Never before has Colombia, one of the countries most affected by illegal drug trade, been so close to legalizing cannabis than it was this year. But late Tuesday night, on the last day of the legislative session, the Colombian Congress rejected a measure that would have regulated the sale of adult-use cannabis.
The bill, which already cleared the Chamber of Representatives, fell short of the required 54 votes needed for it to be passed out of the Senate, receiving 47 votes in favor and 43 against. Because the bill is a constitutional amendment, it had to clear additional hurdles in Congress for its approval, including being subject to eight debates in the legislature—four in the Chamber of Representatives and four in the Senate—instead of the usual four.
“The bill to regulate cannabis for adult use has been defeated in Congress. After 4 years of trying to get this bill through, it is a hard defeat, but we have made a lot of progress,” Juan Carlos Losada, the bill’s primary sponsor, said in a social media post after the bill was voted down.
Four bills regulating adult-use cannabis have been introduced in both legislative chambers in recent years, but none moved beyond the second debate. This time, Losada’s bill reached the last debate, where it finally sank.
While the bill’s progress is historic, the legislation faced many setbacks during the legislative process. It was on the verge of foundering several times due to lack of consensus with right-wing parties. There were also irreconcilable differences within pro legalization parties: several lawmakers who belonged to parties that supported a fully regulated cannabis market in Colombia voted against the bill. Meanwhile, two senators from the Conservative Party, who had voted in favor of the bill in past debates, accepted their party’s decision to vote against the bill in the last debate.
The bill was particularly opposed by lawmaker Jota Pe Hernández, from the liberal Green Alliance party.
“I do not see the need to expose the country to a legalization of the marijuana business that will bring many consequences, such as incentivizing people to use drugs because it will be possible to buy a dose of cannabis like buying bread or milk,” he argued in a heated discussion with Losada last week.
Lawmakers from right-wing conservative parties also spent the last few weeks pushing moral and religious reasons to sink the bill, arguing that its defeat ensures the protection of children and families. The bill would have set the legal age for purchase and consumption at 18.
The bill was also affected by ongoing political tensions that have been building up in the country. Some lawmakers backed away from supporting the push for legalization because it was endorsed by the government of leftist President Gustavo Petro, which has been embroiled in a series of corruption scandals in the last couple of months that involve illegal wiretapping, stolen money, leaked audio messages and accusations of campaign finance violations, all of which have led to the dismissal of two of the president’s closest allies.
The South American country already regulates cannabis, albeit for medical use. In 2016, Colombia passed a law that allowed for the production of medical cannabis, and it is now also exported to foreign markets.
However, supporters of adult use legalization, like Senator Maria José Pizarro, a member of Petro’s Historic Pact party, argue that it will bring significant new revenue to the country and will combat drug trafficking.
“In our country, where we have suffered the worst consequences due to the conflict fueled and sustained by the illegal drug trafficking business, the legalization of adult use could represent $435 million in 2025 and the creation of 17 jobs per cultivated hectare,” she wrote on her Twitter account.
Supporters emphasize that citizens have been allowed to carry, consume and grow up to 20 plants since 1994, but there is a legal vacuum on the sale and purchase of the product.
“Consumers are forced to resort to drug dealers and dangerous illegal networks in order to obtain it,” Losada said during the seventh debate, which took place in the Senate on June 6. “People put their lives at risk to have a substance that they can have legally. This is a perverse logic that has favored the illegal drug trafficking business.”
Despite the U.S offensive against drugs in Latin America, Colombia has seen the destruction of ecosystems and the murder of police officers, civilians and social leaders, while there is a persistent production, sale and consumption of drugs.
“Those who invented prohibitionism as an international policy to fight against drugs,” said Losada on June 6, referring to the U.S., have multiple “states where the adult use of marijuana is regulated.”
“This is the path the entire world is on and we are going to lose the possibility of opening a market that can bring” significant revenue to Colombia, he continued, and “would put an end to many social problems in the country.”
With so much momentum this year, lawmakers, politicians and activists felt confident that the bill was going to pass in a country that has historically taken a conservative approach to cannabis policy.
Hours prior to the last debate, Colombia’s former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos voiced his support for legalization as part of a wider push to dismantle prohibitionist policies. During a meeting of the Security Council of the United Nations (UN) this month, Santos, who served as president from 2010 to 2018, asked Colombian lawmakers to move the bill forward.
“Here, in the United Nations, where more than 60 years ago the convention on drugs was approved and the war on drugs was declared, which has been a total failure, it is the right time to ask the senators in Colombia to vote positively on the cannabis regulation,” he said.
On the opposite political spectrum, former President Alvaro Uribe celebrated the voting result on Twitter.
“Senate: Good news to have avoided the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana. A great policy of authority is needed to prevent drugs from continuing to reach schools,” he wrote.
President Petro responded to Uribe’s message by saying that the failure to regulate adult-use cannabis is a victory for drug trafficking.
“Drugs reach schools precisely because the mafias manage it, thanks to criminalization. With the criminalization of drugs, many politicians get rich, finance their campaigns and arm armies with the money of the drug traffickers and these, with terror, get their votes, thus violence grows,” he said.
Petro and some of his officials have said they will continue to pursue the legalization of the adult-use cannabis market during the next legislative term.