In Colombia, Lawmakers Debate Making Ecstasy Legal
Photo courtesy of Echela Cabeza
Beats fill the lofty space inside the Latina Power club on a Friday night in the Chapinero neighborhood of Colombia’s capital. A kaleidoscope of images project onto a screen as Bogotá’s partiers stream in from out of the cold rain.
A towering, six-foot-high photo of a young woman stepping out of a doorway with a beckoning and intrepid look hangs by one end of the bar. Printed alongside her on the heavy plastic poster: “Come out of the psychoactive closet.”
That catchy phrase—concocted by a drug-safety advocacy group called Echele Cabeza—encourages users of ecstasy and other synthetic drugs to open up about their party habits and to investigate the safety of the drugs they are taking, something the group hopes will make partying in Bogotá a more enlightened and less dangerous activity.
Colombia has long been a world leader in the production of drugs—namely cocaine. But only recently has it had to confront that it has become a country of increasing drug consumption as well. And that, drug experts say, isn’t particular to Colombia. Drug consumption across the globe is on the rise, said Daniel Mejía, Director of the Center for Research on Security and Drugs at Bogotá’s University of the Andes.
Following that trend, a new drug bill, put forth by the Ministry of Justice, proposes to regulate (not ban) the personal consumption of ecstasy and other synthetic drugs. The possibility pleases drug users, satisfies many drug experts, and alarms some politicians here.
“That would send the wrong signal to our youth,” Efraín Cepeda, a senator and head of Colombia’s Conservative party told me. Earlier, he said to local reporters that for Colombia to allow for synthetic drug use would be a “leap in the dark.”
But Colombia already has some experience with the decriminalization of drugs.
For years, a 1994 law allowed for personal amounts of marijuana and cocaine. In the 2000s, under the administration of hardline ex-president Alvaro Uribe, Colombia started to take a more repressive approach to drug use and, in 2009, penalized the possession and use of cocaine and marijuana.
But last June, the country’s Constitutional Court reverted to decriminalize their personal use—and this time, extended the ruling to also include synthetic drugs.
Which ones? That’s exactly what the government bill is trying to define and put into law. If the law passes, it would allow for a personal dose of ecstasy (200 mg or three pills) and other amphetamines, but it excludes methamphetamines and LSD.
The government says it’s modernizing its drug policies to take into account what drugs are being used today.
Few know better than Echele Cabeza—to the milligram, actually. From party to concert to rave, Echele Cabeza brings a mobile laboratory that can tell drug consumers if the sample of the substance of their choice actually contains what it’s been sold to them as. Users can break off a sample of, for example, ecstasy and the lab can detect if they’ve bought a fake pill or not. “If it has MDMA [the principal amphetamine in ecstasy], what am I going to tell you? Don’t consume it with alcohol,” said Sergio Daniel, 28, a sociologist and volunteer with Echele Cabeza. “If it doesn’t, what do I say to you? I’m sorry but I don’t know what it has—take it responsibly.”
The collective is part of Acción Técnica Social, the only non-profit in the country dedicated to reducing the risks of consuming psychoactive drugs. One of their slogans says it all: More Pleasure, Less Bad Trips. Most of its members were party kids when the electronic music scene and its associated drugs surged here in the mid-1990s.
Its president, Julian Quintero, 35, with a mop of curly hair and a tattoo running down his arm that reads “Nice people take drugs,” remembers how before it became popularized, ecstasy was considered an exclusive drug—only the elite could afford its price tag (about $15 a pop at the time, which was expensive in this still-developing country) or access it via friends who brought it back from their travels in the US or Europe.
By the mid-2000s, the quality of ecstasy pills had dropped and so too had its popularity. LSD started filling the void. By the end of the decade, both LSD and ecstasy climbed lock and step in popularity
“Then what happened last year?” Quintero said. “LSD sucked.” Not only that, the quality of ecstasy jumped back. “The good quality of ecstasy in last year replaced the drop in quality of LSD,” he said. So much so that the high quality of today’s ecstasy has drawn him, and others his age to use it again.
Echele Cabeza’s lab has been recording extraordinarily high concentrations of MDMA in ecstasy pills—some pills they’re coming across have the content of essentially two ecstasy pills in one. “It’s way too good,” said Quintero. “It has double the sensation, but it also can produce double the crisis [of coming-down].”
Quintero has observed that ecstasy’s high quality over the last year has bumped its consumption somewhat. But some politicians fear that its consumption will surge if Colombia passes into law a personal dose of ecstasy.
“It will increase consumption,” feared Gilma Jiménez, a senator who opposes the bill. “It will hand over our kids into the underworld so that they become addicts and drug traffickers.”
But Augusto Pérez, a psychologist who works with drug addicts and the director of the Nuevos Rumbos Corporation, an NGO that studies and consults on drug policy, says such an attitude is alarmist and unfounded. Ecstasy itself doesn’t have addictive qualities and he says Colombians shouldn’t expect consumption of a drug to spike if its decriminalized—there was no long-lasting surge in cocaine and marijuana use following its decriminalization here, said Perez.
Essentially, ecstasy is only one of many drugs (often in a comparable price range) on offer in Bogotá. “Here, you have a party scene that few other cities in Latin America have,” Quintero pointed out. “Here you can consume the drugs you want at a low cost and high quality.”
The government expects to send its bill to Congress for a vote in July. A recent poll by a radio station found that 67 percent of those surveyed were against the depenalization of ecstasy and other synthetics.
“Why are they [politicians against it] pulling their hair out… and creating such a scandal because of depenalizing a substance like ecstasy?” said Perez. Especially, he noted, when personal use of cocaine, a far more dangerous and addictive substance in his view, has already been decriminalized—and to no significant effect on consumption levels.
It’s not as though Colombia has an ecstasy-consumption crisis on its hands: a study of university students last year found that under 1 percent of students had used it last year, and its popularity lagged behind that of marijuana, cocaine, LSD, and inhalants.
So why are some politicians rattling about adding ecstasy to the basket of drugs permitted at a personal dose?
“Because it’s new,” said one ecstasy user who wanted to remain anonymous. “People don’t understand the reality.” Though ecstasy has been around for years, its use is not widespread and the scene itself is relatively small, associated with electronic parties, skaters, the arts scene and those who can afford it at $12–$17 a pop. Furthermore, people tend to seek it out not for regular use, but a particular experience at weekend dance parties, pointed out Joana Arevalo, an activist and defender of the rights of psychoactive drug users (and one herself).
Most politicians opposed to the ecstasy allowance aren’t alarmed by the regulation of synthetic drugs per se, but are against allowing for a personal consumption of drugs in general.
“The key is to focus on policies that address the harms of problematic consumption,” said Mejía, who sits on a commission formed by the government to make proposals on how to advance the country’s drug policies—the kind related to addiction, criminal acts, and disease.
The proposed government bill’s tough stance on drug trafficking while at the same time calling for less repressive approaches to consumption reflects a major shift in perspective toward looking at drug consumption as an issue of public health, and not a criminal one. Drug experts hail the approach of focusing on prevention and treatment, rather than sending consumers to jail.
With the bill, “We are drawing the line between the criminal and the consumer,” Minister of Justice Ruth Stella Correa announced.
No matter what, there are always going to be people who party with drugs, so there should be a focus on reducing the risks they might encounter while doing so, says Echele Cabeza.
“Now, there are a lot more substances, more pirated ones, more people in search of them, but more than anything, there’s a lot more sellers of everything,” said Daniel. So, informing the polyconsumer which drugs are bad to combine is part of Echele Cabeza’s strategy. The mobile lab is vital too, says Daniel, in that it can warn users if they’ve been sold substances different than from what they were told by a dealer. And if they notice a pattern that in a certain part of town, or a certain dealer, is selling false drugs, they can send out an alert of sorts to users.
"It’s not about stopping the party," said Daniel. "They just want to make the party safe."
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