"Colombia adopted the Early Warning System with COPOLAD, which contributes to the well-being of the population and has the potential to save lives."


Published on 14/05/19

Dr. Ana María Rueda Rodríguez is Social communicator and political scientist from the Javeriana University of Bogotá, Colombia, master’s in International Relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA, USA. She has extensive experience in the formulation, assessment and monitoring of drugs policies in Colombia. She currently serves as Drug Policy Director at the Ministry of Justice and Law, a Government agency that formulates, adopts, promotes, coordinates, leads, monitors and evaluates public drugs policies and strategies in the field, in coordination with corresponding authorities. From her previous experience stands out her technical support for the formulation of drugs policies and the process of land titling in areas of substitution of illicit crops, consultancy on the preparation of the Government at the Special Session on Drugs of the Assembly General of the United Nations in 2016, the coordination of the Advisory Commission for Drug Policy (2012-2015) and from  the National Dialogue on the Future of Drug Policy (2014-2016). Additionally, she worked at the Carter Center for four years on the coordination of missions for electoral observation and the strengthening of democratic projects in Latin American countries.

  • Colombia presented in 2018 its new drug policy, what are the priorities of this policy from the Drug Policy and Related Activities Directorate in Colombia?

It is a great achievement for the country to count with the "Comprehensive Policy to Address the Drug Problem: Future Route", approved by the National Narcotics Council at the December 2018 session, led by the President of the Republic. This policy establishes a holistic, differential and territorial vision that allows responding to the drugs problem from its different angles, for this reason, the policy establishes 4 strategic pillars and 1 transversal pillar:

  1. Reducing the consumption of psychoactive substances and its impact
  2. Reducing the availability of drugs for internal and external markets
  3. Dismantling and affecting criminal structures
  4. Affecting criminal economies and rents.
  5. Transversal: Generating territorial conditions to promote rural and urban licit economies, in a framework of environmental sustainability; Internationally positioning the policy and managing the support of collaborators and the private sector for its implementation; Promoting coordination and institutional articulation for the fulfillment of strategic goals; Promoting the generation of knowledge, monitoring and evaluation of the policy and ensuring the availability of controlled substances and access to them solely for medical and scientific purposes and preventing their deviation.

The Colombian Government, being aware of the need for a sustainable reduction of the effects that the drug problem generates, seeks through this policy to propitiate the actions and tools necessary to fulfill the objectives, for which the Ministry of Justice and Law has raised in the pillars as priorities i. Achieve inter-sectoral and inter-institutional policy coordination and articulation through the joint construction of an Action Plan; ii. Design and implement a model of surveillance, monitoring and evaluation (Strategic Monitoring Centre) that will enable the achievement of the goals and objectives set out in the policy action plan, in due time and with the expected impact; and finally, iii. Promote the territorial transformation that allows giving sustainability to the actions advanced in the strategic pillars.

  • Within the framework of COPOLAD, Colombia is successfully leading on advances in the field of National Drugs Observatories, such as the implementation of early warning systems (EWS) and supporting the development of methodologies to combat new threats. What advantages does it provide to Colombia to have an EWS and what do you consider are the benefits for the rest of the CELAC countries of the establishment of EWS in the countries of the region?

I think that the great contribution of the early warning system of the Colombian Drugs Observatory has been the identification of 33 new psychoactive substances and the issue of alerts to the health sector, control authorities, and the people who use drugs.

But beyond this, the EWS has also favoured the creation of an inter-institutional network integrated by the forensic laboratories of the Attorney General's Office, the National Police, Legal Medicine, the health sector, universities, and other relevant actors including civil society. The members of the network have taken a very active role in the monitoring of new drugs, and from their awareness and commitment they have generated a series of actions to improve the country’s response against this problem in different fields, such as legal, in the preparation of the toxicological emergencies network, in improving the capacity of the forensic analysis for detection, in strengthening the controls, in the development of investigations and in particular in contributing to the prevention and the reduction of risks and harms. We are also very honoured to lead the Working Group for the creation and/or strengthening of the Early Warning System, established as part of the first National Drug Observatories Meeting, held by COPOLAD in Jamaica in 2016. Within the framework of this group, the Manual for the implementation of an Early Warning System for New Psychoactive Substances and Emerging Drugs has been built, which has contributed to the development of its EWS, or to the progress of the CELAC countries. It will also remain a tool for the region against the threat of NPS.

The establishment of the EWS is the first step we can and should give countries to be prepared against the threat posed by new psychoactive substances, with all their implications and effects. No region of the world or any country is isolated from this problem. And we all have to move towards joint action starting from timely drug identification. The creation of an EWS in a country contributes to the well-being of its population, it contributes to the reduction of the consumption and supply of these substances, but most importantly, it has the potential to save lives.

  • Colombia participates in COPOLAD in the advancement of key strategic lines in drug policy, such as the control of chemical precursors for the production of synthetic drugs. What is your assessment of the exchange of experiences and best practices between CELAC countries facilitated through COPOLAD, especially through the Working Group on precursors, in which Colombia participates?

Colombia greatly values the CELAC-EU bi-regional dialogue as the only meeting space between the two regions that has allowed to structure an agenda with common interests such as the global drugs problem, whose strategies of action are implemented through the COPOLAD programme identifying working groups for specific points of the problem, such as the chemical precursors used in the production of drugs.

In this way, the exchange of experiences and good practices between countries of the CELAC is of great value to the Ministry of Justice and Law and to the country with regard to the development of strategies that contribute to the strengthening of the capacity of response to the control of chemical precursors frequently used in the illicit production of drugs, as well as the applicable legislation, through international cooperation mechanisms and articulation with the competent authorities and the private sector.

The Ministry has actively participated in this Working Group, since its creation in April 2018, sharing information on the control of chemical precursors with its peer institutions in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, also conducting specific analyses of diversion cases and jointly determining the best routes of action for the judicial process.

A product to be highlighted is the joint construction of a technical document that brings together the recommendations and lessons learned in the field of chemical identification and judicial processes in the field of chemical precursors and which will be approved at the 4th COPOLAD Annual Week on Chemical Precursors.

  • The Minister of Justice recently presented the "Plan for the Transformation and Humanization of the Prison System in Colombia 2019-2022", which is based on respect for human and fundamental rights, with a focus on prevention, human development, and territorial articulation. From your Government's experience in this regard, how would you promote the involvement of new countries in the development of alternative measures to prison for drug-related offences?

The Plan for the Transformation and Humanization of the Prison System recognizes that prison treatment has spread disproportionately, not only in terms of time in prison but also in the creation of unnecessary penal types and in violation of the exceptional character of deprivation of liberty.

In the field of drug offences, within the framework of the Hemispheric Drug Strategy, the need was established to explore ways of providing treatment, rehabilitation, and social reintegration services to drug-dependent criminal law offenders, as an alternative measure to their criminal prosecution or deprivation of liberty. Likewise, in the declaration of Antigua-Guatemala and in the Extraordinary Assembly of the OAS in 2014, the need was established to strengthen the actions of States related for the reduction of prison overcrowding, access to justice, proportionality between sentence and damage, and supporting alternatives to incarceration for drug-related offenses.

In this line, at the Fifty-Fourth Session of CICAD-OAS, in the year 2013, Colombia, holding the presidency of CICAD at the time, commissioned the establishment of a Technical Support Group in order to produce a report aimed at generating proposals for alternatives to incarceration for drug-related offenses.

This text, published in 2015 and titled "Technical Report on Alternatives to Incarceration for Drug-Related Offences", pointed to the need to design and adopt alternatives to incarceration in accordance with the particularities of each country. The document is available to all Member States, which, according to their needs, context and regulations, can implement such measures.

In the Colombian case in particular, since the year 2017, the Government promotes the implementation of the Programme for Judicial Follow-up to Drug Treatment in the Criminal Responsibility System for Adolescents – SRPA-, which is based on the Drug Treatment Courts Model but adjusted to the Colombian context. The programme seeks to promote alternatives to adolescents who have committed crimes related to problematic drug use, in order to avoid recidivism in crime and to tackle its causes.

The programme is an alternative to judicialization and the use of custodial measures, through which, a teenager in conflict with the criminal law due to the commission of a misdemeanor related to problematic drug use, voluntarily enters a comprehensive treatment scheme under strict judicial supervision. The programme is currently being implemented in the city of Medellín and its reach is being extended to four more departments (Casanare, Meta, Atlántico, and Quindío).

In the framework of the programme, exchanges of knowledge have taken place with Chile and Peru. The objective is to make this experience available to the countries of the region, providing specialized technical support to those interested in initiating its implementation, considering the need to strengthen cooperation and exchange of experiences between countries, as set out in the objectives of COPOLAD.

  • In Colombia, Integral Alternative Development is part of the 2016 peace accords. How would you synthesize the model and main objectives of alternative development in Colombia for the coming years?

In point 4, "Solution to the illicit drugs problem" of the peace agreement signed between the national government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the creation of the programme to replace crops for illicit use was established in order to "promote the voluntary substitution of illicit crops, through the development of programmes and projects to contribute to the overcoming of conditions of poverty and marginality of peasant families that derive their livelihood from illicit crops".

As of February 2019, according to the consolidated Executive report No. 16 presented by UNODC, the programme registers 99,097 families individually registered in 56 municipalities of 14 departments, with 34,767 hectares voluntarily eradicated or with assistance. Beneficiaries access the roadmap according to the timeline presented in Figure 1.

Graphic 1. PNIS Roadmap Timeline
First year: Sign of individual agreement – First PAI
<60 days for removal of illicit crop; 1’800,000 Self-sustainability project; 9’000,000 Short cycle & fast income project

In addition, within the Comprehensive Policy: Future Route, in Pillar 2 aimed at reducing the availability of illicit drugs, the following objectives have been raised:

- Reducing illicit crops

- Reducing territorial vulnerabilities

- Reducing drug production through controlling chemicals and production infrastructures

- Reducing the availability of synthetic drugs and new psychoactive substances

The Comprehensive Policy Action Plan: Future Route includes all actions aimed at reducing illicit crops, both forcibly and voluntarily, in which alternative development is a priority, including a differentiated strategy to address the problems in areas of special management, such as natural national parks, indigenous reservoirs, community councils and borders.

  • On 11 August 2017, the national government completed the process of regulating cannabis for medicinal and scientific purposes, along with a broad display of public information on this subject. To what extent is inter-agency communication and interagency cooperation key to the development of efficient and coordinated public health policies?

In the case of the implementation of the regulations related to medical and scientific access to cannabis in Colombia, the fact that there is close communication between the bodies responsible for each link of the controls of this productive chain, has allowed a harmonization of procedures and decision-making, jointly and from various points of view, in order to offer quality services and products to the population that requires access to medicines that can be extracted from that plant.

  • Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended to the United Nations Committee on Narcotic Drugs to eliminate cannabis from the list of dangerous substances to be monitored. How is perceived from recent movements in the region for the regulation of cannabis for medicinal and/or recreational use and what will be their position?

Colombia developed legislation only for medical, scientific and industrial use of cannabis, which is based on the international drug control treaties. Our regulatory model is based on the processing of cannabis in extracts and resins which in turn should be transformed into prescription drugs, whose THC and CBD content should be defined, therefore, WHO recommendations were previously analysed by the authorities of the country who see with good eyes the proposed changes in the control of cannabis, its resins, extracts and tinctures, of cannabinoids and of the preparations that contain them, because they are based on scientific evidence and balanced control measures, in favour of access of these medicines to patients who can legitimately benefit from their therapeutic effects.

However, the unique and definitive position of the government of Colombia with regard to the WHO recommendations could not be materialised, as the urgency with which these recommendations were disclosed forced an agreement within the framework of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of last March to postpone its vote, which is expected to take place as soon as possible, not without the necessary international and regional discussions to enrich, clarify and harmonize the WHO proposals, the concerns of certain countries and the positions expressed by the INCB.

Colombia, with the experience it has gathered in the implementation of its regulation for medicinal cannabis, has provided technical assistance to neighbouring countries and remains observant of the other regulatory changes that other territories have started around this narcotic.

  • Colombia maintains a high level of involvement and leadership in COPOLAD since its inception in 2011. How has your country benefited from the bi-regional, and triangular, CELAC-EU cooperation developed so far in the framework of COPOLAD?

In Colombia we are very satisfied with the results of the COPOLAD programme. We think that it is a successful programme, which has fulfilled its objectives and has given very significant results and products for the region, as part of the bi-regional exchange and cooperation (CELAC and European Union). Therefore, we recognize the invaluable contribution that this cooperation and assistance to our country and the CELAC region has generated, highlighting, among others:

- COPOLAD is a platform that is built with the contributions of all partners and based on the needs and priorities of the countries that make it up. Consequently, its activities are relevant and value-generating thanks to its capacity-building and technical contributions to countries in their drug policies and strategies.

- The integration that COPOLAD has promoted among the countries of the region has been very beneficial, as well as the synergy with other key actors in drug policy such as CICAD/OAS, PAHO/WHO, the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction, the RIOD. The association of these organizations in the execution of COPOLAD, avoids duplication and guarantees building on the resources and developments in the region and contributes to strengthening existing lines of work.

- I would also like to highlight the working scheme of COPOLAD II, which incorporates South-South cooperation, which contributes to the strengthening of drug commissions, allows to identify and consolidate leadership and provides capacity installed in the region. Thanks to this working scheme, the role of Latin American and Caribbean countries has been more active in this phase

- COPOLAD has also contributed to the strengthening of institutional capacities for the country, based on the exchanges of experiences, knowledge, and assistance provided in the field of reducing drugs supply and demand. The training processes in various subjects such as control of chemicals, new psychoactive substances, prevention of drug use, the public health approach, among others, have benefited several institutions of the country.

- In this way, thanks to the exchanges of experiences and training that we received within the framework of COPOLAD I, Colombia adopted the Early Warning System, and during COPOLAD II it has strengthened its model and has transferred knowledge to third countries like Argentina and Peru, among others, becoming a pioneer in the region in the development of this model.

- The visibility of our experiences and strategies with national drugs observatories has also been enhanced, especially because South-South cooperation initiatives have been developed.

- Another important aspect is the capacity that COPOLAD has provided to promote exchanges of experiences with CELAC and EU countries. For example, in 2018 we had the visit of delegates of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, with whom we developed academic and exchange activities during a week on new trends of the drug problem, all valuable contributions to strengthen our observatory.

- Likewise, COPOLAD has generated technical tools that currently affect the formulation of our guidelines and strategies, as is the case of the document on Quality and Evidence in Drug Demand Reduction- a framework of reference for the accreditation of programmes that establishes quality criteria for drug use-reduction services, which were incorporated into the National Guidelines for Drug Use Prevention and Care.

- Finally, COPOLAD has contributed to the promotion of a learning community among the different countries, entities, and actors linked to the platform, providing value to the processes of building and implementation of drugs policies of the countries of the region and to the generation and strengthening of the institutional capacities of States facing this problem and common threat of the region as evidenced in the level of cooperation and the approach of the drug authorities for the control of chemical precursors, through the Working Group on precursors, promoted by COPOLAD.