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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