LATIN AMERICA

Colombian president in favor of medical use of marijuana

Santos gives nod to proposal presented by Senator Juan Manuel Galán in Congress

Santos speaks at an event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of liberal politician Luis Carlos Galán.
Santos speaks at an event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of liberal politician Luis Carlos Galán.JUAN PABLO BELLO (efe)

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has announced his support for a law that would legalize the medical use of marijuana. The law was presented two weeks ago in Congress by Senator Juan Manuel Galán, whose father was killed by the drug cartels. “We’re in favor of his initiative for the medicinal and therapeutic use of marijuana,” the president said at a forum on drugs in Bogotá on Thursday. Santos said the proposal was a “compassionate” measure that would help reduce pain for many terminally ill patients and would be a way to “begin removing criminals as the middle men between the patients and the substance that will allow them to alleviate their suffering.”

Galán’s proposal has opened a debate about whether Colombia is ready to take this next step. The senator is the son of the 1989 presidential candidate, Luis Carlos Galán, who was killed by the cartels. He pressed for the passing of a law that recognizes drug addiction as a disease. Now, he wants to regulate the medical use of cannabis. His proposal is based on studies from the United States National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which say that marijuana is less addictive than alcohol and caffeine.

The measure calls for Colombia to create its own regulatory model. Galán does not want to import one. “It’s essential that we recognize the particular characteristics of our country, the epidemiological profile of our residents, the conditions for planting and domestic production and the recent statistics on young consumers in order to develop our own model, based on clinical and scientific data collected here.” The congressman defends his legislative initiative by saying that the use of marijuana to alleviate pain has “humanitarian” consequences.

We need – and when I say ‘we need’ I mean the entire world needs – a new strategy” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos

Even so, conservatives and the Church say the law would open the gates to the legalization of all drugs and contradict decades of struggle in which many have died. Senator Alfredo Rangel of the Centro Democrático party said Colombia was a long way from having a culture of responsible consumption and drug use may actually go up. Others talk of potential “side effects.”

Besides backing the therapeutic use of marijuana, Santos insisted on broadening the debate on the war on drugs. The Colombian president said the war has not been successful, comparing it to riding an exercise bike. “You make a huge effort, you sweat, but then you look to the left, you look both sides and everything is the same or sometimes worse. It does not matter how hard you work, how you move, the business goes on. The scourge does not disappear.” Colombia’s relative success in this fight, he said, has pushed “the spiral of violence and the corruption associated with the problem of illicit drugs into other countries.”

The president called for a new strategy on the fight against drugs, one in which Colombia has “the moral authority” to participate because of its own struggle with drug trafficking. “We need – and when I say ‘we need’ I mean the entire world needs – a new strategy.”

Opinion leaders in Colombia agree that the war on drugs has failed. According to a recent study by the group Fundación Ideas para la Paz, 69 percent of those interviewed said the anti-drug measures have failed. Only eight percent saw them as a success. The great majority wants reform and most of them favor legalization and government control.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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