Earlier this month, the Costa Rican Ministry of Health outlined the details for the implementation of a pending bill to research and regulate marijuana for medical and industrial purposes. The bill was introduced by ruling Citizen Action Party legislator Marvin Atencio last year to tax marijuana products and regulate the use of medical marijuana through registration cards for patients provided by the Ministry of Health. Ten months after Atencios's proposal, the Ministry of Health released its criteria for the implementation of the bill.
"By taking this issue seriously, Costa Rica is demonstrating compassion for those whose suffering could be alleviated with medical marijuana," said Hannah Hetzer, Policy Manager of the Americas at the Drug Policy Alliance. "With so much momentum for drug policy reform building in the Americas, Costa Rica's medical marijuana initiative brings Central America into a debate that is already strongly underway elsewhere in the region."
Among the conditions specified by the Ministry are that medical marijuana must be used as a last resort and that recreational use of marijuana will continue to be illegal. Medical marijuana will be distributed through conventional drug stores and will follow the same prescription rules outlined by the Costa Rican Social Security System. One of Atencio's proposals to issue marijuana identity cards was discarded by the Ministry under the argument that it would entail discrimination. Atencio responded by saying that the cards would protect medical marijuana patients in encounters with law enforcement. Other conditions included the implementation of educational campaigns for the general public on what is permissible under the new bill and an emphasis on an existing law prohibiting the monopolization of research on marijuana and hemp plants.
The Health Ministry's criteria came right before CannaCosta2015, the first annual conference on medical and industrial uses of marijuana and hemp in Central America, took place. Held in Costa Rica's capital in early June, the conference had panels with national and international researchers, businessmen, doctors, and politicians, including Marvin Atencio who emphasized the potential of his bill to help people suffering from a range of degenerative diseases. Speakers presented on a variety of topics and projects including successful trials using cannabinoids for autistic children and building the world's first hemp airplane. By bringing all of these speakers together, CannaCosta highlighted the growing debate on the cultivation, production, and distribution of marijuana and hemp in Costa Rica and all over the world.
In recent years, debate and political will for drug policy reform has gained unprecedented global momentum. In 2011, Kofi Annan, George Shultz, Paul Volcker and Richard Branson joined former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia) and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) and other distinguished members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in saying the time had come to "break the taboo" on exploring alternatives to the failed war on drugs - and to "encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs," especially marijuana.
Two years ago, Uruguay followed on the heels of Colorado and Washington State and became the first country to legally regulate marijuana for recreational purposes. In June 2014, the West Africa Commission on Drugs, initiated by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and chaired by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasango, called for drug decriminalization and for treating drug use as a health issue. Canada, Uruguay, Israel, Holland, and Jamaica, as well as 23 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia and Guam have legalized marijuana for medical purposes.
"This bill has opened an unprecedented space for discussion in Costa Rica," said Ernesto Cortés of the Costa Rican Association for Drug Studies and Interventions (ACEID). "For us, the most important are the patients, especially the right to access a medication that can improve their state of health and quality of life. This is a right that the State should guarantee but is currently being limited by restrictive laws and regulations. It is of course important to prevent diversion from the medical marijuana to illicit markets but that should not impede those that need it to have access to their plants and its derivatives. We must find a balance between this risk and the needs of the people that use this medicine."
For more information on medical marijuana, see our Medical Marijuana Factsheet.