Costa Rican activists launch medical marijuana effort as cannabis overtakes tobacco

Posted on April 3rd, 2018 by Global Ganja Report and tagged , , , , .

Central America Cannabis is still illegal in Costa Rica, but a new government study reveals that it has overtaken tobacco as the smoking substance of choice in the traditionally peaceful Central American nation. Simultaneously, Costa Rican activists have launched a new association to press for a medical marijuana program. These developments come as a crusading anti-gay conservative was defeated in the presidential race by a center-left candidate who campaigned on a gay marriage platform. Will cannabis be the next item on Costa Rica's cultural agenda?

An official body formed by Costa Rica's government at the end of March issued a report with the surprise finding that use of tobacco has declined to the point that s shows a "tendency toward disappearance" in the coming years—and that cannabis is rapidly replacing it.

Guillermo Araya, director of the Costa Rican Institute on Drugs (ICD, by its Spanish acronym), credited the decline in tobacco use to the "information campaign" about its risks. The ICD was created by an act of Costa Rica's National Assembly in 2016 to study patterns of drug use in the country, in cooperation with the Ministry of Health.

But Araya was, predictably, less enthusiastic about the gains of cannabis. He raised the oft-heard concerns about THC levels in contemporary cannabis being far higher than a generation ago. And the Pan-American Health Organization's Costa Rica representative, Lilliam Reneau, commented that an increase in marijuana use in any society is "worrisome," as Prensa Latina reports.

But the lung damage risks of cannabis are negligible compared to those of tobacco, even when consumed as a smoking herb (as opposed to vaping or edibles). And, contrary to Araya's apparent assumptions, high-THC strains likely reduce the risk of lung damage by requiring less smoke to be inhaled to get the desired effect—a point made by advocates who oppose "THC maximum" proposals in Canada and Colorado. 

Such considerations may soon be brought to bear in the dialogue in Costa Rica. By coincidence or not, just as the ICD study was released, a group of young TIcos (as Costa Ricans call themselves) announced formation of a new association called Costa Rica Alchemy to push for an official medical marijuana program in the country. Costa Rica Alchemy will be a legally registered civic organization, with the purpose of "studying the varieties of cannabis and their different scientific, cultural and therapeutic applications."

Alchemy co-founder and president Javier Bermudez also alluded to actual production of medicinal cannabis to press the issue, and to meet patients' needs until the law can actually be changed. Alchemy will be dedicated to "preventing the dangers users are exposed to when trying to get this drug in the illicit market, and defending the rights of the consumers of this plant," Bermudez said in comments to online news site Costa Rica Hoy, translated into English by the Costa Rica Star.

"We will start with the registration of products in the Ministry of Health, which would allow us to sell them freely to people over 18 years of age once we get the sanitary permit. The association would work as social clubs do in Barcelona or Madrid, the coffee shops in Amsterdam or the dispensaries in Denver," Bermudez said.

The time may be ripe for this kind of thing. Also just as the ICD report was released, results came in from Costa Rica's presidential elections, which pivoted on another hot-button issue in the culture wars. Carlos Alvarado Quesada of the ruling center-left Citizen Action Party (PAC) decisively defeated his conservative Christian-fundamentalist challenger, Alvarado Muñoz of the National Restoration Party (PRN). Gay marriage had become the central issue of the electoral race: Muñoz made opposition to it his primary campaign plank, while Quesada openly embraced it. 

The incumbent PAC government had forced the issue by formally asking the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to issue an opinion on the question of whether same-sex marriages should be legally recognized. After the IACHR ruled in the affirmative in January, Muñoz called for Costa Rica to withdraw its membership from the international body. With his intolerant stance repudiated at the polls, there is a sense of cultural taboos falling. Costa Rica may be on track to become the first Central American country with a medical marijuana program.

Cannabis advocates scored a ground-breaking victory in the courts in 2016, when activist attorney Mario Alberto Cerdas Salazar was cleared of cultivation charges on grounds of individual liberties. He had been charged with "drug trafficking," despite the fact that he was growing for his personal consumption—primarily in the form of edibles.

In 2012, Costa Rica's then-President Laura Chinchilla joined with the leaders of Mexico, Honduras and Belize to issue a statement calling for a review of hemispheric anti-drug strategies in light of cannabis legalization in the US states of Colorado and Washington. The leaders called for the Organization of American States to study the implications of the Colorado and Washington votes, and called upon the UN General Assembly to hold a special session to reconsider the prohibition of drugs.

Later in 2012, after meeting with then-US Attorney General Janet Napolitano in Costa Rica, President Chinchilla again weighed in for initiating a dialogue on drug legalization as an alternative to current policy. "If we keep doing what we have been when the results today are worse than 10 years ago, we'll never get anywhere and could wind up like Mexico or Colombia," she said. And indeed, there have been ominous signs of the endemic narco-violence on the Mesoamerican isthmus starting to reach usually stable Costa Rica.

Chinchilla was with the National Liberation Party, or PLN—a center-left formation which is one of Costa Rica's two traditional political parties. Quesada's PAC broke from the PLN in 2000 to go in a more forthrightly progressive direction—for instance, opposing the then-pending Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Similarly, Muñoz's more aggressively cultural-conservative PRN has been stealing votes from the center-right Social Christian Unity Party, which was long the other pillar of Costa Rica's two-party system. That two-party system has now broken down amid growing polarization. 

This political opening—and especially the fact that the more progressive forces are, for the moment, winning—may make this a propitious moment for cannabis in Costa Rica. In 2016, the Vamos Party was launched (from the Spanish word for "Let's go"), as a still more progressive alternative to the PAC. It didn't run a presidential candidate, but fielded several candidates for the National Assembly. As Q Costa Rica News notes, the Vamos Party is openly calling for a legal cannabis sector in the country.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now




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