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Marijuana activists push legalization of medical cannabis in Costa Rica

When you hear the phrase “cannabis advocate,” you might picture someone with wild hair and a Bob Marley T-shirt. But Gerald Murray is nothing like that. At a news conference on Tuesday morning, he was smartly groomed and wore a blazer. His organization, Marihuana Medicinal Costa Rica, had prepared a traditional panel, complete with slideshow, hors d’oeuvres, and a pitcher of water.

Murray also brought in experts from the field: Valerie Corrall, founder and president of Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana, based in Santa Cruz, California, and Alec Dixon, co-founder of SC Labs, which specializes in researching and testing medical marijuana.

“The promise for success in Costa Rica is probably greater than in any other country in the world,” Corrall said.

“Costa Rica provides education and health care to all its citizens. It only takes a minute for that education to take fire,” she said. “It can provide jobs. It can provide an alternative to corporatized and commodified medicine. It could really work in this country.”

Murray said legalizing medical marijuana in Costa Rica would “set an example.”

“People will see that it is beneficial,” he said.

In 2010, Murray helped campaign for Proposition 19 in California, which would have legalized marijuana for  recreational use and taxed it. The proposition was ultimately defeated. Murray has continued his work for legalization in his native Costa Rica, where the movement is picking up.

Last August, Citizen Action Party lawmaker Marvin Atencio presented a bill to legalize medical marijuana and hemp production. President Luis Guillermo Solís has said he doesn’t support fully legalizing marijuana but does support decriminalizing it.

For the moment, the future of marijuana in Costa Rica is hazy, despite its popularity. A 2014 survey by the University of Costa Rica concluded that 53 percent of the country’s population supports the use of medical marijuana. Possession of small amounts of cannabis has been effectively decriminalized.

The cannabis plant grows easily in many parts of Costa Rica. Locals in the Talamanca region maintain that marijuana is routinely cultivated in the remote highlands.

But the promise of agricultural jobs and robust medical tourism have not yet convinced the government to follow Uruguay’s example.

Other Latin American countries appear to be equally reticent. Despite Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina’s enthusiastic public support for legalizing drugs, he has yet to take concrete steps to make that a reality in his country.

Plus, the U.S. government has thus far not changed its stance on pot in Latin America, even while the number of U.S. states making it legal quickly grows.

Indeed, Marihuana Medicinal Costa Rica seems to have had trouble gaining traction: The press conference was set up with 30 chairs, coffee cups, and plates of food, but only seven people showed up for the presentation. Meanwhile, the organization’s IndieGogo fundraising campaign had only earned $101 at press time, a far cry from its $6,000 goal.

Murray says recent publications calling cannabis a dangerous drug have confused people.

How do we seek to solve this great contradiction? We propose to introduce in our health care system medicinal and therapeutic uses of cannabis, its [natural form] and derivatives, scientifically proven and endorsed by the respective state agencies.”

Corrall and Dixon talked about the chemistry of marijuana and their research into its effects.

Corrall said overturning “prohibition,” as he described it, in Costa Rica could lead to a domino effect throughout Latin America.

Pien Metaal, who follows Latin American drug law reform for the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute, told The Tico Times in an email that legalizing medical marijuana in Costa Rica “would clearly send  a message that can spark a debate in the region.”

“Of course, the debate should not just be about medicinal use,” Metaal wrote, “since in fact recreational use is the largest actually existing phenomena, [for] which simple possession and use are being criminalized and prosecuted.”

Still, she wrote, “for most people medicinal use sounds like a safer option than outright legalization. The debate is just starting in the region, and Costa Rica is taking the lead to open this debate, [which] is long overdue.”

No one knows precisely how many jobs or what kind of revenue legalization would generate, but proponents are optimistic.

“It depends on how this is marketed,” Corrall said. “I can’t say exactly how many jobs that will translate to, but it could be profound.”

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