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New approach to drugs seeks footing in Costa Rica

April 16, 2010

The drug debate in Latin America has started to shift.

For decades, drug possession and addiction in the Americas have been treated with a zero tolerance policy. Efforts to slow drug use have largely centered on arresting and punishing users.

But packed jails, overburdened court systems, and a growing consensus that the war on drugs is failing are transforming the discussion.

In August, 2009, Argentina´s Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to prosecute people for possession of drugs for personal use. One month later, Colombia´s high court issued a similar ruling.

In Peru and Bolivia, there are now small clinics that give cocoa leaves to crack addicts in order to manage and lessen their addiction. Bolivia´s President, Evo Morales, has asked the United Nations to eliminate the narcotics label on the coca plant.

Now, in Costa Rica, high-ranking officials are joining the tolerance dialogue.

In March, Costa Rica´s Chief Prosecutor, Francisco Dall´Anese, proposed offering free drugs to addicts as a way to compete with dealers. Squeezing in between the addict and the supplier to offer a cheap alternative would “break” the finances of drug pushers and “reduce demand,” he told the Spanish–language daily La Nación.

“Here, what we would do is preempt the business of drug dealing,” he said.

The reasoning behind the proposal is fairly simple. By stopping the flow of income to drug dealers and eradicating the addict´s need to steal in order to buy another fix, crime rates should drop.

This idea is not revolutionary. Countries in North America and Europe have used harm reduction techniques such as methadone clinics for years to treat heroin addiction.

These efforts have been regarded as successful in reducing crime and curving addiction by medical journals.

Dall´Anese´s proposal, though, does represent a fundamental shift in Costa Rican drug policy, as providing addicts with free, chemical substitutes would take the drug addiction problem out of the hands of law enforcement and place it at the doorstep of public health officials.

For more on this story, see the April 16 print and digital editions of The Tico Times.

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