What Colombia Can Learn From Uruguay's Mellow Pot Policy

Rather than clamp down on drug users, Colombia might borrow a page from its far southern neighbor and consider a more humane approach.

Pro-recreational use protest in Bogota, Colombia on Sept. 6
Rodrigo Uprimny


BOGOTÁ — Right around the time the new administration in Colombia issued a decree ordering police to destroy any and all illegal drugs they find — no matter what the setting or how small the amount — I happened to be at the opposite end of South America, in Uruguay. And it occurred to me that the two countries aren't just separated by geography: They're also at polar extremes when it comes to drugs policies.

Five years ago Uruguay began to undo its prohibition of drugs, at least partially, by allowing adults to obtain recreational cannabis, either by growing it — on an individual basis or through so-called cannabis associations — or purchasing it through certain drugstores authorized to sell state-produced marijuana. All of these actions are subject to strict regulations, to avoid any abuses such as the sale of the drug to underage buyers.

The approach is similar to how many countries treat tobacco and alcohol.

Implementing this policy has not been easy. But the way it's worked so far has, for the most part, allayed the fears of opponents. The policy has also benefited users who no longer have to turn to criminal suppliers or face discrimination, and who receive a substance with quality controls. All of that helps explain growing public support for the policy.

The Uruguayan model is far from perfect, and over time it may require some adjustments. But the country is showing that it's possible to have a more rational and humane policy toward marijuana, and with a real focus on public health. Indeed, the approach is similar to how many countries treat tobacco and alcohol.

Colombia, in contrast, is moving in the opposite direction. In addition to the aforementioned presidential decree, the new government, as I noted in a previous column, also wants to strictly limit the so-called "personal supply dose," the amount of drugs a person can have in his or her possession without being prosecuted for trafficking.

Problematic profiling

The decree, for its part, gives police the green light to search more people, and based solely on whether the subject "looks' like a user. For that, police are to use their own discretion, which as studies have shown, tends to be discriminatory. To avoid police harassment, many users may start buying in larger quantities, which will then exceed the minimal personal doses state prosecutors want to limit. If arrested, they would then be prosecuted and perhaps jailed for years as drug dealers.

All of this will subject many users to police harassment and possible criminalization. What it doesn't do is address the problem of substance abuse, as it only marginalizes users. It is also a discriminatory policy in that it will predominantly affect poorer users — those who buy drugs on the street — rather than wealthier people who manage to have drugs delivered to their homes.

Many users may start buying in larger quantities.

Would it not be better for police to spend their time fighting serious crimes instead of pestering possible drug users? Rather than punitive, discriminatory measures that only provoke arbitrary incidents and unnecessary suffering, Colombia would do well to follow Uruguay's lead. What we need are more humane policies toward users, not the same old, irrational policies of prohibition.

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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