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Medical marijuana in Costa Rica? The time has come, says La Nación

May 20, 2015

In a surprising Wednesday morning editorial, Costa Rica’s normally conservative Spanish-language daily La Nación advocates for the legalization of medical marijuana.

The editorial, titled “Cannabis as Treatment,” notes that a large number of Costa Ricans – perhaps hundreds or thousands, it claims – use marijuana to treat a  range of health issues in this Central American country of 4.8 million, and that number is growing.

La Nación writes:

The illegality [of medical marijuana] not only impedes the collection of useful information; it has much more serious consequences. The main one being that most patients lack professional guidelines regarding recommended dosages and methods of consumption: Although there are doctors who, out of compassion, know of, tolerate and in some cases guide its use, they are legally prohibited from helping patients in a systematic manner.

La Nación joins a growing chorus of voices in this democratic country calling for the legalization of medical or recreational marijuana, or both. And advocates aren’t just hippies or stoners. Gerald Murray, who heads the organization Marihuana Medicinal Costa Rica, said during a February conference that Costa Rica could “set an example” in the region if it legalized medical marijuana. Other regional leaders also have pushed for an end to the drug war on marijuana, including Guatemala’s Otto Pérez Molina.

To date, Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís hasn’t been keen on the idea, saying after he won last year’s presidential election that while a debate on the issue is needed, his administration would not promote decriminalization of illicit drugs, including marijuana.

He has since softened that position after a lawmaker from his own ruling Citizen Action Party, Marvin Atencio, introduced a medical marijuana bill in the Legislative Assembly last August. In a study of the bill last March, board members from Costa Rica’s public health care system announced that they would not oppose the legislation, although they suggested some amendments.

During last February’s conference, sponsored by Marihuana Medicinal Costa Rica, Valerie Corrall, founder and president of the California-based Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana, boldly proclaimed that “the promise for success in Costa Rica is probably greater than in any other country in the world.”

A majority of Costa Ricans now seem to agree. 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 already has been effectively decriminalized, and in September of last year, Costa Rica announced it would become the first country in Central America to host a branch of the drug policy reform group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, an organization composed of current and former cops.

Citizen Action Party lawmaker Marvin Atencio.
Citizen Action Party lawmaker Marvin Atencio estimates that legal medical marijuana could generate $20 million annually for the government. Alberto Font/The Tico Times

One of the barriers reform advocates face here, however, comes from the Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Institute, or IAFA, a government agency partly funded by seized illicit drug funds and which operates addiction treatment centers across the country. (It’s worth noting that IAFA also provides its patients with ready access to an array of pharmaceutical drugs, some of which have side effects that are much more severe than marijuana.)

IAFA Director Luis Eduardo Sandí told La Nación that marijuana “has many components that could affect multiple [neurological and cardiac] functions, and could cause dependence.”

In response, La Nación wrote in its editorial, “This is yet another reason to legalize it and supervise, with professional rigor, the appropriate therapeutic use.”

The daily also points out that several other countries already have taken the initiative to legalize medical marijuana, and Costa Rica could broadly learn from those experiences:

[Medical marijuana] is authorized in Canada and is permitted in 25 states in the U.S. (four states have also legalized recreational marijuana use). Joining them are European and Southern Cone countries. In all of these, it’s possible to identify experiences to guide us in our own country. … If rigorous professional criteria back [legalization] inside and outside of Costa Rica, and if the countries with solid systems of pharmacological supervision have approved it, the time has come for our country to also take this step, void of prejudice and strictly abiding by reality and good practices.

Hear, hear.

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