‘Semana Psicoactiva 2023’, an international conference on innovative drug policies, organised by Acción Técnica Social between 2 and 4 August 2023 in Bogotá, created a much-needed public debate to Colombia on building evidence-based drug policies. The conference was a great opportunity to exchange experiences, knowledge and disciplines from across the drug world.
The event featured national and international panellists, with a range of discussions around regulatory policy, public health, international experience and communication on drug issues in the media.
Semana Psicoactiva 2023 demonstrated that in Colombia it is possible to create and promote public spaces for discussion on regulation and drug policy change in formats that are increasingly popular.
Our team highlights three conclusions from this event that supported the defence and development of our freedoms and individual rights.
1. Colombia’s current political momentum on drug policy is unprecedented (and must be seized).
During the celebration of Psychoactive Week, several spokespeople from Colombian national government entities participated, led by the director of drug policy of the Ministry of Justice, Gloria Miranda, the vice-minister of health Jaime Urrego, and Mauricio Toro, President of ICETEX (the Colombian Institute of Educational Credit and Technical Studies Abroad).
The national government officials recognised the need to push for the regulation of different drugs in Colombia and to build a new drug policy based on fundamental pillars such as peace building, public health care and creating opportunities in conflict-impacted areas.
According to the director of drug policy at the Ministry of Justice, Gloria Miranda, the new drug policy of the government of President Gustavo Petro is the result of a participatory construction process in areas throughout the national territory and in permanent dialogue with different communities affected by drug-related conflict and drug trafficking. Miranda also affirmed that he has found a broad willingness in the different government ministries and entities to support and finance different projects within this new drug policy.
On this point, the president of ICETEX, Mauricio Toro, pointed out that different government entities are ready to support this initiative, given that “precisely with the risk reduction policy what we are looking for is adequate information and above all to guarantee that the state can regulate a phenomenon that is uncontrolled”.
There are few moments in time where the national government has been better poised for drug policy change than now. On the one hand, the National Development Plan approved by the Colombian Congress includes an article that suggests the need to build a new drug policy. Another discussion in Congress on the regulation of cannabis for adult use was approved in 7 out of 8 regulatory debates. It was narrowly rejected in the final debate, missing one vote for authorisation. The next legislature will discuss the bill again.
For this reason, both civil society and the national administration have underscored the importance of seizing this historic opportunity and unprecedented political support to transform the national drug policy, not only in terms of regulation but also in the way in which the security forces deal with drug trafficking. In this sense, the director of drug policy assured that the fight against illegal drug production “must focus on the highest links of drug trafficking in a strategic way. The fight must be against the highest level targets in the drug trafficking system, who are the ones causing the violence.
On the role that Colombia can play in this debate at the national and regional level, Isabel Pereira, of the human rights organisation DeJusticia explained: “Colombia elevates the conversation on drugs; it can talk about the relationship between drug policy and issues such as the armed conflict and transitional justice”.
2. Journalism is slowly moving towards a new way to cover drug issues.
One of the main panels of Psychoactive Week 2023 dealt precisely with the role of journalism in the coverage of drug issues, with the participation of journalists from various generations and from distinct media outlets.
The different journalists invited, from their different formats and fields of work, laid out their commitment to changing narratives, including using more updated and specialised language when covering drug-related issues.
One of the participants in the panel, journalist Santiago Rivas, stated in the discussion that “the war on drugs revolves around a narrative. Journalism must maintain a distance from that narrative and keep alive the exercise of asking questions about this issue”.
In a similar vein, the prominent journalist and opinion columnist María Jimena Duzán, one of the most widely read writers in Colombia, argued that the generations of journalists who covered the war must adopt new discourses committed to peace and nuance. She explained: “the war on drugs was at the centre of the politics of war in Colombia. With changes in politics, we are moving towards changing those war-based narratives and building new ones”.
Duzán argued that her generation should teach new generations of journalists that, contrary to what they learned decades ago in journalism schools, there are many shades of greys when reporting on war and peace. “The [current] narrative of the war on drugs is to ignore the many greys,” he explained.
In fact, in the course of the debate on the bill to regulate cannabis for adult use, the country witnessed an unprecedented coverage of the discussion by some of the most important and traditional media outlets, which offered new spaces for this discussion, which has historically been ignored by mainstream journalism.
But it is not only about changing narratives, but also about building more creative content and products capable of communicating the need for a new drug policy in an innovative way, said Laila Abu Shihab, journalist at the Vorágine portal. For Abu Shihab, media outlets that continue to insist on reproducing stereotypes and narratives of the past will increasingly lose relevance with their audiences.
3. The role of civil society and NGOs is essential for social transformations and change in public policy.
Semana Psicoactiva 2023 was a meeting point for various civil society initiatives, both Colombian and international, coming at the issue from many angles like user care, information dissemination and harm reduction, all seeking to support drug policy change in their contexts.
These actors are not only key agents in advancing work in their area, but they are also key contributors to ongoing discussions with public entities on the need to regulate and speak publicly about drug issues.
“The first is to fight against disinformation, mainly from the media (…) The second is that we are always asked for data and evidence, but the opposition is not asked for it”.
From the field of research and the defence of regulation, researcher Zara Snapp pointed out that civil society should remember that “the role of the State should be to regulate products, not to prohibit them. The user should have access to a spectrum of product options and information”.
In an interview with the La Mata No Mata team, Drug Policy Alliance founder Ethan Nadelmann argued that civil society organisations must “show that this business cannot be left in the hands of criminal organisations when the government could be taxing, regulating and providing quality controls for users”.