Uribe the Liberal: When He Defended Drug Decriminalization in Colombia
Ex-president Uribe was once a proponent of decriminalizing drugs to take the profits out of the hands of criminal enterprises.
At one point in his political life, former President and Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, known for his “firm hand” in the fight against drug trafficking, defended the use of personal doses of drugs in Colombia.
But when he was elected president in 2002, he launched a new defense and democratic security policy: a government program that designed new safety measures and structured an offensive against illicit crops linked to guerrilla groups and organized crime.
So despite what is known about Uribe and his hardline stances on drug policy, back in 1989, he agreed to support drug decriminalization in the midst of massive destabilization and terror unleashed by the Medellin Cartel.
So what’s changed?
Uribe the liberal
At the time, Pablo Escobar, drug kingpin from the city of Medellín, was leading a war against the Colombian state along with the criminal organization known as “The Extraditables.” Its objective was to prevent extradition by using threats and murdering those who favored extradition treaties.
On December 15, 1989, the Colombian Senate was in full session to discuss an issue of national security. A referendum was proposed to allow Colombian citizens to vote on whether or not they agreed with the extradition of drug traffickers to the United States.
Uribe, who at the time served as a senator of the Liberal Party, asked for the floor and submitted a proposal to the constitutional reform bill, arguing that he was in favor of extradition. But his support hinged upon changing the date of the vote in order to prevent it from coinciding with other elections in the country and avoiding threats to voters on the part of the Medellín Cartel.
In his speech, Uribe said, “I believe that this proposal is responsible…it does not provoke immediate applause nor does it manage to summon collective enthusiasm.” He pointed out that the attempt to extradite the big drug lords was not an effective strategy and invited his colleagues to “look for imaginative solutions.”
And he cited Chicago School economist Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan’s former secretary of state, George Shultz, and some Italian politicians: “They are all arguing for decriminalization to end drug trafficking as a criminal business,” Uribe pointed out.
Three months before Uribe’s intervention, Friedman published an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal criticizing the war on drugs and pointing to George H. W. Bush’s prohibitionist policy as a failure, and argued that without drug prohibition, “Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru would not be suffering from narcoterrorism,” and urged the authorities to decriminalize drug use.
In the same year, Shultz also argued against the criminalization of the personal consumption of narcotics.
Leading Colombian libertarian Daniel Raisbeck, a key defender of drug decriminalization, told the PanAm Post that if Colombia had adopted the Uribe measures of the time, it would have been possible to completely defeat the FARC guerrillas:
“The business of drugs and cocaine would not have been in the hands of criminals, but in the hands of private companies. Then it would not have constituted the engine of Colombia’s violence that has been present during the last decades related to drug trafficking.”
The problem of the personal dose in Colombia
Through the C-221 ruling of the Constitutional Court in 1994, the articles of Law 30 of 1986, which established the sanctions for those who carried or used the minimum dose of certain drugs, were declared unenforceable.
The court maintained that the use of drugs is an activity that is a matter of personal choice and that as long as the act does not transgress upon the rights of third parties, there is nothing inherently immoral with regard to personal consumption.
Despite this, Uribe again proposed to penalize consumption in his presidential re-election campaign in 2006. At that time, the head of the Centro Democratico party explained that his policy change was that drug use ‘endangered’ young people and was closely linked to drug trafficking.
In 2003, the Uribista bloc also promoted the elimination of the personal dose exemption, an initiative that was included in the referendum but did not get sufficient votes to actually appear on the ballot.
In 2009, nearly at the end of his presidency, Uribe managed to get majorities in Congress to approve a project that only permitted possession and consumption of the personal dose for by medical prescription.
This discussion has continued, and it is the current thesis of the Centro Democratico that drug trafficking has been increasing in large cities of the country, while traffickers use the personal dose as a legal means to evade prosecution. They suggest that the traffickers now seek to pass themselves off as consumers.
For his part, presidential candidate Ivan Duque has adhered to a prohibitionist stance and assured that in his government the personal dose will again be prohibited.