At the end of March, a Costa Rican government agency issued a report with the surprise finding that use of tobacco has declined to the point that it 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. Similarly, the Pan-American Health Organization‘s Costa Rica representative, Lilliam Reneau, commented in Spanish to Prensa Latina that an increase in marijuana use in any society is “worrisome.”
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 Costa Ricans announced the 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. This weekend, results came in from Costa Rica’s presidential elections, which pivoted on another hot-button issue in the culture wars: LGBTQ rights.
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 Costa Rican 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 U.S. 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-U.S. Attorney General Janet Napolitano in Costa Rica, President Chinchilla again weighed in, 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 in Central America starting to reach the usually stable Costa Rica.
One final sign that cannabis legalization might be coming to Costa Rica: In 2016, the Vamos Party was formed. It didn’t run a presidential candidate this year, 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.
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