Legalization in Columbia = Increase Use

Legalization Increases Drug Use by Colombians

BYLINE: Ken Dermota, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
SOURCE: Christian Science Monitor; CHSM
COPYRIGHT: (Copyright 1995)

ANGEL GONZLEZ, a Bogota drug pusher, says his life isn’t any easier
since the Colombian government decriminalized drug use.

“They can’t get the users, so the cops come down on us all the harder,
and the ‘taxes’ are worse than ever,” says Mr. Gonzalez. He is bitter
after spending the previous night in jail – he didn’t have money for the
bribes the police call “taxes.” It has been a year since Colombia’s
Constitutional Court ruled that drug users may carry a personal dose of
marijuana, cocaine, methadone, or hashish. The sale of drugs and use by
minors or in public places is still prohibited.

In the past year, use of these drugs has risen, while the age of the
users has fallen, says Gonzalez. Emergency-room physicians and drug
consellors rehabilitation councilors agree.

Many Colombians deny theirs is a society of drug takers and blame the
United States and other consuming countries for Colombia’s drug problems.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration says Colombia produces 80 percent
of the world’s cocaine and a thirdits heroin.

But the proportion of addicts in Colombian cities is approaching that
of the US. Since the personal dose was legalized a year ago, more youths
are treading Gonzalez’s path.

The idea behind the Court’s legalizing a personal dose was to force
the government to find more effective methods than law enforcement for
fighting drug abuse, such as education programs in the schools, says
Constitutional Court Justice Carlos Gaviria, who wrote the decision.

“Drugs should be regulated in the same way as alcohol, which is not
sold to minors,” says Judge Gaviria. And no studies have been done that
show that drug consumption has risen since he wrote the opinion, he
points out.

But Camilo Uribe, head of toxicology at Bogota’s Health Secretariat,
says one reliable statistic shows that medical emergencies and deaths
caused by overdoses have risen dramatically in the past year.
“Previously, a death from an overdose was fairly exotic. Now there are
three or more per month,” he says.

Decriminalization of the personal dose is one cause, Dr. Uribe adds.
The other is the international war on drugs, which causes more of the
product to be kept in Colombia and sold domestically at ever-lower

Maria Isabel de Lince, director of a rehabilitation clinic in
Prometeo, disagrees strongly with Gaviria’s opinion that legalized drugs
can be kept out of the hands of youth. Although she has not noticed a
rise in applicants during the last year, her clients are younger.

“The more restrictions we have, the less likelihood that they will try
them for the first time,” she says. “I have two girls – 15 years old, who
came in their high-school uniforms – who told their parents they needed
money for a present for the teacher and to replace lost books, but they
came to me when they ran out of excuses.” The girls were using a
Colombian brand of “crack” cocaine – bazuco.

Many Colombians, such as former Prosecutor General Gustavo de Greiff,
support worldwide decriminalization, which would eliminate the violent
distribution chain. Legalized drugs mean lower prices and an end to the
wars among distributors.

As for Gonzalez, he has had access to drugs all his life. “I was born
into a world of drugs, and I fell into a world of drug addiction.”

He would like to stop dealing drugs to take drugs, but says that is
unlikely as long as Colombia cannot provide rehabilitation for all of its
citizens. “If there were a cheap rehabilitation program, I would be
there,” he says. “But for the poor, the only rehabilitation center is

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