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A Hallucinated Plan for Hallucinogenics

Daniel Samper Pizano

Forbidding possession for personal use by means of a constitutional amendment should achieve the opposite of what is intended.

The government is concerned due to the increasing use of illicit drugs in Colombia, and, as a solution, President Álvaro Uribe "will submit before Congress, through his Minister Fernando Londoño, a proposal to introduce within the framework of the constitutional reform an article to penalize consumption of personal doses." (EL TIEMPO, September 29, 2002).

Possession for personal use is the fruit of a philosophical and judicial act on the part of the Constitutional Court which, in 1994, repealed those articles in the National Narcotics Directive which prescribed jail and medical treatment for consumers. As of that point, a citizen carrying under a gram of cocaine, 20 of marihuana o 5 of hashish was solely reprimanded.

Before the government reestablishes prohibition and screws it into the Constitution itself so that the Constitutional Court cannot reach it, I advise it to look into studies regarding the struggle against drug consumption. The United States, country where all attempts at reducing consumption through prohibition have failed, should offer some interesting clues. In 1980, imprisonment rates for drug-related crimes were at 15 per 100,000; in 1996, this figure had been multiplied by 10 (it had reached 148 out of every 100,000 people). Notwithstanding, general consumption levels had not declined. Since we are practically a phantom state of the American Union (up to now, the big criminals, such as Carlos Castaño, negotiate directly and secretly with Washington their own private justice), we should learn the lesson: increasing penalties for consumption increases the number of prisoners, but does not reduce consumption.  In 1977, the Rand Corporation concluded that "reducing drug use through treatment and not imprisonment, is 15 times more effective at reducing severe criminal offenses.” (T.N.: retranslated from Spanish)

Then there is also the domestic experience. A Colombian law of 1955 decided to sentence marihuana smokers with 2 to 7 years imprisonment.  Fifty-three people were sentenced in 1956 under this law. In 1963, far from having diminished, consumption had multiplied eleven fold. Apart from occasional and short reconsiderations, the spirit of prohibition prevailed up until 8 years ago, without there being a reduction in use of psychotropic substances. The right to personal possession did not reduce use either, naturally, but at least, the person smoking a joint is no longer sent to a crammed prison to be —for such an insignificant act— raped, taught criminal ways, and sent out afterwards with a criminal stigma.

This is what is achieved by jailing those who consume drugs: a country of prisoners. The United States knows this is so. There, 2 million citizens are kept in jails, 4.5. million are free on bail, and 3 million more are ex-convicts.  Approximately, 400,000 are detained for crime-related offenses, from use to sale and traffic.  These are the highest figures in the world. And, nonetheless, as Professor John Gray pointed out, “the use of drugs in the United States is more endemic and uncontrolled than in any other country.”

Turning those who smoke weed into criminals by constitutional reform is not only a judicial aberration; it also makes them the target of imprisonment and police blackmail, without serving as a cure. This only adds to the workload of officials —already hard found to stop the dangerous criminals—, to prison overcrowding, and to the nation’s expenditures. Prison is for narcotics traffickers; prevention campaigns and education for consumers.

There are three surprising aspects in this official proposal. First, the degree of misinformation. At a time when many countries in the world —even some States in the US—recognize the failure of drug prohibition and are seeking alternative paths to recover from a war lost, Colombia expects to launch what is sure to be a social failure.

The second aspect is the authoritarian attitude revealed by this “solution.” At the least obstacle, the government resorts to force. This is the same impulse that, at another level, prefers bullets over political dialogue. What do drug consumers have to add? To jail with them! One day adultery will be considered a crime against one’s family, and women who commit adultery will be put in prison. This is no joke: it was so for many years.

The third aspect is the fundamentalist roots of the proposal. The President is not content with a law that penalizes drugs: he wants to incorporate it into the 1991 Constitution, where it will be quite difficult to change. Londoño, a former Law professor would have advised, in his classes, against this nervous tic of incorporating in the Carta Magna one and all personal initiatives which the government considers interesting.

If we forbid personal consumption in an article of our Constitution, ¿why not use another to consecrate the importance of obeying traffic lights?  It is well known that traffic violations cause more deaths than drug use.

Some day President Uribe and other government officials will understand that consumption will decline when it ceases to be an profitable temptation managed by the mafia. That is, when drugs are addressed much as alcohol is. No one would remotely consider nowadays the possibility of rehabilitating drinkers by putting them in prison, instead of resorting to AA.


Translated from Spanish by MM Moreno, Mama Coca


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