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Bogota mayor calls for controlled drug consumption centers

posted 8 Aug 2012, 15:52 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 8 Aug 2012, 15:58 ]

A plan proposed by the mayor of Bogota to promote treating drug addicts and allowing drug consumption centres sparks debate in one of the world's largest drug exporting nations.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA (AUGUST 08, 2012) (REUTERS) - A plan proposed by the mayor of Bogota to create centres where drug addicts can safely consume illegal narcotics as a measure to combat drug violence in the Colombian capital has sparked a polemic debate in one of the world's largest drug exporting nations.

Mayor Gustavo Petro called for the measure on Monday (August 6) saying it would benefit users willing to seek help with their addictions as well as reduce drug related homicides and robberies all while giving users access to rehabilitation efforts.

"To articulate a rehabilitation policy that, starting with the freedom of the consumer and the victim and the therapeutic community, or to associate them with one another to overcome the problem, allows us to diminish consumption while also diminishing the harm done to society in terms of deaths, in terms of misdemeanours, in terms of the unfortunate contact our youths have with so many truly powerful people and killers in our poorer neighbourhoods," Petro said.

Supporters of the proposal say it will keep young drug users out from behind bars and keep them safe from "killer" drug dealers saying the best approach to providing security is to keep consumers away from gangs selling the narcotics.

The push comes just over a week after President Juan Manuel Santos signed a law calling psychoactive or mind-altering drugs a public health concern.

The move is inline with other countries including the United States which in May classified drug abuse as a public health problem as much as a crime issue as it looked for new ways to treat addiction as a disease instead.

Proponents push for a balanced approach to substance abusers rather than fighting a "war on drugs" centred mainly on law enforcement.

"There are two completely opposite visions here. What I call the Asian focus: in Asia they put the user in prison for I don't know how long and the drug dealer is given capital punishment. This is one extreme.

 The other extreme would be what the president of Uruguay is doing; legalizing. Between one extreme and the other there are different methods, but until we know the repercussions, what the consequences from either one of these visions is, I think it is a little irresponsible to jump into it head first because we could cause a lot of damage to society, to young people, to a country," Santos said.

Medical research has shown that drug abuse disorders are chronic diseases of the brain that can be effectively prevented and treated.

More and more medical doctors and policymakers are calling on the international community to recognize this and create programs to prevent and treat abusers, help addicts recover, and explore reforms to criminal justice systems to stop the revolving door of drug use, criminal behaviour, jail, release, and re-arrest.

Some, like the President of the Colombian Medical Association, Doctor Sergio Isaza, point to the legal regulation of drugs, especially cannabis in countries such as Portugal, Switzerland and the Netherlands where drug consumption has been reduced.

"I think the proposal has been in the waiting from a medical point of view. From the point of view of those who suffer from drug dependence as well. And it would be from an advanced political point of view and is in accordance with what the international community has done in places like Europe where this idea has made important advancements with positive results," said Isaza.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drug consumption and users now face fines and treatment instead of jail time, while in Holland heroin can be medically prescribed and in Switzerland addicts get free methadone and clean needles.

On the other hand, Colombia is one of the world's top cocaine producers and has been battling drug-funded leftist rebels and powerful gangs for decades, but billions of dollars in drugs still leave the nation each year despite a decade-long U.S.-backed security crackdown.

Efforts to eradicate coca plantations, the raw material used to produce cocaine, have led to a dramatic decline in the crop from 163,000 hectares (402,781 acres) planted in 2000 when the United States began spending billions of dollars to combat drug traffickers and guerrillas to 64,000 hectares (158,147 acres) in 2011.

Santos has seen his ratings slide in recent weeks partly due to complaints that rebels - who are largely funded by the drugs trade - were gaining the upper hand against government troops after hard-fought battles over the last decade.

His openness to consider new methods to fight consumption may also prove fodder from his opponents.

"What is being proposed ultimately promotes consumption and promoting consumption promotes violence," said Colombian state attorney, Alejandro Ordonez.

Local newspapers on Wednesday's (August 8) were splattered with news of the conflicting plans and the people of Bogota seem split on the idea as well.

"I think the idea should be taken into account. It has to be looked into. We can't say yes or no to it without knowing what the benefits or the costs might be. I think it should be evaluated. If we've had 20 or 30 years of consumption and we haven't been able to do anything about it we have to look into alternatives, different ideas," said one resident, Jimmy Davila.

"Well, in my opinion this is bad because it is authorizing drugs to the drug addicts. For it to be legal here in Colombia, that would be bad and shouldn't happen," another resident, Farid Rivera said.

The Colombian plan which aims to diminish drug deals in the country would push state funded drug rehabilitation for those willing to "voluntarily" accept help for their addiction.