Colombia: Surge in Imprisonment for Drug Offenses Raises Questions Over Decriminalization Law

A recent report reveals that the number of people imprisoned for drug offenses in Colombia skyrocketed over 250 percent in the last 14 years, despite the country’s decriminalization law and professed commitment to drug policy reform.

The report, released November 3 by the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho - CEDD), found that between 2000 and 2014 the number of people imprisoned for drug offenses in Colombia grew from 6,263 to 23,141, an alarming rise of 269 percent. This outstrips the total rise in prison population during the same period (136 percent).

As of 2014, 20 percent of people incarcerated in Colombia were there for drug crimes, a jump from the 12 percent they constituted in 2000.

What makes the climb in Colombia’s prison population particularly surprising is the fact that bar two years in the 14-year period outlined above, Colombia has had in place a law decriminalizing the possession of drugs for personal use.

The country first decriminalized possession for personal use in 1994 when the Constitutional Court ruled that that penalties for carrying a personal dose were unconstitutional. However, after being elected president in 2002, Alvaro Uribe pushed hard to have the ruling overturned, succeeding in 2009 with the passing of a constitutional amendment.

Uribe’s amendment was only to last two years, though, with the Supreme Court reaffirming the 1994 ruling in 2011, and paving the way for the government of Juan Manuel Santos to propose legislation decriminalizing possession of 20 grams of marijuana and a gram of cocaine. The Constitutional Court approved this in July 2012.

In addition, President Santos has expressed a desire to explore measures beyond decriminalization, telling the Observer in 2011 that “[a] new approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking … If that means legalizing, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it.”

The fact that Colombia’s decriminalization law and apparent progressiveness from the current government has not translated into on-the-ground implementation raises questions of how the cultural shift away from criminal justice solutions to the issue can begin.

Colombia is not alone in witnessing this trend. CEDD found greater increases in prison populations for drug offenses than general prison population growth in five of the nine Latin American countries they surveyed. Overall every single country that they surveyed (Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Costa Rica, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, and Mexico) saw increases in imprisonment for drug offenses ranging from 19 percent in Mexico (2011-2013) to 320 percent in Brazil (2005-2012).

The report noted that:

“[the] profile of people incarcerated for these crimes continues to show that they are low-level actors in the drug trade … associated with subsistence economies or other vulnerable conditions; in addition, there is greater representation among them of women and foreign nationals.”

Colombia adheres to this latter trend in particular; in 2014 45 percent of all women incarcerated in the country were imprisoned for drug offenses. This disproportionality exists despite researcher Corina Giacomello finding that “women are on the lowest rungs of the crime ladder. They work mainly as growers, collectors, low-level dealers or couriers … With few exceptions, therefore, they serve as expendable and easily replaced labor for transnational criminal networks.”

The worrying upsurge in incarceration for low-level drug offenses has not been found to be a product of increased prosecution of drug traffickers. Researcher Rodrigo Uprimny found that of the 18,403 individuals prosecuted between 2007 and 2009 for drug offenses only 428 were prosecuted simultaneously for conspiracy to engage in criminal conduct. Therefore, he asserts,“[this] could imply that 98 percent of the persons deprived of liberty for this crime had not had – or it had not been possible to prove that they had – major participation in drug-trafficking networks."

The revelations of this report demonstrate the implementation gap between legislative reform and cultural practice and indicates that much work remains in the fight to reframe drug use not as a criminal justice issue, but as a public health priority.