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Legalization Increases Drug Use by Colombians

ANGEL GONZLEZ, a Bogota drug pusher, says his life isn't any easier since the Colombian government decriminalized drug use.

"They can't get the users, so the cops come down on us all the harder, and the 'taxes' are worse than ever," says Mr. Gonzalez. He is bitter after spending the previous night in jail - he didn't have money for the bribes the police call "taxes."

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It has been a year since Colombia's Constitutional Court ruled that drug users may carry a personal dose of marijuana, cocaine, methadone, or hashish. The sale of drugs and use by minors or in public places is still prohibited.

In the past year, use of these drugs has risen, while the age of the users has fallen, says Gonzalez. Emergency-room physicians and drug consellors rehabilitation councilors agree.

Many Colombians deny theirs is a society of drug takers and blame the United States and other consuming countries for Colombia's drug problems. The US Drug Enforcement Administration says Colombia produces 80 percent of the world's cocaine and a thirdits heroin.

But the proportion of addicts in Colombian cities is approaching that of the US. Since the personal dose was legalized a year ago, more youths are treading Gonzalez's path.

The idea behind the Court's legalizing a personal dose was to force the government to find more effective methods than law enforcement for fighting drug abuse, such as education programs in the schools, says Constitutional Court Justice Carlos Gaviria, who wrote the decision.

"Drugs should be regulated in the same way as alcohol, which is not sold to minors," says Judge Gaviria. And no studies have been done that show that drug consumption has risen since he wrote the opinion, he points out.

But Camilo Uribe, head of toxicology at Bogota's Health Secretariat, says one reliable statistic shows that medical emergencies and deaths caused by overdoses have risen dramatically in the past year. "Previously, a death from an overdose was fairly exotic. Now there are three or more per month," he says.

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Decriminalization of the personal dose is one cause, Dr. Uribe adds. The other is the international war on drugs, which causes more of the product to be kept in Colombia and sold domestically at ever-lower prices.

Maria Isabel de Lince, director of a rehabilitation clinic in Prometeo, disagrees strongly with Gaviria's opinion that legalized drugs can be kept out of the hands of youth. Although she has not noticed a rise in applicants during the last year, her clients are younger.

"The more restrictions we have, the less likelihood that they will try them for the first time," she says. "I have two girls - 15 years old, who came in their high-school uniforms - who told their parents they needed money for a present for the teacher and to replace lost books, but they came to me when they ran out of excuses." The girls were using a Colombian brand of "crack" cocaine - bazuco.

Many Colombians, such as former Prosecutor General Gustavo de Greiff, support worldwide decriminalization, which would eliminate the violent distribution chain. Legalized drugs mean lower prices and an end to the wars among distributors.

As for Gonzalez, he has had access to drugs all his life. "I was born into a world of drugs, and I fell into a world of drug addiction."

He would like to stop dealing drugs to take drugs, but says that is unlikely as long as Colombia cannot provide rehabilitation for all of its citizens. "If there were a cheap rehabilitation program, I would be there," he says. "But for the poor, the only rehabilitation center is prison."

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