It’s a breezy mid-August dusk in Bogotá and I’m walking my Weimaraner up from Lourdes Park through the barrio of Chapinero and then into Rosales where we’ll both benefit from a little bit of exercise in the Gustavo Uribe Park. I like this park, it’s enclosed, there are usually dog walkers about and the sound and smog of traffic so ubiquitous in the city are blocked out.
While the socio-economic divide, when you cross the Avenida Septima from Chapinero into Rosales is plainly evident, there’s one constant that remains. Almost any park one frequents here in Bogotá – or what passes for a park, usually a piece of terrain not yet built on, or where it is impossible to build upon – will be aerated with the telltale and pungent billows of someone smoking some marijuana. Be it a group of office workers on their lunch break, students or the guy “watching” the cars on the street you’ll not walk six blocks in Bogotá without the oily herb smell permeating your nostrils.
So, President Santos made a statement this August about supporting the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes. On the one hand I want to applaud him for continuing down this road towards legalization which he suggested throughout his first term and now into his second, but then, my concern is that this move is yet another form of burying the news. President Santos is no mook and he knows how to manipulate the press and draw attention away from the various issues taking place in domestic affairs such as the unceasing attacks on oil pipelines, the drought in the north of the country and the peace dialogues with the FARC guerrillas in Havana, Cuba.
So, when President Santos speaks openly on a topic that is sure to generate an open debate, we need to uncover the story behind the story in the news.
“We look favourably on the initiative on the medical and therapeutic use of marijuana,” said President Santos in a congress on drugs and quoted in the BBC. “It’s a way to stop criminals from acting as intermediaries between the patient and a substance that is going to ease their suffering.”
Now, having taken a straw poll of Colombians known to me, the overwhelming response to this medicinal legalization of marijuana is positive. But, why President Santos thinks that this will take any clout away from the criminal gangs (Guerrillas, Bacrims etc) remains a mystery. Sometimes, I just think he is poorly advised on what to say (just look at his comments during the agricultural strikes in 2013: “El tal paro nacional agrario no existe”), and others, he just plucks ideas from the ether.
There is no guarantee that marijuana legalization would significantly diminish the underground market for marijuana. In a legal market, where marijuana is taxed, the well-established illegal drug trade has every incentive to remain. Today’s thriving underground market for tobacco is a good example of this; just watch the issues taking place at the border between Colombia and Venezuela. The drug trade is so profitable that even undercutting the legal (taxed) market price would still leave cartels with a handsome profit. We can easily argue that marijuana legalization would also do nothing to loosen the cartels’ grip on other illegal trades such human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, piracy and other illicit drugs.
But, surely this step towards legalization for “compassionate” medicinal usage is a step in the right direction for those of us in agreement with legalization in general.
This debate can continue until we’re blue in the face, but there’s plenty of information available out there to show the benefits of Cannabidiol (CBD) in aiding sufferers of Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s , Lupus and beyond. If this is not the case, then what are doctors in the US doing prescribing marijuana to more than 2,5 million patients across 23 states and DC ?
Yes, there’s a long way to go in Colombia and given that President Santos’ declarations are set against a backdrop of social conservatism here (the Catholic Church has spoken out against the move and so the country’s conservative Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez will presumably follow suit) so the debate will come up against significant opposition.
However, with an open and healthy debate surely Colombia can reach the tipping point regarding medicinal legalization and then total legalization of marijuana. If the argument on compassionate grounds does not move hearts then perhaps the economic one will stir a few hardened souls. If we look at the results from legalization in Washington, state-licensed vendors of marijuana sold an estimated US$3,8 million in cannabis products in one month alone drawing in more than US$1 million in tax revenues. And if this doesn’t impress you, just look at Colorado where, in the first six months of 2014 sales exceeded US$115 million translating into a cool US$20 million to the taxman.
If, and it’s a long shot, somehow the powers that be in Colombia can see fit to legalize marijuana – which you’ll recall from the opening of this piece is consumed openly and without prejudice on the streets of Bogotá in any barrio at any time of day – then we can end with this “satanization of the crop. At least it will be time to open our eyes, and I reiterate, finish the “war on drugs” which has been so damaging to countries such as ours.”
As another friend said: “It is time to end the prudery and double standards.”