After nearly three years of debate, Costa Rica finally legalized medical cannabis on March 2. Upon signing into law, outgoing President Carlos Alvarado said the bill, which legalizes medical marijuana and the cultivation of hemp for industrial purposes, but still restricts its recreational use. use – would be of “great benefit to the country”.
However, it remains to be seen to what extent the legalization of medical cannabis, and potentially recreational legalization, will be a positive development for Costa Rica or serve as a model for the region at large.
Costa Rican medical marijuana legislation took years to prepare. As early as 2014, a survey by the Universidad de Costa Rica found that 53% of the population supported medical cannabis. Yet the road to legalization has been long and arduous.
In 2019, a bill authorizing the cultivation, production and marketing of hemp and cannabis for medical use was tabled in the Legislative Assembly. He eventually received the first of two required approvals in October 2021, but 10 MPs blocked a second vote by appealing the decision, citing the need to respect the UN drug conventions. A month later, the Constitutional Chamber of the country’s Supreme Court declared the appeal inadmissible.
In January 2022, President Carlos Alvarado vetoed this version of the bill, arguing that limits were needed on individual cultivation and consumption, which led to removing the ability to grow cannabis at home. When the law was finally approved in early March, Alvarado promised the regulatory framework would be in place before leaving office in May. On April 3, the country elected Rodrigo Chaves as its next president, himself a supporter of the legalization of medical and recreational cannabis.
Chaves was elected against a general backdrop of apathy – with the lowest turnout in decades – and an economic downturn, as well as a recent increase in violence linked to organized crime, in a country increasingly no longer used as a hub for cocaine trafficking to Europe. It is in this context that the law, which some see as a way to crack down on cannabis trafficking and consumption, was introduced and passed, although the extent to which it will achieve these preliminary goals is questionable at best.
Costa Rica has long been at the forefront of the movement to decriminalize drug possession for personal use. As early as 1988, it adopted a law establishing administrative fines for this type of offence. In 2001, these were replaced by voluntary treatments. In 2010 and 2011, the prosecution ordered prosecutors to drop possession for personal use cases.
Government officials have rightly emphasized the public health benefits of the new law. Yet many business interests are already focused on economic opportunity instead.
In 2013, the law was again amended to reduce the severity of sentences for disadvantaged women, who are disproportionately affected by drug trafficking and drug laws. Indeed, a 2012 report for the Legislature found that 93% of women incarcerated for trafficking were single mothers. The incarceration rate for women in Costa Rica is the third highest in Latin America, at 20.4 per 100,000 people, according to a 2020 report from the Washington Bureau on Latin America. The country’s female prison population increased by 127.8% between 2003 and 2017, with most of the increase due to drug-related offences. In fact, in 2016, 68.8% of women in Costa Rican prisons were incarcerated for drug-related offenses, compared to only 22.2% of incarcerated men.
Long lauded for its stable economy, social welfare policies and low levels of violence, Costa Rica has faced serious challenges in recent years. Its homicide rate fell from 8.7 per 100,000 in 2012 to 12.2 in 2017; for context, the World Health Organization classifies levels of violence in countries with rates above 10 as “endemic”. In 2020, the US government lowered its travel advisory for the country from level one to level two, urging visitors to exercise “increased caution”. In this regard, Costa Rica is largely a victim of its geography. Indeed, in Central America, only Nicaragua, with a homicide rate of 5.7 per 100,000, has a lower rate than Costa Rica. Honduras reported 38.6 homicides per 100,000 in 2021; Belize, 29; El Salvador, 17.6; Guatemala, 16.6; and Panama, 12.8.
While the region has long served as a transit hub for illegal drugs from South America to the United States, in recent years organized crime groups have intensified the trafficking through Costa Rica in particular. The country has become a major transit route for Colombian cocaine trafficking to the United States and Europe, with a record 71 tons of cocaine seized in 2020. The port of Limon on the Atlantic coast, where 5 tons of cocaine were seized in a single operation in February 2020, has been identified as particularly vulnerable to maritime trafficking to Europe. An Insight Crime interview a month after the seizure with Security Minister Michael Soto underscored the scale of the law enforcement challenge. While the 5 tons of cocaine seized were found in a shipping container, “some 24,000 shipping containers pass through Puerto Limón each month”, he noted. “It is impossible to inspect all containers, no port in the world can search all containers.” Between 2015 and 2020, the United States committed $159 million in security assistance to Costa Rica, but the effectiveness and impact of the money remains unclear.
It is in this security context that Costa Rica legalized medical cannabis, following Chile in 2015, Colombia in 2016 and Argentina, Mexico and Peru in 2017. In 2013, Uruguay became the only country in Latin America to introduce fully regulated recreational products. cannabis through a model firmly rooted in public health.
Whether Costa Rica will follow a similar path remains to be seen. Government officials have rightly emphasized the public health benefits of the new law. During the signing of the bill, Alvarado said, “The two fundamental benefits of this law are tremendous: to relieve pain and provide treatment for people who need it, and to expand health options for many people. For the Minister of Health Daniel Salas, the new legislation aims to “protect public health and for the therapeutic benefit of patients”.
Yet many business interests are already focused on economic opportunity instead. The Foreign Trade Promotion Agency, or Procomer, has repeatedly pointed out that Costa Rica will now have access to a global market that could be worth $35 billion by 2025, while others point to the possibility of attract additional foreign investment. This argument may prove particularly attractive given the severe economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Costa Rica’s economy due to its heavy reliance on tourism, as the country agreed to a $1. $78 billion from the International Monetary Fund in January 2021. However, a growing body of research on the business determinants of health, or CDOH, finds that corporate and public health interests do not necessarily align, and the he Canadian experience with recreational cannabis regulation since 2018 shows early signs of corporate capture.
Faced with rising levels of violence and significant economic pressures, some in Costa Rica may see the legalization of medical – and perhaps soon recreational – cannabis as an opportunity to both reduce the power of organized crime and boost the economy of the country. The first objective is unlikely to be achieved, given that Costa Rica is neither a major producer nor a major consumer of cannabis, but rather a hub for smuggling, mainly of harder drugs like cocaine. And while the latter goal is probably more achievable, there is a risk that regulatory business models will have far-reaching negative consequences, as the experience with tobacco has shown.
This is not to say that the legalization of cannabis is an unwelcome development. The road to legalization is an arduous one, given the plethora of options for how to regulate and the many political and economic pressures involved; legalization in Mexico, for example, has recently encountered another hurdle. But if it designs and implements its regulatory framework on the pillars of public health, social justice, human rights and sustainable development – in line with the country’s progressive record on social policies and decriminalization of drugs – and maintains a realistic sense of the promises and limits of legalization, Costa Rica could indeed provide a model for the entire region.
Benoît Gomis is an independent consultant on illicit trade and terrorism. He is a part-time lecturer at the University of Toronto, a research consultant at the University of Bath and a research associate at Chatham House.