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Drug policy in Central America criminalizes poverty, says Costa Rica Public Security Minister

Costa Rica’s Public Security Minister Celso Gamboa admitted that drug enforcement policy in Central America is in desperate need of reform, and the current security model effectively criminalizes poverty in Central America. Gamboa delivered his remarks at a drug control policy conference on Wednesday.

Policymakers and advocates from across the Americas met in San José for the Fifth Latin American and First Central American Conference on Drug Policy, a two-day forum to discuss alternatives to the hemisphere’s tactics in the war on drugs. This is the first time the regional drug policy event has been held in Central America, an isthmus ravaged by drug-related violence, corruption and poverty.

The conference took place as Costa Rica considers a bill that would legalize the production, distribution and consumption of marijuana. Analysts doubt the proposal has enough political support to pass the Legislative Assembly, but there is evidence that attitudes toward the legalization of illicit drugs in Costa Rica are slowly beginning to change.

A story published last Friday by the business weekly El Financiero claimed that legalizing marijuana would generate $37 million over four years for the Costa Rican government in tax and licensing revenue. Twenty percent of that income, according to the proposed legislation, would be earmarked for Costa Rica’s nearly bankrupt public health care system.

Gamboa said the majority of arrests associated with drug trafficking in Costa Rica are low-level, “disposable” members of organized crime. The minister said that economically vulnerable populations, like poor fishermen, often run the greatest risks for the smallest payoff.

“Anti-drug policies in Central America have not had their desired effect,” Gamboa said. “I can say that after 20 years experience fighting drug trafficking, … the cases where white collar criminals are caught, those who never touch the drugs, these cases are scarce.”

Coletta Youngers, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and a conference organizer, told The Tico Times she was heartened to hear the minster’s comments, and it appeared that the administration of Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís is open to dialogue about drug policy reform.

“We have so many people in jail who are low-level criminal offenders. [Drug sentencing] is an issue that urgently needs attention and that means reformulating your drug laws so you’re not locking people up for so many years with disproportionate sentences. It means refocusing your law enforcement on people further up the food chain and it also means looking for alternative sentences for low-level offenders,” Youngers said.

“I think particularly in Latin America the biggest concern and fear is that if you reform drug laws, that will lead to increased violence, drug use, increased problems in citizen security. However, what we’ve seen in many places is that in fact reforming drug laws can improve these situations,” Youngers added.

The WOLA fellow said a reorientation of drug policy could help law enforcement target the white collar criminals who Gamboa said were so difficult to arrest.

Manuel Molina, of Costa Rica’s Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Institute, which would receive 2 percent of marijuana tax revenue under proposed legislation, said, “We should take into account drug users and not treat them as invisible. We should listen to their opinions.”

Aggressive on cocaine trafficking

President Solís has previously expressed his frustration with the “disasters” of current drug policies in place in Central America. But while the administration has focused on a prevention first policy of policing, law enforcement agencies continue to aggressively seize cocaine shipments. Gamboa said that some 16 metric tons of cocaine had been seized in Costa Rica so far in 2014, far outpacing last year’s seizures.

Amado Philip de Andrés, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime regional representative for Central America and the Caribbean, told The Tico Times that Costa Rica has the potential to play an important role in consolidating a regional drug policy for the isthmus. Philip said the U.N. is eager to see the Central American Integration System restart the defunct Central American Commission for the Prevention and Abuse of Drugs. Philip said the U.N. hopes Costa Rica will take a leadership role in reestablishing the commission, which he said was crucial for harmonizing drug policy in Central America and incorporating input from civil society into the debate.

Philip also said the U.N. is open to the decriminalization of illicit drugs, but he expressed skepticism about legalization in general. The UNODC representative said he is concerned about how the legalization of recreational drugs could spur additional drug use and bolster illicit markets for substances in neighboring countries.

But reform advocates like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an international nonprofit organization composed of former and current law enforcement officers, argue that the U.N. is partially to blame for requiring states to criminalize recreational drug use via three drug conventions adopted in 1961, 1971 and 1988. In a March letter sent to world leaders, LEAP Executive Director Neill Franklin, a retired Maryland State Police major, asked, “Does the UN policy of drug prohibition do more harm than good? …  Sadly but certainly, the answer … is ‘YES.'”

LEAP is pushing for a reform to the U.N. conventions that would “eliminate the criminalization-oriented drug policy paradigm and replace it with a health-, harm-reduction- and human rights-oriented policy.” The amendment also seeks to “encourage regulated markets and reduce the power of illicit drug markets,” and “reduce world incarceration rates.”

LEAP has created a petition at to pressure U.S. leaders to back the reform.

Graciela Touzé, president of Intercambios Asociación Civil, an Argentine nongovernmental organization, said this week’s conference hoped to explore alternative enforcement and punishment policies regarding drugs and generate dialogue between policymakers and civil society across the Americas.

Said Touzé: “Our governments and societies are recognizing that the ‘war on drugs’ is an outdated paradigm whose terrible consequences can no longer be tolerated.”

David Boddiger contributed to this report. 

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