the legalization of marijuana for medical use. At the time, President Santos said the extensive shifts in drug policy “represent a major step that put Colombia at the vanguard and forefront of the fight against illnesses.”
On June 1, President Santos signed the medical marijuana law into effect, officially legalizing cannabis for medicinal and scientific research purposes. The signing of the bill marks the latest proof that Colombia, among other South American countries, is bucking conventional repression-based drug policy for a more health-focused approach. With the new laws, Colombia becomes the fourth South American country to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Con 37 votos por el Si y 19 por el No, #PlenariaSenado aprueba informe de conciliación del Proyecto de Ley sobre Cannabis Medicinal.
— Senado Colombia (@SenadoGovCo) June 1, 2016
Many Senators wanted to legalize marijuana fully. Unfortunately, they didn’t get majority support for that measure, but strides were made for the Colombian public nonetheless. With full attendance and participation from the Colombian Congress, the Senators may have had more luck, as the original vote on Tuesday had to be pushed back due to too many representatives being absent during the voting window. Senator Juan Manuel Galan, who spearheaded the initiative, urged his colleagues to fulfill their civic duties by showing up to work the next day for a rescheduled vote.
Galan’s prodding of his peers paid off, as the vote passed nearly unanimously with 83 affirmative votes out of a possible 86. The landslide victory is slightly misleading, as the strongest opposition to the lenient drug policies was not present for voting. The Democratic Center, a politically conservative party that strongly disagrees with the shift in policy, is currently boycotting Congress as part of separate ongoing peacemaking efforts with rebel groups in the country.
Technically, President Santos decreed the legalization, but the Colombian Constitutional Court will officially make the decree a law after review. There is a minuscule chance the Constitutional Court could reverse President Santos’ decree, but are not expected to do so. The Court has been propelling marijuana legalization efforts forward, especially for medical and scientific use.
Cover Image Courtesy of Lukasz Stefanski