San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Pope says don’t smoke dope, but some Ticos disagree

During his visit to Brazil this week, Pope Francis I came out strongly against legalization of illicit drugs as a means to curb drug addiction in the Americas. While the Latin American pontiff criticized liberalizing drug laws in the region, a group of Costa Ricans is working to legalize medical marijuana.

“A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalization of drug use, as is currently being proposed in various parts of Latin America,” said the pope as he met crack addicts and inaugurated a rehabilitation ward at a hospital in Rio de Janeiro run by Franciscan monks. 

Advocates of more liberal marijuana laws, however, believe that the drug has been the victim of misinformation campaigns and could serve as an important treatment option. But first they’ll have to overcome concerns about organized crime as Central America continues to suffer from drug-related violence. 

“Public health isn’t a religious subject, it should be based in facts and studies not taboos,” Gerald Murray, executive director of the Medicinal Cannabis Costa Rica movement, told The Tico Times in response to the pope’s comments. 

Murray, who previously worked on California’s defeated 2010 Proposition 19 to legalize some marijuana activities, said that pot could be used as a treatment for various ailments, including migraines, headaches, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and depression, as well as helping terminal patients pass away “with dignity.”

The group is planning to present a bill in May 2014 calling for a national referendum to legalize marijuana in Costa Rica for medicinal purposes. The referendum would legalize the production, distribution and sale of pot for medicinal purposes. The group also claims their legalization plan would generate $500 million in tax revenues annually, according to a document provided by the movement. 

Murray claims that 60 percent of Ticos support medical marijuana and 48 percent support its general legalization.

“If we can get it to a referendum we’ll win, no doubt,” Murray said.

A study from 2012 reported that illicit drug use was on the rise in Costa Rica, The Tico Times reported. According to another, 2 percent of Costa Ricans reported smoking pot each month.

Medical marijuana is one way some Latin American countries are re-thinking their lock-step march with the U.S. led “war on drugs” after decades of mounting violence and the loss of thousands of lives.  

Some Central American leaders, most notably Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, have floated the idea of legalizing drugs in their countries, which have been ravaged by narco violence for years.

Vicente Fox pot

Mexico’s former President Vicente Fox (2000-2006), right, speaks during the opening of the U.S.-Mexico symposium on legalization and medical use of cannabis, at the Fox Center in Guanajuato State, Mexico, on July 19. Alfredo Estrella/AFP

On July 20, former Mexican President Vicente Fox joined with U.S. businessman Jamen Shively to organize a forum on legalizing marijuana in Mexico and the United States in the city of Guanajuato, Mexico.

“The paradigm of prohibition and punishment has failed,” Fox concluded during his closing remarks to doctors, academics, business leaders and policy experts. 

Marijuana possession is not criminalized in Costa Rica but President Laura Chinchilla has come out against its outright legalization. The president called it “naïve” to think that legalized pot sales would reduce illicit profits, reported The Tico Times.

Drug violence is credited with transforming Central America into the world’s most violent region.

Murray said that while there were no specifics set for how medical marijuana would work logistically, he foresaw the health, security and agriculture and livestock ministries, along with the Costa Rican Social Security System overseeing the control and regulation of pot.

The movement’s director was optimistic that government-regulated marijuana grown in Costa Rica would be cheaper than illegal pot and reduce drug-related violence in the country.

Over the last several years, Costa Rica has become a heavily trafficked corridor for the transportation and distribution of illegal drugs from South America to the United States and elsewhere.

According to information from the U.S. Embassy, over 5,000 kilograms of cocaine and 2,550 kilograms of marijuana have been seized or recovered when drug traffickers threw their cargo overboard thanks to joint U.S.-Costa Rican patrols between Jan. 1 and May 31, 2013.

Argentina, Colombia and Mexico have also decriminalized pot possession in various amounts. In the United States, 19 states have decriminalized or legalized cannabis for medical purposes and another two for recreational use.

Uruguay is considering a bill that would make the South American country the first in the world to legalize the production, sale and distribution of marijuana, reported InSight Crime. 

AFP contributed to this report.

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